Interview with Saeed Akhtar Mirza: Crisis of Ideology 2
Duration: 00:23:14; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 27.373; Saturation: 0.737; Lightness: 0.351; Volume: 0.101; Cuts per Minute: 0.086; Words per Minute: 125.750
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, butSaeed 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.
T: And it's...I mean, talking about the role of film and all this
SM: Film has no role in this.
T: I mean...
SM: People have.
T: Well....what role....
SM: I think film has...film has a role in term of...I think, I think it has a role in term of documenting, documenting a... state of affairs. At times, it can reach, I think, a level of poetry in which, say...if you take the work of a man like say, Tarkovsky. You see Tarkovsky's work, you see, you see sometime Ray's work; there was a filmmaker here called Aravindan, in the South, who was ...one of the films is incredible.
Yes, it's possible. But to expect cinema to go beyond into...into change. I'm not so sure, I'm not so sure it can. I mean, at one level it'll have to document, it might...it might...it might help in sensitizing people to perhaps issues, provided of course to get into a mass distribution or comes on television - at that level. But, sometime I also wonder about that, maybe after all I've turned cynical, maybe I've turned....... I don't know.
Tarkovsky: Andre Tarkovsky, the master filmmaker of Russia (1932-1986).
G. Aravindan: Eminent filmmaker from Kerala (1935-1991).
Ray: Satyajit Ray, renowned Bengali filmmaker (1921-1992)
T: Well, I mean the kinds of film that you have made, I mean you made a cross, I mean ...
SM: I was another person and then I started traveling.
T: Oh, this was before you started traveling...
SM: Then I started traveling and I realized, no, quite honestly.....that I was clear, you said traveling. And it changes you, it changes your perception. I was...I was at times, and I still am in my soul, I know I am a radical of sort. But I do know my radicalness comes from the books and the thought processes of my mind, it doesn't come from experiences of it. When people got that experience, something else is going to happen. I come from a privileged situation, it's privileged. And in that, I can, by the fact that I've read a lot and traveled, I can...I can go through a thought process. It's never a lived experience, there's a difference in that. The lived experience are, I think, the Naxalites, the lived experience are the Gujjars, not the leaders of the Gujjars but a Gujjar on the street. There, you know, those are lived experiences and something else can happen over there and I think, there's where the answer lies.
Saeed Mirza's filmography:
Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978)
Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980)
Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho (1983)
Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989)
T: So, like when you started out, when you made AlbertPinto ko Gussa kyon aata hain... all those films You had a different approach then...
T: you had a different idea...
SM: Ya, we thought it could change the world. We were not just filmmakers, you must remember the times. You must remember the times because the world was up in flames, you guys were very young! There was a world up in flames. We had liberation movements across Africa, Latin America, the Vietnam war, you had incredible... the Black panther movement, you had, the Naxalite were being born, you had the Dalit writers in India, poetry of the Dalits in India, incredible stuff happening across the world! Who are your heroes, your icons...Namdeo Dhasal, and Aime Sazzer, and Che Guevara and Ho Chin Minh. So we were international to that extent.
We were never localized, you know? And of course you have profundity of the guy called Noam Chomsky putting in his two bits (lagaoing)... you know?
All this is, are things we lived on and we consumed. But over time, not that I ... over time you realize actually things are changing at another level, and other factors come into play, which is a long term living condition, not the immediate, it's a longer vision that occurs. After that, another kind of thought process is required. You know, ours was immediate, that's why poetry, that's why poetry is critical in a vision of time, and change and... not to expect it to happen tomorrow morning, but you see it as a flow, and if one can hasten the flow a little, nothing like it, you know. But stop, trying to stop it -
that's the problem.
T: Sir, I mean because of the time ...
SM: Look at the work of Flavia. Will she change the legal system? She can't, but she has taken steps. And there are people like her, who're doing work. There are steps being taken. But can she change the whole structure of the system?
Steps, which are important I think.
