Why it is time to revisit the films of Saeed Akhtar Mirza, the ‘Leftist Sufi’
By Rituparna Sengupta
Between portrayals of angry young men and flamboyant characters representing an apparently monocultural urban India, Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s ‘cinema of conviction’ challenged and nuanced such constructs. His films had whimsical and quotable titles such as Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai? All his films showed varied cross-sections of life in Bombay – different classes, genders, neighbourhoods, and above all, minorities. Today, when the city is claiming its importance as a character in its own right in mainstream Indian cinema, and a few courageous films are daring to explore important contemporary socio-economic concerns of the day, it is a timely and helpful effort to revisit Mirza’s films and draw inspiration from them. In each of his films, the individual is the lens through which we see a larger world and its workings. Here are some of the significant issues that he skilfully wove into his films.
Religion and Communalism
Rarely have the lives, aspirations, and anxieties of minority communities in the country been portrayed with such robustness and sensitivity as in Mirza’s films. Hindu actors played Muslim characters, Muslim actors played Christian roles, and Muslim actors played Hindu characters with equal panache, with a keen eye for detail, busting stereotypes. As Stella (Shabana Azmi) asks exasperatedly in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai? (What Makes Albert Pinto Angry? 1980): “Why are always Goans and Christians in films portrayed as singing, eating and drinking – don’t they have any joys and sorrows and is it God that puts food on his table?”
Undoubtedly, the most nuanced and authentic portrayal of a religious minority is found in his films, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry Over Lame Salim; 1989) and Naseem (1995). The former is the story of the fate of Salim Langda (Pavan Malhotra), a lower class young man and petty criminal, living in a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood, populated by unscrupulous characters. It is Mirza’s only other film that gives its protagonist interior monologues, through which one gets a sneak peek into his neighbourhood and its colourful characters, hear its qawwalis wafting in with the smell of the filth around, and makes one shudder at the packed slum houses. The titular character often lapses into lengthy tirades about the disadvantaged, discriminated Muslims of the country, who find it very difficult to educate themselves and find meaningful employment to lead lives of dignity, consequently falling into disreputable professions. Indeed, his father, a decent hardworking man, is shown losing his job and staying unemployed throughout the film, while Salim makes money on the sly and swaggers across his neighbourhood, in defiance of his fate. One empathises with his frustration, and, yet, the film refuses to let him wallow in the self-pity of a victim. He finds in Aslam (Rajendra Gupta), his sister’s suitor, an educated, ill-paid, principled editor of an Urdu newspaper, the antithesis of all his own values. In a seminal scene in the film, Aslam is attacked by his neighbours for being an enemy of his kind because of his talk of Muslim women’s education. He courageously defends his religion as being progressive even as he is being beaten up by the ‘religious’ crowd, till Salim ultimately intervenes with his knife to save him from further assault. Salim, though, is ideologically of the same opinion as others and is exasperated at Aslam for ‘going against their religion’. When asked about the source of his informed opinion, Salim falters. Aslam shows a different sense of frustration from that of Salim. This is the frustration of the educated, progressive Muslim, who has to fight not only his adversaries outside his religion, but also bigots in his own community. What follows is a dialogue between the two, which makes a deep impression on Salim. For Aslam shows him the possibility of a different future, a modest and more difficult but content one, fuelled by education that provides a sense of belonging to the nation and its resources. Indeed, in Naseem, which depicts a middle-class Muslim family in another part of town, we see the realisation of Aslam’s dream.
Naseem is the story of a young school-going girl (Mayuri Kango) negotiating her way through the riot-stricken year of 1992, and her bond with her grandfather, who represents a very different era and way of life. The film situates a bevy of Muslim girls in a school, learning history, chemistry, and biology. Away from dogma and repression, the film situates Muslim women in the progressive world of the classroom and the laboratory, horsing around with testubes, delving into the poetry of D H Lawrence, giggling at the chart of the human anatomy, and learning to supplement received ‘History’ with oral archives from family narratives.
