Why don’t we talk about Salims or Naseems anymore?

Exploring Saeed Akhtar Mirza's undisguised portrayal of Muslim communities

Guest Author: Sourajit Saha

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) opens with a scene of a young Pavan Malhotra walking down a road captured in a long shot. The character introduces himself as Salim Pasha and then goes on to explain why he has been dubbed as Salim Langda and how the name has actually helped him carve his identity. Though the title of the film draws from the name of the character and urges us to not show pity on his deplorable state, his identity as a disabled doesn’t take the front seat in the plot of the film. Rather, his other identity as a Muslim youth is what the film explores. Such Muslim identities are what have been portrayed with much compassion and respect in the films of Saeed Akhtar Mirza. Mirza, the director and writer of the above mentioned film, was one of the brightest faces of Indian parallel cinema, a movement which tried to bring forth social issues from the contemporary Indian society speaking of class, caste and religion, carving a distinct style in its narrative form which is quite different from mainstream Hindi cinema. Saeed, the son of renowned screenplay writer Akhtar Mirza, was an FTII graduate who started out primarily as a documentary filmmaker but came into fiction with Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, a film about an idealistic youth who was trapped in the world of feudal business culture. From the very beginning, Saeed’s films spoke of youths full of angst, stories rooted in the contemporary society and its failures and woes. At a time when the Hindi film industry had progressed from song-and-dance dramas of the 60s and 70s and was celebrating the angry young man trope of the newly emerged superstar Amitabh Bachchan, Saeed Mirza was talking of his religious clan, the Muslims. Most of the protagonists played by Big B were upper caste savarna Hindu men who were trying to uplift themselves from the middle class to the affluent class. The only exception would be the character of Iqbal from Coolie. The depiction of Muslims in Hindi cinema hasn’t changed over the years barring a few films, let alone keeping them in titular or lead roles even though Muslims constitute a considerable section of the Indian population. Mostly, Muslim characters have been reduced to small roles or supporting roles and depicted in a stereotypical manner (often in roles of villains, terrorists, women with kohl-rimmed eyes or men with large beards or in Pathan suits). But Mirza’s characters are of flesh and blood, resembling someone you know from your immediate circle, or have seen on the streets. His films didn’t stop at accommodating one or two characters only but centered on Muslim families. Two films are of utmost significance of his oeuvre regarding the topic at hand — Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) and Naseem (1995)—which are also the films in focus for this essay.

Saeed Akhtar Mirza

 Salim Langda is that Muslim character you rarely find in Hindi films. Salim is a flamboyant, unemployed Muslim youth who aspires to have a better life but gets drawn into the world of crime and deceit. He is unpolished, boisterous, speaks the language of the streets, a mawali  (street ruffian) as called by a character in the film, throngs the streets of Muslim neighborhood in ‘80’s Bombay with his friends, Peera (played by Makarand Deshpande of Swades fame) and Abdul (played by a young Ashutosh Gowariker), collects hafta from shopkeepers and traders. Mirza’s Salim is a character carved out of the thousands of unemployed Muslim youths who inhabited the streets of Bombay, full of angst and tenacity to make it big. Mirza himself made trips to the Muslim neighborhoods of Dongri and Dharavi to interact with such real-life characters. This is uncommon for a filmmaker who makes fiction but Mirza’s humble background of documentary filmmaking perhaps prompted him to do so as prep. Salim’s angst comes forth in the dialogues with his unemployed father where he lets out his frustration about how the cruel world looks down upon Muslims and denies them employment. He argues that his education is of the streets, whatever he has learnt has come from his ventures and interactions in the streets.

The discrimination against Muslims is not a new thing and this common resentment stems from childhood as has been explained later in the film by Aslam, the suitor of Salim’s sister. Aslam also admits that his M.A. in Urdu language is useless in case of getting a job, hinting at the extinction of a potent language from common and administrative circles of society. Such trivial issues aren’t talked about in Hindi cinema but they are serious problems for the Muslim community since Urdu has been a medium of communication for them for centuries. In fact, Hindi cinema till the 70’s used to employ the Urdu language for its lyricism. As the film progresses, we are introduced to Salim’s neighborhood and its inhabitants consisting of small-time crooks, shopkeepers, a café owner with watchful eyes, a seth who has made it big and comes in a big car. We also see the tension in the muhallah (neighborhood) in the wake of a riot in Bhiwandi. Bodies are discovered from gutters and scenes of houses and properties demolished are captured in a documentary and shown in the muhallah. This sequence incorporates a film within a film to advocate religious harmony and tolerance among the muhallah people by the maker of the documentary. It is also a clear reference to the celebrated documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan who is also engaged in social activism and screening of his works in varied social gatherings like these. When one of the onlookers points out that the dead body must be of a Muslim, the sanitation worker who discovers the body from the gutter remarks that whatever be the religion of the deceased, the person had to die in the gutters.

