Interview with Saeed Akhtar Mirza: Crisis of Ideology 1
Duration: 00:30:03; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 27.572; Saturation: 0.733; Lightness: 0.359; Volume: 0.109; Words per Minute: 122.148
Summary: This interview is part of Majlis' attempt to document the some of the voices of the people in Bombay whose visions and works have stood apart due to their integrity and creative thinking. Saeed Akhtar Mirza is known to the world as a distinguished filmmaker. His films Alberto Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Ata Hai (Why Alberto Pinto get angry), Arvind Desai ka Ajeeb Dastan (Strange Saga of Arvind Desai) in the late '70s laid the foundation stone for the new wave cinema in India. Later he made several other films and television programme depicting a completely different reality of the city of Bombay, than shown in the popular culture of Bollywood. Salim Langde pe Mat Ro (Don't cry over Salim, the lame), Mohan Joshi Hazir ho (Mohan Joshi, appear in the court), Naseem are his feature films in the genre of city cinema. In those three films Saeed unveiled the layers of criminality, real estate menace and the functioning of the identity politics in the city of Bombay. Much before Bombay crimes became a media commodity Saeed ventured to make those films. Yet he has always been considered as the 'alternative' filmmaker, a term which is used with a kind of patronizing respect. He had also directed several television programme and documentaries. Whatever he did his Marxist conviction was the mainstay of his form and text. As Bombay cinema entered into the international market in the name of Bollywood, by killing all other conventions of cinema in India and in the neighbouring countries, filmmakers like Saeed Mirza became obsolete. Many of his colleagues and comrades have tried to keep floating by adopting to the hegemonic convention of Bollywood, but Saeed refused to do that. It could be interpreted as an instance of uncompromising conviction or, in the worst term as an inability to cope with time.
This interview was conducted mainly around a television programme 'Tryst with the people of India', directed by Saeed. The programme was produced by the Govt. of India as part of the celebration of 50 years of India's independence. For this programme Saeed and his crew traveled the entire length and breadth of the country to know what the 50 years of democracy meant for the ordinary citizens. Saeed has donated the entire footage of the programme to Godaam, the footage archive ran by Majlis. A part of that collection in also available on PADMA site.
The title 'Tryst with the people of India' is a take on the famous speech by the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of independence. The speech is known as 'Tryst with destiny'. As the first generation in the independent India, people like Saeed have witnessed the euphoria of a new nation and the subsequent collapse of the democratic principles. In the era of aggressive global market it has become an urgent task to document the thinking of Saeed Akhtar Mirza. It is interesting that at this stage Saeed proclaims that he has lost faith in cinema as a social interventionist. In his opinion the post colonial literature can be far more dynamic. He has himself got engaged with writing. His first book titled 'Ammi: a letter to a democratic mother' has just been published by Westland Books. This title too has a resonance of 'Discovery of India: Letters to a daughter' written by Nehru from the prison in 1942-46. The recipient of those letters, Indira Gandhi, later became the first fascist ruler of India. As the titles, as well as the texts, of all his works suggest the issues of nation-state engage Saeed very deeply.
Interviewer of this piece is Tilottama Karlekar. Tilottama is doing her Phd on social and political realities of Indian documentaries at NYU.
T: ... A tryst with the people of India and the idea behind it. How it came about?