Another important recurrent theme is that of communal disharmony and religious riots. In Naseem, which Mirza considers his creative epitaph of sorts, one can feel the fear, paranoia, and rage in the air as the television news repeatedly reports religious riots from different parts of the country, especially Ayodhya. Out in the streets, one spectacular scene of an aggressive Hindu procession accompanied by drums and saffron flags, as Naseem’s brother and his friends watch resentfully from the roadside, establishes how public spaces are being claimed and contested. As Zafar (Kay Kay Menon) belligerently comments that it is always the Muslim who dies in a riot, Dada-jaan (Kaifi Azmi; modelled after the director’s father) proceeds to correct him by asserting that it is not the Hindu or the Muslim who dies in a riot, but the poor of the country. In the earlier Salim Langde, there is an extended scene of the neighbourhood gathering to watch a documentary on the Bhiwandi riots, followed by an interaction with the film maker. It opens their eyes to the political managers orchestrating riots, making them introspect on their living conditions and question their own prejudices. (This documentary is in juxtaposition to the apparently state-sponsored one shown at the end of Albert Pinto, where falsified facts and capitalist propaganda about a mill strike make Albert and Stella walk out of the hall). In a striking scene, we see an unidentified corpse being extricated from a sewer and being carried away on a pole by the police. The low-caste man (evident in the context of our realities) who fishes out the body speaks with derision of men who fight each other over temples and mosques and end up in the gutter.
Aslam in the following scene traces this to the Partition of British India and, subsequently, the birth of Bangladesh. He explains that if anything, 1971 should have taught us that people bond less over religion, and more over shared cultures. Another interesting minor character in that film is that of John or ‘Jaani’ (Tom Alter), the melancholic Hindi-speaking hippie, who, disillusioned with the violence around the world, has come to India to die. As a result of all these influences, Salim begins to question his identity, a question that importantly takes him to the mosque and brings him some share of peace, as he decides to make a new beginning in his life. He rushes to inform Aslam of his resolve and shouts into the night, “I am coming into the light! My name is Salim! I am an Indian! I want to lead a life of dignity!” The end of the film and also his life indicate the rocky, uphill path lying in the way of those who listen to their conscience.
However, there is more hope for Naseem, as she is shown to have a stronger foundation because she grew up regaled with the heartening escapades of her grandfather and his wayward friends and the delightfully strong and amused character of her grandmother. Such experiences establish the importance of storytelling and oral archives as a means of refuting official histories or filling in its many gaps, enabling one to learn from the lessons of the past. When Naseem’s father asks her grandfather why he had chosen to stay back in Agra after the Partition, he simply says, “There was a tree outside our house we liked, especially your mother.” When Naseem asks in wonder if that was the true reason, he slowly nods. Nature is, thus, portrayed as a source of inspiration, more worthy of one’s affection than fickle human bonds.
Nowhere are class differences as apparent as in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (The Strange Tale of Arvind Desai; 1978). Thematically and formally Mirza’s most unique film, the story is that of the existential angst of an upper-class charming (Hindu) young man (Dilip Dhawan) running his family business. He is a closet misogynist, dabbling half-heartedly in communist theory, troubled by the gap between his beliefs and practices. The film begins in a documentary-style, taking us through an evidently real village, with its residents captured on camera in the midst of their daily chores, as well as occupied in different stages of weaving carpets and embossing marble. The camera then cuts to a showroom, where the carpet is seen hung for display to customers. Also peppered throughout the film are scenes of urban poverty on the streets of Bombay. Arvind’s perfunctory sympathy with the poor finds its way in his misplaced acts of charity with beggars and street urchins, one of whom proceeds to spit at his condescending gesture. Though he initially tells his brokers firmly that they ought to increase their workers’ pay or look for other customers, he is unable to follow this principle through when it comes to his own dealing with a foreign client. In the scene of this first negotiation, early on in the film, there is a lengthy tracking shot that follows Arvind and his broker from one door to another, into his office, mimicking the long chain of producers and agents involved in the journey of a product into the market. The root cause of much of his misery is his awareness that he is a hypocrite. His self-loathing gets sublimated in his professed hatred of the city, which, as his ‘leftist’ friend Rajan (Om Puri) describes, comes handy in getting used to the dehumanised city. Indeed, when asked about his occupation by two strangers, he narrates a fantasy of living in a farm outside the city, on an occasional visit to the town for entertainment.
