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The life and times of Saeed Mirza

A retrospective of director Saeed Mirza's work in Mumbai includes a documentary on his career

Saeed Mirza in ‘The Leftist Sufi’.
Saeed Mirza in ‘The Leftist Sufi’.

Saeed Mirza is the kind of film-maker who can find poetry even in something as mundane, and potentially bothersome, as a stranger walking on his film set. In a scene in Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi, a documentary on his life (available on Netflix), Mirza tells us about “a man disturbing the arrangement of a shot" during the shooting of Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (1985). “I was amazed by the young man’s walk," Mirza says. “He thought he owned the world."

At this moment in the documentary, something special happens: A voice from behind the camera interrupts Mirza. He looks in that direction, the camera follows. An old lady has recognized Mirza; with a smile that reveals her broken, paan-stained teeth, she is bragging to her friends that she remembers the shooting of Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). We cut to the opening shot of Salim Langde: a young tapori walking down the middle of the road, owning it.

In his films, Mirza told the stories of everyone from a rich businessman’s son in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978) to a car mechanic in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980). As the documentary shows, he likes to mingle with ordinary people: the roadside tea-stall owner, the driver. Many a time, he cast them in his films: the judges in Mohan Joshi, we are told, were picked from the streets. “You look for faces and try to mix it up—trained actors and interesting faces from life itself," he says.

Fittingly, then, in the scene from The Leftist Sufi mentioned earlier, directors Kireet Khurana and Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy capture the essence of Mirza’s work—the beauty of life spilling on to film.

But Mirza, considered an integral part of the 1980s parallel cinema movement, is bigger than his films. In an interview, Mirza describes his 1995 film Naseem, themed around the Babri Masjid demolition, as the “epitaph" of his film-making career, “after which he had nothing to say".

Above all, he is a great raconteur, who spins Urdu couplets and John Lennon lines with equal ease. It’s why Khurana, who has known Mirza since childhood as one of his father’s friends, decided to make the film. “A lot of documentaries on auteurs are flat because they themselves aren’t that charismatic or don’t speak well," says Khurana. “But Saeed is extremely erudite and there is an incredible aura about him."

The Leftist Sufi, made in 2016, features Mirza’s contemporaries and collaborators—Mahesh Bhatt, Kundan Shah and Pavan Malhotra, among others—and has songs by Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café. But for the most part, the film lets its subject run the show. Mirza goes to Goa, where he lives for part of the year with his wife, Jennifer. He goes to Ladakh, seeking harmony in the simple living of hill folk. He goes to the Film and Television Institute of India, his alma mater, where he served as the chairperson in 2013-14. Seated under the famous Wisdom Tree, he says: “There is a junoon here. A lot of ghosts wander around this space."

He revisits the south Mumbai house he grew up in, recounting tales from another time; of his father telling his mother, during a walk back from a late-night movie show, to stop donning the burqa. “It was the most quiet revolution imaginable," he says. He revisits some of the places in Mumbai where he shot his films, like the mills, the plight of whose workers had made Albert Pinto angry; a swanky mall stands there today. And standing in Saat Tanki, near Mohammad Ali Road, when the evening azaan from a nearby mosque can be heard, he asks, “Will that save Salim Langda?"

The Saeed Mirza Retrospective organized by the National Film Development Corporation will be held at the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Bandra, Mumbai, on 30 July. Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi will be shown on 29 July, 6pm. Click here for passes.

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