SM: This was a project by the government of India; there was a secretary in the Minister of Information & Broadcasting. I don't know what was in his mind, but he actually felt that it is important for...what he perceived as serious filmmakers saying what they had to say about India in 50 years. So five filmmakers were selected, one was Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Buddhadev Dasgupta in Bengal, myself, ..God and the fifth I...right now I can't recall. But I didn't know what they had in mind; the other five, eh...the other four, but I've been traveling for sometime in various parts of Southern India, and ...I felt this is an opportunity of traveling across the land and to be able to judge for myself, not necessarily for the government of India but for myself, to be able to document ordinary people, and travel. So for me it was like a....a wish come true, somebody was paying for it, so it's important to realise... So I did that and I said I'll travel. So with the crew of about 16 people, we started traveling in four vehicles and we covered India. But I must clarify here that...I didn't know what to expect, nor did I have any fixed plan in my mind and the kind of question that I want to ask or the feedback that I will get. There was no grand plan at all. But I believed that if I can get a certain kind of response it will lead on to further journeys, rather than you know, have a journey of my own in my mind. So that was what I did. So I traveled and I shot, and ...it was incredible, the amount of footage that we had. And also that the government even suddenly said that ...13 parts, I said I don't have 13 but I can give you 50, you know. And they thought I want to charge more money for that. I said no, no, no...all...all...I can give you 50 .....episodes. So finally they said, no, you bring it on to 16. The problem became how do you reduce the enormous amount of material, not just the material, it's the people that you met and their ...their dignity that you are going to play games with, to reduce all material into 16 episodes. And to me it was frightening exercise because you know that the person who you were speaking to has so much more to offer, if only you have time to listen. So what we were doing was actually savaging their world views and their ways of expressing into 16 episodes. So it was very difficult and very traumatic experience for me to reduce people, and their faith that they had in me and in our team into just,....compress it into 16 episodes. So therefore it became a little scatological, in the sense... in the back of my mind... there was all that... maybe if the theme can continue. You know, if you get the essence of what has been said. Simultaneously, at the back of my mind, I also required to be able to see terrain; to mix in terrain, to mix in an environment, to mix in a space. You know, when you combine all that into, I don't know how many hours of...I think we left all the material here..... Hours of people talking. It become very difficult exercise .... And from a very selfish point of view, I felt it changed my life actually. It actually changed my life. Because...suddenly you were confronted with the dignity of ordinary people, and their humour , I don't know, it was... and their generosity... And here you are, so called well-known filmmaker with a certain kind of media baggage, packed up and then you got the team of people going into villages, equipment being hauled out and you have an incredible sense of arrogance. You know, you shove a mike into somebody's face, tell me! Or something...you know ...it's very frightening. But that changed over time and suddenly you realise that, damn it! You are the learner now. You are the learner now; you're the learner and they are the experts and then suddenly it changes, the whole relationship changes around you, you know in a strange way....So that was wonderful really, for me.
50 years of independence
In 1997, 50 years of India's was celebrated with lots of pomp. Many cliche and some innovative projects were commissioned to various artists. Saeed Mirza talks in the context of one such programme that he directed - a television show titled 'Tryst with the people of India'.
government of india
ministry of information & broadcasting
people of india
republic of india
5. Kalpana Lajmi and Bhupen Hazarika.
T: So your approach to it changed as you went through because you started out in Bombay and then ...
SM: Right. We went down south and you know, Maharashtra and Karnataka, and into Kerala then Tamilnadu, and then into Central India and into the Northeast and then Northeast into UP and Bihar into Kashmir, Ladakh, and...yeah... But I must tell you one experience of mine... I mean, I was traveling a lot earlier, maybe several journey after that, just like that, and just for myself. I did a journey in 1998, I did a journey in 2002, I did a journey in 2005, ah..post... post that journey.
T: Post that journey.
SM: And each time I ...I don't think there's anybody in India who's traveled more than I have. Not even, not even a politician. I mean I know the reason they're traveling for, but I really, I think... And it's not to....there's a physical...there's a physicalness of traveling. And I've travelled by road, and I've tried to avoid highways; that's the reason I have a back problem, that's the reason I have this cushion behind my back right now, because I've traveled so much. And I...it's been...its been an incredible experience, an incredible experience I mean just... shaking hands, sharing a meal, a conversation and then traveling on. It's wonderful.
50 years of independence
Kalina, Mumbai, Maharashtra
Jammu and Kashmir
T: So...this idea of a tryst with people of India obviously linked back to Nehru's tryst with destiny, and it was supposed to be a kind of reflection on that 50 years.