Later in the film, Arvind gets to know from his father that his employees have been swindling him. Since one of them is his cousin, it is the other one, with lesser connections, who finds himself out of a job. His father, an old-school capitalist absorbed in making profit, is shown hobnobbing with others like him (who talk of whipping the proletariat, etc.), immersed in the lifestyle of the rich. Arvind rarely makes an appearance in these scenes, fashioning himself as a rebel of sorts. While his girlfriend’s mother associates class with morality and places her implicit trust in him, Arvind barely disguises his contempt for the moral lapses of his own brother-in-law and for himself after visiting a prostitute. His mother and his sister assuage their class guilt and try to remain socially relevant by getting involved in charitable causes. In one important scene, Arvind silently pours out beer and then sits and listens to Rajan and his circle of friends, who discuss Marxist theory – in particular, views on relations of production in an industrialised economy (with a cheeky reference to Mirza’s contemporary, the maverick director Kamal Swaroop). As the scene plays out, Arvind gets up and moves to the window, draws apart the curtains, and watches first a train rattling past in one direction and then another in the opposite one, symbolic of his consciousness and its contradictory pulls. Ultimately, he turns out to be old wine in a new bottle, quite like his father, who too has pretensions of being liberal, but keeps all distractions from work – intellectual release and the pursuit of pleasure – strictly apart from other spheres of life. When his girlfriend criticises him, he lashes out at her with a misogynistic rant in which he equates his mother, sister, and girlfriend’s long-suffering ways as feminine guile directed towards personal, materialistic comfort.
Towards the end, increasingly disillusioned, he seeks out his friend Rajan again. Both discuss their respective lives and Arvind discovers that Rajan too, like him, feels a similar sense of disparity between belief and practice, finding refuge in asking the right questions and not very hopeful about the answers. Arvind asks, “Are we at the same place then?” Rajan replies quickly, “No”. The last few minutes of the film curiously returns to the framework of documenting the workers. In a lengthy sequence, we see workers in succession presumably on their way back after work, going through security checks, displaying their bags and raising their arms, presumably as proof of not smuggling anything out of their workplaces. At the end of the film, in a tragi-comic sequence, Arvind accidentally shoots himself with the pistol he had moments earlier been contemplating to use to kill himself. The camera pans to the carpet. What follows are striking frames with worker’s faces in close-up confronting the viewers and holding our gaze in defiance, as if to incriminate us in their misery and our own. In Albert Pinto, too, Albert’s father loses his job at a factory because he participates in a workers’ strike. This is what finally raises Albert’s class consciousness, as he visits the workers’ settlements to talk to them and understand their work and living conditions. As Albert asks a man for his introduction outside the textile mill, the camera zooms into a succession of close-ups where one by one, each man looks at the camera and gives his own name, followed by his state of origin. It is Mirza’s way of emphasising that class-induced poverty and deprivation, and not religious differences, are the sources of the common man’s misery.
By marrying the aesthetics of documentary to that of a feature film, Mirza proceeds to develop an innovative bold technique that injects his films with an unavoidable realism, implicating the audience (perhaps the corollary to Brecht’s alienation effect). Mirza skilfully spins a tale of the modern man’s existential angst, directly caused by his alienation from others and nature, under a capitalist economy.
Mirza’s other films too show different perspectives on unsurmountable class divides. In Salim Langde, there are scenes of the co-existence of the privileged and the underprivileged, as Salim and his friends watch with envy across a restaurant, where rich young men and women show off their privilege with gay abandon. This sense of resentment is also present in Arvind Desai, where Alice’s unemployed brother’s antagonism towards Arvind, his sister’s boyfriend, is clearly visible. The alter ego of this character is the protagonist of Albert Pinto, which is the tale of a young Christian mechanic. In his aspirations to transcend his class, he grapples with his own bouts of sexism and gradually comes to identify with his own class and understand their common problems. Here, Dilip Dhawan, who played Arvind in the earlier film, is Albert’s younger brother Dominic, who, frustrated by his class position, tries to make a quick buck much like Salim, and ends up in the jail. In perhaps the weakest of his films, Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (1984), we find the starkest representation of class disparity. The opening song in the film, a satirical eulogy to the city, is the most arresting with its juxtaposition of images of abject poverty and miserable living conditions with those of towering high-rise buildings and expensive cars.
