Parallel cinema’s gentle giant, Saeed Mirza is out with his new memoir

In conversation: about the politics that have shaped his films and the cost of forgetting one’s roots

Updated: Jul 07, 2018 09:42:13

By Paramita Ghosh

Writer and director Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s new book is Memory in the Age of Amnesia. His best known films are Albert Pinto ko Gussa kyoon aata Hai and Salim Langde pe Mat Ro. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

In one of the many stories, real or imagined, about the countdown to the Russian Revolution, is a story about a pickpocket. As protesters throng a railway station to occupy it, the Tsar’s police prepare to crush the challenge with their full might. The pickpocket decides to join the protesters even though this meant letting go of a day’s earnings. That one day in his life, when he became a revolutionary, was to determine the rest of his life.

The act of solidarity can be a moment of art as much as politics. And the pickpocket, the artist, and even the worker, hesitant to join a strike, can at any moment close ranks and assert their right to it. Saeed Mirza, 75, one of the front-ranking directors of India’s ‘parallel cinema’, knew this. Through the ’70s and the ’80s, Mirza made films based on this unstable yet transformational moment as it was being experienced in an urban setting, and in his case, in his city of Bombay.

The ’70s and the ’80s were the decades when the aftershocks of global and national upsurges such as the Vietnam War, the anti-Apartheid movement, Naxalbari and its suppression, the great Bombay mill strike and its failure, were still being felt and decoded. “How the universal and the local intersect, I’ve always tried to understand that,” says Mirza during a conversation about his latest book, Memory in the Age of Amnesia, and his films. One cannot understand one without the other.

Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyoon aata Hai(1980) is about the angst of a car mechanic who looks down on his father’s working class politics. In his autobiography, Naseeruddin Shah who plays Albert says he had “gone all Elvis Presley and James Dean” in his characterisation. ( HT Archive )

Parallel tracks

Much like his films, Mirza’s book is the journey of disparate strands – the Gujarat violence; medieval scholar Ibn Khaldun’s intervention to save the city of Damascus and its libraries; Mirza’s own residential building in Mumbai; the rise of the mill workers’ hero, Krishna Desai, and his murder – trying to arrive at substance and meaning.

In his films too, Mirza’s heroes seem to have several tracks running in their heads and for a considerable amount of time are unable to decide on which to run.

In Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978), a businessman’s son trapped in a businessman’s life is caught between making profits and to be seen as doing the right thing by his workers.

In Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho (1984), the fate of a building depends on the tenants unanimously calling out the landowner’s greed; by the time they unite the building comes crashing down.

A car mechanic (Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, 1980) overstates his proximity to rich car owners because they let him drive their cars during the servicing period and looks down on his father for joining the mill workers’ strike but in the end joins them himself.

This may or may not be ideological confusion. Mirza, an avowed Leftist, makes his case dispassionately; his films ask questions.

In Salim Langde... (1989) Pavan Malhotra (left) plays Salim, a small-time hood. The film is set in the period of the rise of Hindutva in the ’80s, the subsequent communal tension and its impact on the lives of the young men of the minority Muslim community in Mumbai. ( HT Archive )

Disappointed love

Saeed Mirza was born in Bombay in the early ’40s. His father Akhtar Mirza, a migrant from Bhopal, got work as a writer in the film industry. Mirza says his “work was good but he was uncompromising which meant he did less work.” Saeed Mirza inherited that spirit. Saeed’s long-time collaborator Sudhir Mishra who has assisted him in many of his films such as Mohan Joshi... says “like his father, Saeed had to find resources to survive. He had to create his own Bombay.” And he did.

Mirza’s cinematic city is not the place of durability or of happy endings or a city where, if a man works hard, is guaranteed his place. However, till the early ’80s, before the riots upset all settled social equations in the city, Saeed would not rage against Bombay, says Mishra. It’s as with the rains. Despite all its problems, for Bombayiites, there’s no such thing as a terrible wet day.

“That all is not lost is still evident in Albert Pinto…. In Naseem [Mirza’s 1995 film made in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and the ensuing Mumbai riots] what remains is a cry of pain, yet knowing Saeed I don’t think he wants to be anywhere else,” adds Mishra. “Like all Bombayiites proud of the city’s cosmopolitanism, the riots showed that this cosmopolitanism was a surface thing, the city’s spirit might collapse; well, so be it, he would collapse with it….”

In Naseem (1995), poet Kaifi Azmi plays Naseem’s grandfather. The movie is set in the Mumbai of the ’90s . It ends with the news that the Babri Masjid has been demolished. “Naseem was almost like an epitaph. It felt as if it was all over. After this film, it seemed I had nothing more to say,” says Mirza. ( HT Archive )

Mirza chose to walk away. By the ’80s, the National Film Development Corporation of India also stopped funding parallel cinema. Mirza, who had wanted to make a film on Krishna Desai, the mill-worker leader – there’s a chapter on him in the book – could not move ahead with the project. But wouldn’t the film have got an audience, especially as the superstar of the time, Amitabh Bachchan, was riding a career raging against the system from the dock (Deewar) coal-mine (Kaala Patthar) and railway station (Coolie)?

“Sure,” says Mirza, “Krishna Desai would have been a great film but would have been a guaranteed failure. Bachchan’s films channelised generic anger. His films were safe. When anger becomes specific and closer to the bone, people can’t take that.” Mirza changed tack and co-directed Nukkad (1986) with Kundan Shah for television.

Pavan Malhotra, the Salim of Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), who also had a major role in Nukkad, says the streets have always been important for Mirza. “The structure of the serial was so open that in any episode you could talk of anything. Gagar mein sagar (in a pitcher was an ocean). In little incidents, he could bring in the universal.... In Nukkad, a beggar looked like a beggar. He knew how to bring out the poetry of the ordinary face,” says Malhotra.

New life

Since 2000, Mirza has written important books on India in the form of memoirs. In 2008 he wrote a novel, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother. In his new book, which is part fiction, a tale within a tale and several opinion pieces, he has held back no punches.

He writes about the “contentious and questionable journey to the pinnacle of power” of men who have been “responsible” for “permanent scars” on India’s history. “For the people of India,” he says, “at least to the 31 per cent who voted…it was simple: what happened, happened. The country had to move on and there was no future in looking over one’s shoulder at the past. For these people, it was a memory erased or overlooked.” And that is what’s eating Saeed Mirza.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 18:53:38


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