T: So, I mean in terms of that, I mean, what was your experience actually looking at the film ...
SM: Once... when you have dreams, dreams of certain visionaries who are....who became leaders of the country. And you have dreams about nation, you have dreams about a constitution, you have dreams about what the people can become over time, and what you have is an actual reality of people. And there's a contradiction between the two, you know. And in that is I think, the dialectic. In fact, in that is I think the crux of where are we coming from and where are we going, you know, and it's so critically important. And I'm absolutely unamazed about say...the violence of the Gujjars in Rajashtan, I'm absolutely unamazed with the rise of the Naxalites. I'm completely not shocked at all, you know. And I know that the violence are occurring across the land, you know, it doesn't shock me. Because I know it was always there, I know it's just below the surface, you know, and ...I'm not amazed. The point is...the people who...say that they want to govern, I don't know what they mean by governance. I have no idea, because I think...they act...see... with the concept of what is governance really all about. And fundamentally it has got to do with people. It is not...it is not the infrastructure of the highway, of course it is important, I'm not denying that, the railway system being on time, whatever it is in terms of the paraphernalia that goes along with development. But the point they seem to miss, is an... eye contact with people, and that's why they lose out. And when they lose out, they lose out terribly. And they misconstrue, and they're actually looking at the leaves, without seeing the tree. They can see the tree, the heart beat. And there's a pattern to it actually, and you realise this when you've traveled.
50 years of independence
Gujjar: is a tribe in the northern India. Most of them live in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. There are many theories about the origin of the Gujjars. Some ascribes them as descendants from Georgia. The semi nomadic Gujjars are a multi-religious community. In May-June 2007, the Gujjars launched a movement, in Rajasthan and Delhi, for Scheduled tribe status. The movement got violent when the other dominant scheduled tribe in Rajasthan, the Meenas, violently opposed the demand of the Gujjars
Naxalites: Naxal is a generic term for the followers of Marxist-Leninst and more specifically the Maoist groups. The original party CPIML (Communist party of India, Marxist-Leninist) has splintered into hundreds outfits. The name Naxal originates from a village called Naxalbadi, a village in west Bengal where the party came in political prominence in the '70s. They are known for their mobilization of landless peasants.
Tryst with destiny: The first prime minister of India delivered his first address to the nation on the eve of independence on the night of 14-15th August 1947. That speech became famous as 'Tryst with destiny' as he used that phrase with great eloquence.
ammi: a letter to a democratic mother
letters to a daughter
republic of india
tryst with destiny
tryst with the people of india
T: That's a pattern to you?
SM: So all you have are legions of storm troopers depending on which party you belong to. Legions of storm troopers carrying the political will of a political party, as opposed to the will of the people, which is beyond storm troopers, beyond political parties. You know what I'm saying?
SM: And there is a will, which has never been defined, never been understood. And they are not...I don't...I don't...I think...nobody by and large.... We never understand that a trust has been placed, a trust, by the people when they vote every five years depending on a by-election or whatever else, there is a trust has been placed and now what has happened is the incredible inconsequence of the...of the ballot. It is so unimportant because now it manifests itself in terms of regime change. Because they haven't been piled into the next and the next, and the next and the next. It doesn't matter; beyond ideology now, beyond ideology. It doesn't matter now. So we go through this act of voting, but they don't realize that vote now is a loss of faith, it's no longer an assertion of faith. A vote should be an assertion of faith. It has now become a loss of faith, across the land, and that's the problem.
Kalina, Mumbai, India
T: So that's a kind of failures of the government ...
SM: Across the board...
T:.....and also failures of the vision of ...
SM: ..and you can see a vision collapse because all said and done, I don't know it's ....