The readymade conclusion of the onlooker in identifying the body as a Muslim in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro is resonated by the character of Mushtaq in Naseem when his ailing grandfather asks who dies in riots. The wise grandfather (played by Kaifi Azmi, the eminent poet in his only role as a film actor) replies it is not the Muslims but the poor who die in the riots.

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro was made in the years leading upto the tension of Babri Masjid demolition while Naseem is like an elegy to the end of secularism in India. Naseem isn’t as loud as Salim Langde pe Mat Ro in its depiction of the tension prevailing in the society with the advent of the Hindu right wing forces all over the country but moves at a timid pace like its titular character moves in her Muslim household. Virendra Saini’s camerawork is less talked about when we talk about both these films although he has been awarded a National Award for his distinct cinematography showing the filthy poor environs of Salim’s world and the calm old Muslim household of Naseem in continuous tracking shots following Naseem in her movements.

When asked why his films have such explanatory names, Saeed Mirza had replied that it’s because he wanted to have his audience full cognizance of what they might expect before entering the theatres. In a masterclass of his organized by Bangalore International Centre (BIC), the filmmaker also reflects, “Each film I’ve done is a journey of understanding myself and the world”. Mirza stopped making films after Naseem as he believed he had nothing more to say through cinema and that it was losing its poetry and mysticism. Naseem certainly had that poetry. We even see flashes of feminism in the curt reply of Naseem’s mother (played by Surekha Sikri) — “Humare liye toh burqa aur talaq hi kafi hain Zafar sahab” [the burqa and divorce are enough for us Muslim women]—to Zafar, the friend of Mushtaq, when he queries why the stoves of Hindu wives explode so often following the incident of a death of a woman that hints at a case of domestic violence. The images of impending violence are propagated through the television sounds of men chanting for the construction of Ram Mandir and are arranged in stark contrast with the quiet tender world of Naseem who brushes her hair unaffected by the television sounds. The film is interspersed with such contrasting images, taking us to the disciplined environment of Naseem’s school where the violence reaches in the form of anxiety amongst students of an uncertain future and the sudden declaration of a holiday due to communal tensions in the city. Saeed Mirza has tried to battle the erasure of history by the right-wing forces with the recounting of pre-Partition memories of Naseem’s grandfather. Naseem expresses surprise when her grandfather admits that it is only because of his wife’s fondness for a tree in their house in Agra that they had stayed back in India and not migrated to the other side of the border. This again evinces how love for something as trivial as a tree can affect the course of an entire family. These personal memories which gather to form collective memories of a particular event in history, and not religious propaganda are what determine the veracity of the days gone by.

The death of Naseem’s grandfather marks the end of an era taking with him his impressions and memories of a secular India. Thus, the filmmaker brilliantly juxtaposes the death of Azmi’s character with the demolition of Babri Masjid.

We also see the impending doom of Salim at the end of the other film succumbing to the wounds inflicted upon him by his adversary while dancing at his sister’s wedding. Though Salim aspired to be a gangster initially, he soon realizes that he is just wasting his time in these petty illegal jobs as a small-time crook and manages to find a job as a mechanic. He even rejects the offer of a hitman’s job in exchange of a lavish wedding for his sister just to be on the right side of things. The filmmaker thus shows a way out for a lot of unemployed youth who tread the wrong path of the criminal world. But he doesn’t shy away from unfolding the harsh realities of this unjust world at the very end of the film. As Salim opined in that initial argument with his father, Muslims are indeed served injustice in life and in death too.



Outlook India: How Bollywood Has Broken Free From Stereotyping Muslim Characters


Feminismindia: Naseem film review

Photos: Screengrabs (www.mubi.com)

Sourajit Saha works as a software engineer by day and lives as a cinephile 24/7. Having interest in visual arts and history, he aspires to become a filmmaker one day.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *