Luminary, Profile

Saeed Akhtar Mirza

It is impossible to talk about the new Indian cinema of the 1970s and 1980s or the Indian New Wave and not talk about Saeed Akhtar Mirza. Mirza is one of the foremost filmmakers of this unique period of Indian filmmaking having made some deeply sensitive and personal films reflecting the struggle of the common man in an uncaring society. Quoting Saeed himself, “We came from a generation that believed it could change the world. There was great upheaval across countries and we lived by the example of icons like Pablo Neruda and Che Guevara.”

Saeed was born on June 30th, 1943 in Bombay. His father was the noted writer Akhtar Mirza who is most well-known for having scripted Naya Daur (1957) and Waqt (1965) for BR Chopra. Having graduated from St Xavier’s College, Bombay, in Economics and Political Science, Saeed then did a stint in advertising before joining the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune from where he graduated in 1976, having specialized in film direction.

His first independent job as a director was a documentary film on a slum in Bombay, Janta Colony. Through the film, Saeed questioned the rehabilitation of the slum dwellers some 70,000 of them. The film was banned. In Saeed’s own words, “After the ban, I turned to fiction.”

Saeed along with Mani Kaul, K Hariharan as well as other filmmakers set up the Yukt Film Co-operative (Union of Kinematograph Technicians) in 1976. This led to a remarkable avant-guard experiment in collective filmmaking as the group made Ghasiram Kotwal (1976), one of the most celebrated plays in Indian theatre. The play was staged by the Theatre Academy of Pune in 1972 and its members participated in the film as well. The film, though commenting on Maratha and Indian history, was controversial as it has more contemporary ramifications with its metaphorical exploration of Indira Gandhi’s reign and the period of ‘Emergency.’

It was Yukt that produced Saeed’s first ‘solo’ feature film as director, Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978). The film is Saeed’s most experimental film in terms of form and content. For Saeed, the film is an exploration of a world where one’s actions do not correspond to one’s ideas. He followed it Arvind Desai with Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), a peeked into the life of the catholic community in Mumbai. As against Arvind Desai, the film treats the conflict between the individual and his environment in a more evolved manner.

One of Saeed’s finest but most underrated films is undoubtedly Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984). Looking at the efforts of an elderly couple, who in the face of all opposition, sue their landlord for lack of maintenance of the chawl they are staying in, the film is a brilliant take on the struggles of the middle class and the judicial system where cases drag on for decades, where the plaintive either dies or loses hope and money, while the corrupt squander away, thanks to their nexus with corrupt lawyers. The film, boasting of wonderful performances by Bhisham Sahni and Dina Pathak as the elderly couple and Naseeruddin Shah and Satish Shah as the lawyers who exploit them, went on to win the National Award for Best film on Family Welfare.

Critics consider Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) to be Saeed Mirza’s finest film. It is also his first feature film where he looks at the problems of his own community. The film realistically investigates what it means to be a Muslim in a working-class Bombay neighborhood controlled by criminals. There were those who argued against the fatalistic ending of the film where the hero, after trying to reform, is killed but this is exactly what gives the film its strength.

However, Saeed considers Naseem (1995) to be the film closest to his heart. The film, which won him the National award for Best Direction, is set between June and December 1992, the days preceding the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 by Hindu fanatics. Naseem (Mayuri Kango) is a schoolgirl belonging to a middle class Bombay based Muslim family. She enjoys a warm relationship with her aged ailing grandfather (Kaifi Azmi). With increasing horror the family watches on their TV the news of the build up at Ayodhya while the grandfather regales her with stories of life in pre-independence Agra. The grandfather dies on December 6 coinciding with the news of the destruction of the mosque. At the Wisdom Tree Film Festival held in Pune in 2003 to celebrate 40 years of the FTII, Saeed chose Naseem as the film to best represent him.

Though his films are regarded as off-beat and away from the mainstream, Saeed says “We made movies with a certain vision and integrity and prayed like hell that they would work. It wasn’t intended for amorphous viewing, but they got collectively branded as parallel cinema. But we came from the same tradition as Mehboob Khan and Guru Dutt.”

Following Naseem, Saeed took time off traveling around the world and spending time in Goa, which has become a second home to him. He also wrote a book in this period, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother (2008) that was extremely well-received. The book came in a period when the unrest in the Middle East, Central Asia, the 9/11 attacks in the USA and the war in Iraq stole his peace of mind and he translated his troubled thoughts into words. Quoting Saeed on Ammi in an interview, “There was never an intention of a book. I went about taking abstract notes on my travels and experimented with narrative forms much later. The result is Ammi, part essay Sufi tale, travelogue, diatribe, film script, love story and a combination of history and polemics also.” 

After a 15 year gap, Saeed has returned to filmmaking with Ek Toh Chance (2010) being made for Pritish Nandy Communications. Though the film is complete, sadly, it is yet to see the light of day.

Saeed then wrote a second  book, the novel The Monk, The Moor And Moses Ben Jalloun (2012)“It is a journey in digging up the distorted past with parallel narratives – four students at the University of Berkeley in 2008 set out to discover the truths because they see how the past affects their life; the tale of Rehana, an Iranian from the 11th century and her teacher Abu Rehan Al Biruni who takes her on a tutorial journey, a place in Andalusia where Arabic texts are being translated to Greek and Spanish; and my soliloquies to put my point of view,” says Saeed. This book too, like Ammi, was a huge critical success.

Apart from Feature Films and his books, Saeed has also made several documentaries and TV serials, the most famous of them undoubtedly Nukkad (1986) and Intezar (1989) and a mega documentary project he undertook, travelling all over the country as part of 50 years of Indian independence.

Saeed’s elder brother, Aziz Mirza, has been a successful filmmaker in his own right having directed films such as Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), Yes Boss (1997), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Chalte Chalte (2003) and Kismat Konnection (2008).

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