Iris C F Gomes
Famous for his movies and serials, Saeed Akhtar Mirza has been successful in his career move to authoring books too. The director of National Award winning films Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984) and Naseem (1995) has also highly acclaimed serials Nukkad and Intezaar to his credit.
He embarked on his career in films after working in the advertising industry for a while. He later became part of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, India, and graduated from the institute in 1976. Having made a start with documentaries, his foray into parallel cinema was made with Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978), which immediately thrust him into the echelons of the most talented filmmakers in India.
Following the filming of Naseem, Mirza chose to divert his ideas into books such as Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother and The Monk, the Moor & Moses Ben Jalloun. Presently, he is working on his latest book, a collection of essays.
At the start of this interview, Mirza was highly disturbed by the friction within the Aam Aadmi Party, which has palpably led to the heightening of his disappointment in the future of this country.
Saeed Mirza’s films tend to be very much about the existing political and social atmosphere in which they are conceived and similarly, are powerful enough in their impact to arouse some desire for change. ‘How can you see the world without a social and political context? You can’t!’ exclaims Mirza. He ceased believing in God at the age of ten. He explains his bewilderment in his innocence that if there existed a god then why the chaos in the world? Why could this god or power not do something about the condition of man? He says, ‘Questioning God does not mean you are without compassion. It is this very compassion that moves you to question his existence.’ His tendency to think profoundly, his extensive reading and his experience of the world around have converged to contribute to his thought provoking cinema.
Mirza started off in advertising because as a married man he needed to provide for his family. The advertising line was very lucrative but there was an inherent need for change: one that he felt with a passion. His dilemma was between providing for his family and the struggle with his conscience as he says, ‘You wake up each morning and ask yourself, “How many more lies are you going to tell today?”.’ The support of his wife, Jennifer, was the catalyst that led to his entry into FTII. He had to go in with a clear mind about what he sought to achieve. There was no question of looking back and whining about the choice because he was not going to make blockbusters that would bring in plenty of money. The intention was to make films to have a dialogue with the people, to dispense ideas and to tell stories that are relevant to our lives. He says, ‘The television serials, documentaries, travelogues, films and books are basically all extensions of me: the way I thought I saw the world.’
Naseem, which means morning breeze, was a turning point in Saeed Mirza’s career because it marks the beginning of his cynicism with regard to the alleviation of India’s troubles. The storyline is set in the period prior to the demolishment of the Babri Masjid, when communal tension had begun to rear its ugly head. In the context of this mounting turmoil, the movie tells the story of the tender relationship between Naseem, the young protagonist, and her ailing grandfather. He says, ‘This film is where I became totally disillusioned with the state of affairs. That’s why when you think of the Aam Aadmi Party your faith gets resurrected in the nature of a state, in the nature of a nation. I had given up. I said, “…no more films, let’s start writing!”.’
Another film did come along, but was made with reluctance at the behest of his former student, Rajat Kapoor. The film was Ek Tho Chance (2009), with Amrita Arora and Purab Kohli. ‘I did it half-heartedly. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. It was a reasonably good film but it got stalled somewhere,’ says Mirza of the film which was released in 2014.
Mirza has directed some of the most talented actors in this country including Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Deepti Naval, Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Many of his actors were students of FTII. They would work in his films while simultaneously engaged in other projects, sometimes charging 1/10th their fees or even nothing at all, only because they believed in what he was doing. Mirza expresses his gratitude, ‘That is the only way to make a film. It’s an act of faith because you don’t come into this line to make money.’ He does, however, stress the need of making a film palatable to the audience. This depends on the ability of structures and the narrative to draw the audience without compromising on the basic ideas behind it all.
‘In my soul I’m a democrat. What I mean is that I don’t want people to buy a ticket about something they don’t know anything about,’ says Mirza, giving the reason behind the unusual, nonetheless, interesting and appealing names of his films, such as Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1980), Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984) and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). Talking about how hearing the title Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan would inform the cinemagoer that it is a movie about Arvind Desai and it is going to give us the story of this protagonist, he says, ‘The point of entry is a dialogue. My films are fundamentally cinematic installations in a sense. Like it or dislike it, but you are engaged with it. You like or dislike, hate or love. It’s absolutely valid. But to be engaged with the dialogue. And that to me is very important. Except for Naseem when I became disillusioned. The dream was over and I turned somewhere else.’
Recalling a phrase by Dr Yashpal, a friend of his, Mirza says, ‘People never get what they like but they get to like what they get.’ The main aim of his serials was to nullify the idiocy imposed by the idiot box upon its viewers and to get people interested in television that was enjoyable, but at the same time brought reality to them. He deems television a political system that conspires to have people engrossed in trifles and distracts them from serious matters that need to be acknowledged and addressed. In doing so the political powers can run the show as they please and invade countries, overthrow regimes, get to the gold mines, timber and so on with impunity. The weaponry against this is playing with the same medium to keep the TRP (Television Rating Point) up but give a different message. Intezaar and Nukkad are prime examples of this.
To the absence of conscience stirring serials in these times, Mirza says, ‘To quote the famous Sufi poet Bulleh Shah: “Baazi le gaye kutte (The dogs have won the game)”. Baazi le gaye kutte. Ho gaya (It has happened)! And that’s why the Aam Aadmi Party is so important. Baazi nahi le gaye kutte (the dogs have not won the game)! Hain insaan hain. Aur khade hain. Acche log! Khamiyaan hain… warts and all, magar hain (There are people, good people, standing up for what is right. They have their flaws but they are there)! There is a certain decency, dignity and humanity in them.’
Saeed Mirza sees writing as another medium of reaching out to the people, using the age old tradition of the narrative to present new realities to mankind by playing with the form and testing it. ‘Your mind functions in various ways simultaneously and for the novel to contain that. And to contain the kind of mismatch of an essay, a narrative, a soliloquy, a memoir, a memory, an anecdote, a tale, a very personal experience; mix it in and hope like hell it connects with the reader. It gives me incredible pleasure.’ The focus is always the larger idea of stream of consciousness, no matter the tale told. Usage of simple language in conveying the essence is part of the process.