So in that way, I think it's important that you know, jobs can be done with shift, you know, of course a little here a little there a little movement here....
albert pinto ko gussan kyun aata hai
ho chi minh
Political art in our context is often confused with political agenda. The works of subversion, of countering hegemony of forms, of transgressions and formal inventions are not generally considered as political activities. There has been a serious mix up between political campaign and political intervention in the area of arts.
Indian literature is a complex phenomena. Written and oral literature in all the practicing Indian languages make a huge reservoir. Unlike cinema the hegemonic culture could not affect the many literatures of India to any great extent. Though the inadequacy of the translation facility remains an obstacle in exchange between various languages. Even the overwhelming global response to Indian writings in English in recent years did not affect the regional literatures in any serious way. The same cannot be said about Indian cinema or Indian arts.
T: ...because of the time and the political context, if it's possible to have this kind of idealistic, emotional filmmaking and...
T: Right now a kind of notion of whatever you called political filmmaking, parallel filmmaking is no longer really possible.
SM: No, I think it's possible, provided... somebody understands that it was not, you aren't making a political film because it's the way you ...It's your personal faith. If it can be seen then it is also the faith of a lot of people across the land. Once it's seen like that and political cinema needn't be agit-prop, it needn't be these shouting of slogans and things, it needn't be that. But it can be a far more ...encompassing vision, you know...than a narrowness, narrowness of view - I think, of the... you know of the... beam, in terms of a vision I think... it's little more spread up...open up. Again, that's what poetry is all about, isn't it? It's spread, it spreads itself out, and it wafts in the breeze, it touches the corner, touches somebody else, and all different kind of people it touches. That's important. To tap that.
T: Do you think anybody has been able to do that?
SM: I haven't seen too many films, but in term of books and novels of course, I've read wonderful writers. I think if one takes in Indian, at least writing in English, you take the work of, say an Amitav Ghosh, he reaches somewhere. You can sense, he's trying, he's trying very hard. He is provoking a thought process and that's important you know. Like I said, it's not like he's going to change the entire state, he's never going to overtake, the Jeffrey Archers, are going to rule... I don't know the other clown...I don't know whoever they are.... But, an Amitabh Gosh is good for the...I think sanity of people, the fact that he is allowed to write and create and that's important, you know. I'm talking about in India, but I'm sure there are writers in Marathi, in Gujarati, in Bengali and in Tamil, I'm sure there are writers. Because I remember reading translations, when I was a young boy of Manik Bandopadhyaya and and the translation of Namdeo Dhasal, and Borgaonkar... I have. There was a quality to it. I haven't kept in touch of late, recently with writings in India or in the languages, but Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, God! His, his... Lokayat.
What a document! What a document! But, like I said, of late I have not been reading much...
hegemony of languages
india writing in english
post colonial literature
T: I wanted to basically ask you about film, specifically the role of documentary in India, in post-colonial India generally.
SM: I think the role of documentary is critical, provided it's not state sponsored, you know, that's the problem. Lots of documentaries being made on Kashmir, backed by the government of India, you know. Lots of documentaries made on development, backed by the various ministries. But I think the independent documentary filmmakers, I think it's their job. The only problem that occurs with their works, I feel is where is it shown? I've seen some wonderful documentaries, made by wonderful young people. Why there isn't a platform for them to show their works and where is the platform? And that space has been removed.
T: Was it ever there?
SM: At one point, it was, it was there on Doordharshan, and what I gather, there's a program and I don't know if it still exists on Doordharsan, that chap .... Whats his name...Mehrotra.
Everyone: Rajiv Mehrotra...
SM: What is it called, that thing?
Richa: The Open Frame. It's very much there..
SM: Open Frame! But you know, maybe that is serving some purpose but from what I gather, it's pretty late in the night.
R: It's 9.30 in the night and then 9.30 in the morning, Saturdays ...Friday, Saturday.