You know a government report that says, what it is... the National Commission of Unemployment, recently about 5-6 months ago put up the figure of 77% of people being below some, I don't know, some ridiculous amount of money that they earn... In other words, 77% of Indians earn less than Rs 26/- a day or something like that, at a per capita level. That is not an indication of anything actually. In some sense it is, but in other sense it's not. It's not that, what I'm talking about, of course it's poverty, we all know there's poverty around, and incredibly high and...and... vicious and...it eats at the vulnerable, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized. That's not the issue actually. I think the issue is when you lose that faith, when that faith is lost; something else is going to happen. And that kind of friction, I don't know what form it will take. At one level you can have the Gurjjars demanding us to be part of the schedule tribe because ...but Meenas will say no, because we've got 9% and these guys will take away from us... What is the battle about? If you take this concept of reservation. How many jobs does it employ anywhere across of India? Pathetic! It's pathetic if you take the numbers involved, it's pathetic! That's not, so what is the war, what is the battle? Is it for that? I don't think so. I think if you take reservation across the board, what does it, what does it mean in term of sheer numbers. A million people? Maximum, at the outer limit. That's it? So what ...you're talking about a billion people, what is the battle? It's not that.
Somewhere else there's angst...and what is it? We've got to figure it out, and ....not that I have the answers, and I'm not suggesting that I've got the answers, but I think for people who happen to be in the...
When they say they are in governance and they have the power to deliver something, and when that become questionable, there's a problem.
It's like saying...you know a ...It's ...it's not that the poor are poor ...What's happened is they've lost their dignity, and that's critical. That's critical! So you got to regain it, what form will it take. It's not just the thing of not having enough to eat or whatever, yes of course it's....and it's terrifying if you're poor. But when your dignity as a human being gets reduced, there's hell to pay, and that's what this governance has done, to people. And that's terrifying....
Gujjar: the semi-nomadic community who demand Scheduled tribe status.
Meenas: a govt. recognized dominant schedule tribe in Rajasthan. They violently opposed the Gujjar demand.
Scheduled tribe, scheduled caste: The Govenemnt of India recognized some communites as Scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. These communities are supposed to get special access to education and employments in government institutions. This practice is popularly called reservation and often bitterly opposed by communities who do not come under the purview of reservation.
national commission of unemployment
T: So that's what you say...
SM: Yeah....and even now, it's not just now, it's not only in 1995-6 that I was doing it, hell...I've been doing that since 2005. So it's not that it is out-dated, my...my data is not out-dated in that sense, you know, I mean you got to see it now, it's on the... it's in your face.
T: I think it has gotten worse
SM: Yeah, in a sense, perhaps it has, because ...and it's... We mistake...we mistake a glass and chrome structure in a... in a forgotten outpost as a form. And a lovely little petrol pump on a highway as a form of saying "Look!". There's a problem with that. There's a problem even with the perception of the image, of the visual that you have in mind. I am not suggesting that it's right or wrong, that could be unimportant, but the perception that it is bringing about the so called change,... I think it's questionable, it's questionable.
The fact that we produce, I don't know... 10 lakh car a year now. Incredible! Maybe, actually perceive that as a barometer to judge.
I'm not so sure....I'm not so sure.
T: So you're definitely, in all your travels you've had, this failure of this idea of development, the failure of governance... all the symbols and images... You've been traveling, what about this idea of say, whole Pan Indian..... Is there something which can be called a pan Indian identity? May I ask you this question?
SM: Sometime you sense it...sometime you sense it just below the surface, this vision is very fragile and vulnerable image. What is this MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a right wing chauvinist outfit) stuffs that's happening in India, in Bombay? What is it? What is Pan Indian about it? Suddenly you realize, you can see the chinks. To see the shafts of the...the...the chasms. But the reason that it's occurring here, is primarily because I think, is that this is the bloody golden goose whatever, the bloody goose that you raise, raise the wretched golden eggs or something, therefore to keep ...keep the people out of this space. Not realising that this space actually was built up as it bleached out, that it actually bleached and leached the rest of the country into...and, bled it dry. And here you've got this massive, wonderful oasis called Mumbai or Delhi or Gurgaon and Coimbatore and Ahmedabad and Pune
But what has it done? It's actually conceived like a bleach-out in films, you take the colour out of an image, and here you got the multi-technicolor space. And even within the technicolor space, within this great surge of I don't know what.....utopia... Just see, look at the spaces around this utopia, within this utopia, look at the, look at the, ...the dynamics of a city, look at the...the squalor, look at the anger, look at the.....It's all happening here.
