Article Hindi

Saeed Akhtar Mirza: The filmmaker as a philosopher

Even as actors and filmmakers churn out biographies, Saeed Mirza has transformed himself from filmmaker to a writer trying to understand changing India. On his 75th birthday, we take a look at a director whose humanism seeped through his films.

Shriram Iyengar

In the film Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi (2016), out on Netflix, Mirza describes the discovery of his character Salim Langda while shooting in Mumbai. The director happened upon a man who was 'disturbing the shot' while showing a strange kind of confidence.

"I was amazed by the young man’s walk,” Mirza says in the documentary. “He thought he owned the world." 

This keen observation defines Mirza and his films. From Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978) through Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1979) to Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) and, eventually, Naseem (1995), he created documents of individual existentialism, alienation, human socialism and identity. 

Considered one of the leading lights of the new wave Hindi cinema, Mirza belonged to a generation of filmmakers who believed in raising questions.

Kireet Khurana, director of the Leftist Sufi documentary, says, "Saeed the man and Saeed the filmmaker (or the writer) are exactly the same. You can know about the man through his films. I have yet to come across an individual whose work and personality are so intrinsically tied up." 

Asked why he chose to make a film on a director who had retired from the world of cinema, Khurana replied, "His thoughts, ruminations and works have been consistent to the leftist ideology he cherishes dearly. When I met him for the first time a few years ago, I was attracted to his intense and magnetic personality. He was assertive, angry, almost strident in his views. Yet his criticism was not directed towards individuals, but always towards institutions, challenging tradition and dogma."

While there have always been personalities in Hindi cinema speaking truth to power, they have mostly been in the minority. The expensive nature of the medium of cinema means that most filmmakers prefer to side with those in power rather than face the music and risk investment worth crores put in by financiers. 

Directing Pavan Malhotra and Makrand Deshpande for Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro

Mirza's films, a product of a more homogeneous time, delivered astute observations on society from the bottom up. Whether it is Salim Langda, Albert Pinto or the innocent Naseem, they are battling identity, religious authority, class and hatred.

Through his characters' dialogues and monologues, Saeed Mirza often questioned the stereotypes and images presented in the collective memory of society. In one scene in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, Stella (Shabana Azmi) retorts, "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?"

Describing the director as 'erudite' and an 'active listener', Khurana says his legacy is 'highlighting the issues that plague the underdogs – the poor, disfranchised or the minorities'.

Khurana recounts the experience of shooting with Saeed Mirza thus: "One of the highlights of the film is the exploration of various places and expanses that have impacted Saeed. We visited the locations where Saeed shot his various films after almost 40 years. Some remain as squalid and dilapidated as they were four decades ago. Some, like the mills in Lower Parel, have been unbelievably transformed into malls, completely obliterating the grim tragedies of the hungry mill workers who were impacted by the lockouts.

"We also travelled and shot in the tranquillity of Leh. Saeed frequently goes there to regain his sanity after having himself exposed to the dirt- and grime-filled underbelly of Mumbai. It was a very moving experience for us overall."

While his feature films are testament to his ideology, it is Saeed Mirza's other projects that truly paint a picture of the director's philosophy. Films like Slum Eviction (1976), The Rickshaw Pullers Of Jabalpur (1984), and We Shall Overcome (1988) are projects that capture his world view. 

Sadly for Hindi film fans, Saeed Akhtar Mirza gave up on cinema after Naseem. In an interview back in 2014, he said, "I quit filmmaking after making Naseem in 1995 because I was sad with the death of poetry in our country at that time. And this show does not mean that I am back in the business because I can't see myself engaging with the medium again."

Khurana reflects on the same when he says, "Being a leftist, he feels deeply for the marginalized, under-privileged and the disfranchised and takes up for them as it is his way of exercising democracy.

"As for his cinematic legacy, the auteur has made five extraordinary feature films, all of them National award-winners. He took up real issues that are pressing even today, whether it was the isolation of a man in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, the angst of poor mill workers in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, the plight of the common man in the face of a dysfunctional judiciary in Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho, the life of a local Muslim hoodlum in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, or the loss of the nation’s poetry and the destruction of the idea of India with Naseem."

Perhaps that is why the filmmaker moved on to become a writer. Since making his writing debut with Ammi: Tales of a Democratic Mother, in 2008, Mirza has written two more books. His latest, Memories in the Age of Amnesia, is a collection of tales that tell the story of a world on the other side of the popular view.

In an interview with The Hindu newspaper in June, Saeed Mirza said, "We forget how we got here. I have tried to recreate that. You didn’t make people accountable for the 1984 riots. You did not make people accountable for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It seems mass murder is allowed in my country. What message are you sending to the people..."

As the director turns 75 today (30 June), it seems he finds himself continuing the battle that he began in his youth.