SM: And there is a role ...I suppose of the people who are seeing it are people who don't really matter in the scheme of things. And the people that are seeing, they are being affected by what they've seen, I mean, that's a good thing. Maybe they're not in upper class salons, they're not in upper class homes. It doesn't matter, but that is some kind of a platform being provided.
T: Do you mean those... TV slots?
SM: Ya...Let's hope...Let's hope. I'm not painting a dead-end picture, I hope I'm not painting a dead-end vision about, you know, not just India, it's about the world, you know. It's not just India that I'm talking about. We have perceived development in a certain kind of way. And all financial and other efforts go into perceiving it in that way, and therefore development occurs in some form or the other. But like I try to say it in my book, that you know, a certain kind of question leads to a certain kind of answer to a corresponding question. It's continuous. The point is to question the question. What do we perceive development? What do we perceive as human development? What do we perceived as human dignity? What is it? And if that can change, I mean we've paid a terrible price, the world has paid a terrible price with this development, it's rampaging across the world, it's rampant, it's rapacious, it destroys. It destroys the human being. And we think that's progress. Look at those, you actually have to see the faces of people in New York, it'll blow your mind, and that's what we are aspiring for.
SM: You know because you got to see the face and you realize, just with those faces on the billboards. You look on the billboard, wow, what a life! Look below! That's the street, and in buses and cars, on the street you just see the faces. Its stressed out! Is that what the human being is all about, and this is what the entire bloody world is aspiring for. I love NY! Caps ... across..on your head and the Big Apple, and "yo man!" Come on my friend, give me a break. and you see... it's there. And then you see it revealed when the typhoon hit - New Orleans, Katrina. Suddenly, so in America, wuff! And America today said that 20% of its citizens are poor, 20%. Imagine...imagine India now. 20% are poor! That's a hell of a lot of people. This is where we're heading. Nobody seems to realize, including Mr Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Chidambaram, Chidambaram I love him, I love his starched white kurta...what a guy!
Kalina, Mumbai, Delhi, Kashmir
Saeed does not seem to be much aware of the contemporary development in documentary film making. With the upsurge of infotainment in television industry a new kind of social anthropology has evolved. This has created a substantial market for the documentaries. On the other hand the evolution of digital technology has given new leash of life to the independent filmmakers. As a result the documentary filmmaking today is a zone of both new energy and global contest. Opinion making is a big commodity in the market. Saeed's logic is a bit obsolete in contemporary context. Moreover the audience for non-fiction programme is fast growing and the growth too poses many problems. This interest can be easily traced to the most regressive tenet of anthropology and voyeurism.
montek singh aluwalia
T: There doesn't seem to be another idea of development, really.
SM: There is no chance, there is no alternative. The point is that we put our eggs and we have no choice because we didn't deliver earlier and a so called socialist...so called socialist secular democracy ...whatever that we are supposed to have been ...So now boom! You've gone this way. And we actually believe it's going to happen. Look at the turmoil in Europe, look at the turmoil in Europe, which has followed that path. Look at the turmoil in America that is following ...What is Obama standing for...beside the speech that he made yesterday. Change...what are they talking about. What was this....the young people that were supporting this man were...I think...they had a vision of poetry in their mind somewhere. Look where he ended up actually, unfortunately. But I'm sure they were fighting for poetic vision of a world. That's what they wanted this man for...and he talked about that, and held his arm and said, 'we are with you'. Poetry...bringing back poetry. And he gave them the idea of poetry. When those backroom boys are eliminated, those lobbies are eliminated. Well look where he ended up unfortunately, but, that's the deal that he gives to the American people. And the young people backed him up, the young people, i.e. the young, across colour, across race, across I don't know what, and they backed this man. Am I right? Didn't he, didn't he ...bring in poetry?
That's what they wanted.
A commissioned work is always a tight rope walk. For an artist who practice a form as expensive and public in nature as cinema it gets more difficult. An institution like UNICEF or a Govt. agency may never commission work to a poet, but they will always need filmmakers in order to reach their agenda to a large number of people. This is in the nature of film, the mass media.
SM: UNICEF. I don't know why they called me, and they called me and said, " Mr Mirza, we would like you to make a documentary on education of the child in India". I said fine, I'll do it. And they said, but Mr Mirza there is a book that you have to read. Written by a fellow called Myron Weiner. I asked them why do I need to read this book, they said that because that is the view of UNICEF. I said I'm not going to read it. If my views match his through the film that I make, wonderful. If it doesn't, that's the way it going to be. And this is for the SAARC conference that was occurring. I said I'm not going to be bound by that book. He said, fine Mr Mirza. Since they called me, they couldn't back out now, it was too late for them. And they hoped like hell that it would match the book. So I made the film, and they had no choice but to screen it. And they screened it with the title saying that, "Views of the director don't necessarily match those of UNICEF's." And that's fine, that's the way it is. That documentary that I made 'Tryst with the People of India', they didn't like it. It was screened at 9.30 in the bloody night, I was there till 11.30, you know why? They didn't like what I had to say, about India and 50 years of Independence. 11.30 in the bloody night, they screened my bloody documentary, my ...my episodes. They didn't like it. They said, " we are paying you. Where is it about us?" I said "yeah, that's not the point. What do you expect? Genuflection? What do you expect? On your knees I start groveling because you paid the cash?"
And I'm not suggesting that I have the truth, it's not! Within that I have also questioned my own questions. Within that; those parameters, because that's the way it is, that's the way it is. And that's the only way to make it...a documentary. But then, that secretary whoever called us up. He liked it very much. He said, "I'm so sorry Saeed, that's the way it is, they're going to screen your stuff at 11.30 in the night.
But... Thank you very much for doing that work".
50 years of independence
south asian association for regional cooperation
Saeed Mirza speaks eloquently about the homogenization of culture and maximization of the market. But he does not appear similarly alert to various subversive ways that ordinary people are still countering these forces. Like the ways of the market the resistance to it too has taken new and multiple forms.
T: The idea of Independence is very elusive.
SM: But it's tough, it's tough because even when you get funds from abroad, people would have to question their agendas. And you get funds from the government, you question their bloody agendas. It's tough...it's tough! But somewhere in between you find the balance and you do your stuff and you do it with...a conviction, and that to me is important. And then you battle it out, in a sense. I don't mean battle, but you got to explain across.... your point of view across somebody who's put the money and ....what you expect me to do? To be a court jester? What do you want me to do? Be a Bhaand (a comic on folk theatre)? I'm not that. Or call somebody else who will deliver it for you. Don't call me. And if you know my track record, that's the way I am.
Hold on...hold on, let me explain this to you. (picks up his shoes) It was the back also, I must tell you. Why do you think I am wearing these shoes. This design is approximately 1400 years old. Ya, why do I wear this shoes? These are the only shoes that I have. I bought four/five pairs of them. That's it. These shoes are .... this design... (not clear) the people in the world. And actually they changed the course of history and they changed the course of the world in the way the world thought. They're mentioned in my book, Ibnisira Ibnrusht (?) My shoes.
Just to give me a sense of grounding. A sense of belonging with history.
T: Where did you get them?
SM: Morroco. But I'm getting them done over here in Mahabaleshwar. Karva raha hoon! Just it's not, it's nothing much, I'm not trying to prove .... to make a point. They were ..they were alternative thinkers, and they were dismissed, they were dismissed deliberately. They are the guys who brought Arya Bhatta and Brahmagupta to the West ; they brought Chinese medicine and the decimal system and the zero from India, and they brought it into the West. These are the guys, and they brought Aristotle and Plato, and they brought a bloody Ptolemy and they discussed...the world. And they were wondering, where the hell are we heading? What is science for? What is it all about? Good guys.
Chalo, Khuda Haafis.
God be with you guys, and since there is no God, that is the main problem.