It's crazy. Absolutely crazy. .......
I 'll have a biscuit. Can I have another cup of tea, please...
The political graph of the city of Bombay is like this:
Congress: the national party and the oldest political outfit in the country which swings between centre and right of the centre positions.
Shivsena: the regional (fundamentally a Marathi outfit) party which champions regional, communal and linguistic chauvinism. It came into existence in mid-'60s.
NCP (National congress party): a splinter group of the Congress. Presently sharing power with Congress both at the State assembly of Maharashtra and at Central govt.
MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena): A splinter group of Shivsena, came into existence only in last couple of years. They propagate the same chauvinism of the Shivsena.
BJP (Bhatiya Janata Party): A national level right wing and communal party. Though officially came into existence in the late '70s there genesis can be traced in various outfits, including the one that murdered Mahatma Gandhi.
Presently a coalition of Congress and NCP run the Maharshtra government while the main opposition comprises of a coalition of BJP and Shivsena. With the demise of the industries the left parties got practically erased from the city.
maharashtra navnirman sena
Flavia Agnes: Also you must talk about this urban violence of...you've also touched upon this urban violence....
SM: Ya?... And I think it's going to get...worse... Everyone talks about the MNS as an organization. Does anybody know that the MNS, at it's... when it's dark in the night, and from the backdoor, who enters the MNS premises, you will get the Congress Party there, the NCP there, and the Shivsena there, and the BJP there and they link up. Now, this is true... this is true.
Now, so what is MNS?
Is it really MNS as MNS as we see it as that one specific organization led by that one wretched, young thug?
No, it is not. It is linked, and the stakes that are going in simultaneously. We got ...we are run by warlords.. The city is run by warlords.
T: You mean it's just the leaders..
SM: This is the fact, that this city is run by bloody warlords and underworld and ..what is the over-world....for god's sake, have a look at the over- world. Look at the... I mean there's a chief minister who should have been in jail, he is up for murder, he is up there, there's a deputy chief-minister who should be hung, he's deputy chief. These are facts, does anybody talk about it?
We talk about Lalu Prashad Jadhav because he is too safe, the guy doesn't retaliate and he jokes and he laughs
T: Ya, ...
SM: But look at the state, the state of so called - where the money lies., who runs it? And they become legitimate.
FA: That's right.
SM: And there have been institutions, academics, they have stadia named after them. Incredible... what a bunch! What a bunch! And that's governance. Now what do you do?
.... I smoke the cigarette when I travel, and I live in Goa, I write a book.
FA: So you live in Goa now?
SM: Ya,ya much more in Goa than here.
In Maharashtra most of the political leaders are engaged in real estate business. They are directly involved with the real estate related mayhem in Bombay. The planned attacks on the poor migrants in the name of linguistic and regional identity, is generally orchestrated for the benefit of the builders' lobby. The nexus between the political leaders, the builders and the Govt. is too obvious and central to the affairs of the city.
deputy chief minister
r r patil
T: What about Kashmir, I mean you traveled there and …SM: It's a very sad land, lot of sadness. And what's happened actually in the process is that… there is a proverb in Hindi – "Everybody has washed the dirt in their hands in the free flowing Ganga" (Behti ganga mein sab logon ne apnaa hath dho liya) – broadly meaning everybody has taken advantage of the opportunity. Everybody's played their game out over there. You know it's like the great game being played out. Pakistan, I'm absolutely sure, and I'm sure China's playing a bloody game over there, and the Kashmiri people themselves over there, you got the Indian army, you got the bloody intelligence agencies playing the games over there, even the Pakistan's bloody intelligence agency playing the game out there, I'm sure there's an American connection somewhere, in the wretched deal. Right, wrong, good, bad, who the hell know? But, there's only one truth beyond this wretchedness of things. And the truth that actually exists are the Kashmiri people, whether they're Hindus or whether they're Muslims or whether they're Buddhist as in Ladakh, and they paid a price, they all have paid a price. And it's terrifying. What a price to be paid! A great game being played out by God knows whom. And it's called strategic interests. You know these fellows who…you know who write this, who are these think-tanks…T: Ya.SM: They should all be bloody hung. Because they're all these strategic thinkers and they all have so called interest of all various nations, government, whatever and mind etc. and they sit in the rooms as they plan out scenarios of the world, and of states and of people. Whipped, They should all be bloody whipped.Quite honestly, they should all be bloody whipped, and cut all their wretched nonsense out and people, let's talk about people.And if you reach out the people, I promise you…. You see what happens, I've always felt, like I've made this statement long time ago. Like an entire state of Israel, it's called… There's a huge mythology around the state of Israel, and why shouldn't they have a mythology, they went through hell as a people.Fact, no question.Historically, they went though bloody hell. Now, a state is born and it is called a Zionist state and predominantly Jewish, all right.But now what is the myth, that's goes along with it.? One is, the myth is that, this land is mine, God gives this land to me. Buggers, why do you get the god in the middle of all these? (Saale, Bhagwaan ko kyon le aa rahe ho beech mein yaar…) But they do bring the the god in. God gives this land to me. Sure, your God. What about the God of the Muslims and the Christians, and the Armenian and the other guys? What about their Gods? So, that's removed. But the bigger myth is to say "never again", it's the underlying raison d'etre… 'Never again' is an idea which said never again should the Jewish people be subjected to the kind of humiliation, savagery (that they have gone through) at the time of the holocaust. So the words "never again" becomes a word and a phrase. It's a wonderful word. I love it for a very simple reason because …let's use this word never again. When you say "never again" for the Jewish people, I'm absolutely on your side. But let's extend the logic. If we say "never again" for all people, you will reach poetry.
The valley of Kashmir, a border land between India and Pakistan has been bitterly contested since 1947. The warring parties are state of India, state of Pakistan, the minority Hindu Pundits in Kashmir, the secular Kashmiris, the militant Islamic outfits, the communal forces in India and so on. But since '90s the situation has become particularly volatile alienating the land from the rest of the people. Saeed's remarks are made in that context.
in the name of god
Mirza Ghalib: The eminent Urdu and Persian poet of 19th century. Samuel Huntington: the American political leader. Barack Obama:the first coloured presidential candidate of the US. The interview was taken when the electoral battle for the republican candidature was at its peak.
SM: You will reach poetry and poetry is the answer of your damned problem. But who's thinking of poetry? You're thinking of national interests. The problem is poetry and I see that's where the answer lies. Too many bloody… I don't know strategic thinkers, and very few poets. I thought Obama was a bloody poet… but look where he ended up… … was great in poetry but then look where he ended up with his speech last night you know…..T: That's really sad.SM: But you know, you felt, you felt that, I think poetry is the answer and then people dismissed poetry like some kind of stupid idyllic… keep it aside because this is real world and then there's unreal, because poetry is the unreal world. I don't think so.T: That's very political conceptSM: Ya. I think poetry is very much part of the real world and what's been removed from the lives of people is the poetry of their dignity and that's been taken away from them and that's the problem. Samuel Huntington versus Ghalib.That's the problem, Huntington rules? Bring on Ghalib.T: Huntington is much more recognisedSM: He wouldn't have. It's impossible. That's why he is unburdened by history or intelligence. He's unburdened.So he's a free man. But look where he ends up, he ends up as the guy who creates wars. These are the countries who divide people according to race, language, religion, culture, civilization. They divide…..colour of skin!
US presidential candidate
color of skin
state of affair