Early in Albert Pinto, one witnesses an uncomfortable lunch-time conversation in which Albert (Naseeruddin Shah) lashes out against the privileged (a barely disguised taunt at Stella’s boss), who employ Christian women as their secretaries, lure them with their money and power, romance them, and then move on to marry women from ‘among their own kind’. Even as Stella’s brother meekly asserts that not everybody can be painted with the same brush, Albert forcefully launches into an invective about the stereotypical image of the modern young Christian woman – the first of her gender to step out of her house to earn money, thus becoming easy prey for male predators on the prowl. All this is in fact borne out by the film later, as Stella’s boss indeed propositions her. One delightful aspect of Mirza’s work is the internal continuity between his films in terms of themes and tropes and characters. For instance, in this film, Stella’s boss is named Arvind Desai, the same as that of the protagonist in another of his films, who is shown as having an affair with his secretary before unceremoniously dumping her. In that film and in that scene, he stops the car and throws the door open, with the words, “Get out, you bloody bitch!” and his girlfriend Alice, a rather silent and somewhat submissive character, takes his diatribe against all womankind in silence. But lest we mistake this for the film maker’s own convictions, a similar scene is staged in Albert Pinto, using the same words. However, Stella is no Alice. She slaps her boss across the face. When he dismisses her from work in his impotent anger, she retorts with words to the effect, “You really think you have thrown me out?” When her father learns of the incident, he tries to brush it under the carpet and bully her into apologising and returning to work. Later, he gives one among the many feeble patriarchal excuses that defend or ignore the reality of sexual harassment, that this was a one-off instance from a man essentially good at heart. She staunchly refuses, even though it is chiefly her income that sustains her household. When her sister Joan advises her to tell Albert about the incident so that he can avenge her humiliation, she declines, saying that he doesn’t understand her either. In both Salim and Albert, we find similar swaggering men claiming strength in hollow bonds of male solidarities across class or within religion, as they seethe in impotent fury over their lack of control over girlfriends working for their living. In this context, the portrayal of a female character with her own independent subjectivity, that too in a supporting role, is very refreshing. Another strong, though understated female character in the film is that of Joan, Albert’s sister (Smita Patil), a silent, observant character, who has perhaps one important scene in the film. As a male customer flirts with her while she helps him choose a sari for his ‘sister’, she gets up on her feet and walks up and down, displaying her limp and asking him in turn if he still finds her as beautiful as his ‘sister’. These travails of working women in the city present an important insight into urban life.
The other important female characters can be seen in Naseem. This film may be the only depiction of a riot-stricken city through the eyes of a central female character. Naseem negotiates her way through the city as she goes to school and also bunks it for a film. Through her eyes, we catch glimpses of the public spaces being taken over for the purpose of communal grandstanding, as well as of the intimate domestic sphere, when she comes back home to a tense houseful of family members (with the exception of her grandfather). Though understandably she has little role to play in the rise or fall of the political destinies of her community, by choosing the syncretic ideology of her bedridden raconteur grandfather (played by a delightfully poetic Kaifi Azmi) over that of her angry and bitter brother and his friends, she fulfils the promise of her name, which evokes the fresh breeze of dawn (reminiscent of the famously disillusioned poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz), even as her grandfather dies on the important day of sixth December, indicating the end of an era. This might be the result of her education, the importance of which is perhaps felt most keenly by her erudite grandfather. Her mother, an otherwise gentle and apolitical woman, voices her opinion in a short scene following the death of her Hindu neighbour, a woman regularly taunted for ‘inauspiciously’ birthing only daughters. Her husband tries to hush her up, indicating that she should not interfere in ‘their’ personal problem. Her son’s friend standing nearby, bitter and given to communal sentiments, retorts that ‘they’ often interfere in ‘our’ personal concerns and take the moral high ground, sarcastically wondering aloud why it is always Hindu brides whose stoves explode with such frequency (a reference to dowry deaths). To this, she replies with uncharacteristic sharpness that for ‘us’, the burkha and the (triple) talaq are sufficient. This serves to paint the picture of oppression of women across religions and the identification of women with each other’s suffering under tyrannical men, however much these men may be in war against each other.
In a metatextual scene in Albert Pinto, the characters Albert and Stella discuss the film they have just watched. While Albert liked the film as ‘timepass’ where one can forget one’s sorrow, Stella rues the low standard fare on offer to the public, asserting the fact that films continue to influence their audience beyond the cinema hall. Indeed, it is time we stop buying into the homogenous offers on display by the culture industry, and awaken to a brave new world of intelligent, inclusive and responsible entertainment. After all, none of these issues are, by any means, issues of the past alone. We need more such ‘cinema of integrity’ to pierce our collective conscience in times when artists feel compelled to return awards as a mark of their dissent and protest against the implosion of democracy around them.
Rituparna Sengupta is a PhD Scholar in Literature at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. She reads, watches, mulls over, and writes on matters of popular culture, gender, fantasy, mythology, and adaptation.
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