Thursday, July 12, 2018

“The world is being run in brutish ways” – Saeed Mirza on memory in the age of amnesia

[Did this piece about writer-filmmaker Saeed Mirza’s new book for India Today magazine]

“It’s almost like there is a grand design at work in the world today,” says Saeed Mirza, “and it goes: Thou Shalt Not Think.”

“We are so obsessed with our short-term interests that larger contexts get lost. And this is true for both individuals and nations.”

Low attention spans, the loss of empathy, the danger of forgetting history’s lessons: these are running themes in the veteran filmmaker and author’s new book Memory in the Age of Amnesia: A Personal History of Our Times. Much like Mirza’s earlier Ammi, this is a compilation of reflections and vignettes, some disjointed, some directly linked. In discussing various manifestations of hegemony and injustice, Mirza moves restlessly across time and space, and everything is grist to his mill – from the 1993 Bombay riots to the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, from Muhammad Ali’s anti-war stand to the murder of Gaddafi, from jingoism in India and Pakistan to corruption in mainstream media. Ruminative essays are intersected by short parables from the Panchatantra or the Mulla Nasruddin stories.

“As a writer, I am not constricted by linearity,” he tells me, “I like to move from one idea to another and still be comprehensible. I see this book as a big mural. But since it is more political than Ammi was, it had to be palatable as well – not just a dry tract.”

As so often in his films of the 1970s and 1980s – such as Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro – Mirza does very well when he focuses on the individual struggles of “little” people, much like he once depicted the inner spaces of characters like Arvind Desai, Albert Pinto and Mohan Joshi. The more engrossing passages in his book include a meeting with a locksmith in Greenwich Village, or an encounter with Rajasthani artisans at the Ellora temple (here one also gets an amusing view of Saeed Mirza the filmmaker trying to “direct” pilgrims to finish their prayers quickly so he can get on with taking a shot in the evening light). He writes affectionately of the residents of Bombay’s Fonseca Mansion, including his parents, living with people from other communities and cultures in the 1940s and 50s. There are vignettes about shared joy and sadness, reminiscent of the beloved TV show Nukkad, which Mirza once co-directed.

But when he moves beyond the personal and tackles the big picture head-on, the effect is often like a hammer blow: repetitive, school-teacherly. There are short, over-earnest essays saying things – about the resilience of the Vietnamese people, or about the history of terror in Afghanistan – that have been said more extensively elsewhere. Mirza’s righteous anger, understandable though it is, can also create tonal discord: there is attempted humour, a sense that he is ruefully winking at us, but there is also the sort of pedantry that can quickly erase attempts at humour, as when he offers advice to Silvio Berlusconi (“I know you wear expensive designer suits and shirts and your shoes are of the highest quality in leatherware […] however, I would like to add that it takes a damn sight more than this to become civilized”) or to “the hardline Zionist Israeli” (“You have one very powerful country as your ally. It is your friend so long as you serve its purpose […] Quid pro quos, however, don’t last till the end of time. Nothing does”).

One long passage, a record of a rambling conversation between a journalist and an aging, worldly-wise mafia don, should have been dealt with at the copy-editing stage. And on at least one occasion, there is a (probably unintentional) misrepresentation of facts. Writing about the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Mirza takes a now-familiar liberal position: condemnation of the killings accompanied by a firm caveat. The cartoonists, he says, didn’t realise "that the tenets they espoused so forcefully [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity] were far from being true in their own backyard [...] didn't the satirists notice the deep political machinations of their own government?" But this is a strange question. Whatever you might feel about the Charlie Hebdo brand of humour – and the nastiness or tastelessness that is organic to it – any cursory look at their work over the decades shows that some of their most savage satire has been directed at their own political leaders, and at those in power generally.

All this said, there is no denying Mirza’s good intentions and the genuineness of his anguish about the state of the world. Given that the latter sections of his book include tributes to writers and activists who are fighting the good fight against bigotry, hegemony and fake news – people like Arundhati Roy, P Sainath and the journalist Rana Ayyub – does he feel there is room for hope? “I really don’t know,” he says, sounding tired, “I’m over the hill, and even making films is too much of a physical effort for me now. The world is being run in brutish ways, there is an ugly, masculine form of nationalism everywhere. I hope there are enough youngsters around who can see what is wrong, and how to make the right choices.”

[Here is an earlier piece about Mirza, an interview-review centred on his book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother]

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