Saeed Mirza has been on a self-imposed exile for a while, travelling the country, looking for something to say. The first outcome of his search was an extraordinary book Ammi- Letters To A Democratic Mother. Finally he is set to return to cinema with an ode to this city. But the gentle, warm and forever questioning Mirza is greater than his achievements because he embodies the values his work can merely reflect.
Your book dwells on socio-political issues in a personal and honest way, avoiding theory and jingoism, simply by the act of addressing them through letters to your mother.
I had grown uncomfortable with words like ‘democracy’, ‘civilized’ and ‘freedom’. People who use them are usually fascists. This book was to be an attempt to re-imagine their meanings. But in order to do that I had to put my feet back on the ground. I realized I felt most grounded during conversations with my mother. She was an ordinary woman but could grasp the essence of things so well, she could have debated with Descartes with the same ease as she spoke to the maid at home. That kind of innate wisdom made me want to explore the extraordinariness of the ordinary, discarding the belief that I was on another level of thought simply because I had read and debated much.
Your films have usually been heavily researched pieces but the book was about your family and journey. Did you feel more vulnerable interpreting your whole life?
There is such arrogance in even thinking that one will ‘write’. When you think of literature through the ages where would a Saeed Mirza fit in? I wrote the book to purge myself and to confront our perceptions of literature. Throughout I have played games with genres, form and content. Honestly I don’t know if I have achieved what I set out to. There have been some incredible responses- not all flattering. For example this one gentleman from Haryana wrote in saying it’s the perfect book for the Taliban. I assume he had issues with my critique of Ataturk. My critique of Ataturk is an extension of my critique of myself. As ‘liberals’ we have made symbols out of things like the headscarf. I want to re-examine what lies behind the symbology.
It is not easy to let go of clichés. A long time ago at a press conference for a documentary I had made on the rickshaw pullers of Jabalpur I saw a man in dhoti-kurta and a massive tilak. I assumed instantly he would be trouble. He turned out to be the most liberal and evolved mind there. There is a need to look at every definition that informs our understanding of the world. The Marxists are perhaps the most to blame for straightjacketed definitions. Others just followed suit. Definitions deny the aura of people; their human being-ness.
Marxism and Socialism are dead letter in India today, confused with their symbols. Democracy and Globalisation are imports from the west, fashioned in a different context. Secularism is a romantic ideal. Are we breaking these concepts down to weld them into the shape of the Indian cauldron?- which by itself isn’t a distinct idea..
India is a miracle! And if it works it will be a blinding light for the rest of the world.
I speak as a leftist or a sufi, I am not sure who I am, but the problem is the intellectual elite is not really connected with the people they speak of. There is so much arrogance. It reminds me of this Ghalib couplet which goes, ‘You sound so learned Ghalib, I would have pronounced you God had you not been a drunk’!
I have seen plays by ‘leftist’ groups that draw upon tales like Shambuk Vadh to criticize Ram. But underprivileged classes cannot dissociate from ‘God’ as easily as we can. Why shouldn’t ‘Ram’ be re-appropriated for them by talking of say, Shabri instead?
Absolutely. Mythology has been created out of a great need of the human soul. The empirical vision of the world has taken away from mysticism, even if not in a metaphysical way. To deny Ram is to leave large vacuums that cannot be filled. It is a collective memory of the civilization. Who the hell is anyone to deny it?
You belonged to the New Wave of Indian cinema. Even the mainstream cinema of the times had a connect with the masses. Today cinema is by and large an NRI friendly product..
I don’t understand this trend. All you need to do is tell real stories. But NRI cinema seems to have become the staple diet now..
But it is not even the real story of the NRI experience.
Is it lonelier to make films without the energy of those times?
My travels made me realize how un-lonely I am. All you have to do is step out, share a meal, shake hands. It makes you one with that very large stream of people and time. You are overwhelmed by the truth of this land- the ideas, counter-arguments and worldviews of ordinary people. It was so high handed of us to think we will change the world.
But don’t you miss that arrogance of youth sometimes? The camaraderie and the dreams, however foolish?
Yes. Sometimes. But I also realize that change cannot be commanded. It is a long process- a chip here, a shift there. And it will happen despite the warlords and ideologue. We were always in a hurry to bring it on.
While travelling was the sense of hopelessness and the sheer scale of things ever overwhelming?
You know, there wasn’t that much hopelessness. It was mostly exhilarating. These people forgave us- the uncaring elite. What more can one ask for?
The stories of the characters you met in your travels as narrated in the book are unforgettable. What do you intend to do with the material you have documented? Would you consider making a documentary film yourself?
I have given a lot of that material to an organization called Majlis. I could make films myself but right now I am working on my next book, called “The Dark Ages: The Monk, the Moor and Moses Benjalloum”. I used to see life like a photograph of oneself with your own people around you. Gradually other people fade away and then you do finally. But now I see those characters you talk about as a part of me and me as a part of them. That is who I am now.
Does the ideology of Naxalism and Maoism concern you as a leftist today? Is banning them the solution?
I am part of a self-centred elite and therefore disposable. They are entitled to their viewpoint and anger but I am not so sure they are right either. All violent movements in the country are volcanic shifts. And the state deals with whatever they cannot handle by imposing bans!
At its inception there might have been ideology but today there is just anger. Is there is a problem with clubbing all sorts of anger under the umbrella of a common term?
There is just anger now and revenge. I have met them and they are wonderful people despite being angry, each with his own idea of Naxalism. The problem is with the umbrella.
There are two ways of looking at things, the micro aspect of each one as a unique person and the macro critique of the movements..
And any right representation must have both these dimensions to it.
You wanted to make a film on Kashmir a while ago. Why didn’t you?
I didn’t feel sure. Too many people have died. People have come in from everywhere to muddy that water. Now it is extremely difficult to step into that space.
Your father was a part of the industry and saw its seamier side. Your brother’s been here as well. Does the struggle to put forth your expression get to you sometimes?
No. There is just no time to crib. My joy is in the process and at the end of the day I have made my films, made them my way and had a great time while at it.
Your next film is on Bombay. What part of your city are you bringing to celluloid?
I took a break because I felt I had nothing left to say. But recently when Rajat Kapoor asked me to make a film I knew I wanted to make one where Bombay is a metaphor for a mosaic of stories. It is set in the Bombay of today. A city is about the stories you see the minute you step out on to the road. For instance I know this guy from the northeast who sings in a ladies bar and dreams of being an independent musician. I’ve worked with a lovely bunch of people to talk about the outsiders and insiders who come here in the hope to ‘make it’. The film is about the adventure and the pathos of their journeys.
Is it a romantic take on the city?
It is an ode, yes. My salaam, if you like, to the city.
(First appeared in Mumbai Mirror)