'Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro' Is a Wake-Up Call in These Tense Times

In these communally-charged times, the 1989 National Award-winning film, is a moving wake-up call.

5 min read
A still from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.

In these communally-charged times, the 1989 National Award-winning film, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, is a moving wake-up call. A sharp indictment of vested interests that exploit illiteracy and ignorance to create criminals, and worse, communal divides, in order to rule, the film makes a strong plea for universal education.

The Saeed Mirza-directed film opens with a softly-lit scene of a carefree tapori striding along, happily, on an empty road. It is dawn, with the promise of a new day. A red BEST bus, that symbol of Bombay’s efficient work culture, rolls up behind him. Skipping out of its way, after giving the vehicle a playful tap, Salim Langda (played endearingly by actor Pavan Malhotra) trots on, boss of all he surveys. Or so he believes. He and his two friends are part of a different work culture. Small-time hoodlums in a Muslim-dominated area of the older part of Bombay (before it was re-christened as Mumbai), they earn money through petty crime; and dream of becoming rich like big-time criminal Ibrahim, who grew up on the same streets as them.

A still from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.
A still from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Ibrahim is clearly the notorious Dawood Ibrahim, though the film does not spell that out, whom Salim idolises. In fact, so enamoured is Salim of the smuggler that he even sports a Dawood-style moustache. Tight jeans, tees and jackets are Salim’s trademark attire in which he struts around, brandishing a knife to extort money from whomever he wills. Larger sums come by stealing from godowns where imported goods are stocked. Salim is immensely proud of being a dada.

So much so, that when there is a threat of a communal riot in his locality, he is unperturbed, confident that no danga will happen in his neighbourhood. “Apun ka area hai. Apun ready hain,” he brags.

Aslam (played very convincingly by Rajendra Gupta), on the other hand, is a soft-spoken, educated Muslim who works as a proof-reader for an Urdu paper. He is engaged to Salim’s sister but Salim does not approve of him as his sister’s suitor because he is a kadka, earning a measly Rs. 600 a month.

However, when Salim comes across bigoted Muslims stoning Aslam’s house and raining abuses on him, labelling him a mazhab ka dushman because he advocates education for Muslim girls, Salim is quick to rise to his rescue and chases the mob away at the point of his knife. In the conversation that follows, thereafter, Salim asks Aslam why he is going against his religion, and Aslam retorts that Islam is not against education. “These people want to keep the masses ignorant so they can manipulate them.”

A still from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.
A still from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

“But what can a poor Mussalman do?” queries the uneducated Salim.

Pado, likho. Kuch banne ki kosish to karo,” replies Aslam and cites Salim’s late brother, Javed, as a shining example of someone who loved books and made an honest living as an electrician. “If you don’t try to come out of the darkness, you will die like keede makaude,” prophesises Aslam, gloomily. “It is very easy to be a mawaali, but Javed fought hard to lead a respectable life.”

Aslam’s arguments set Salim thinking.

And when, after a roadside screening of a documentary on the horrific communal riots in Bhiwandi, a social activist points out how these riots are orchestrated by those in power to divert attention from more pressing issues like unemployment, hunger, lack of education, Salim goes into deeper thought.

At the café, where he hangs out with other taporis, Salim and his friends discuss the documentary; but Lala, a big-time seller of contraband goods, putting on patriotic airs, tells them the documentary was a lie. A heated argument follows, with Vilas, one of Salim’s friends, telling Lala off.

Soon after, Vilas is bumped off by a passing car.

This is the turning point in Salim’s life. He realises how inconsequential he is in the syndicate of the ruthless Lalas and Raju Seths, whose dirty deeds he has done so far. When he goes to the police station to ask about Vilas’ murderer, he finds the police official unconcerned. For him Vilas’ death meant just one goonda less. And yet, it was the likes of Vilas and Salim whom the cop used, to get information and whose thumb impressions helped him ‘fix’ cases.

With the activist and Aslam’s words ringing in his ears, Salim decides to reform. Applying for a job as a humble garage mechanic, Salim dreams of educating his sister’s children, having a home of his own, of leading the life of izzat Aslam had advised.

A still from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.
A still from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Through the contrasting characters of Salim and Aslam, writer-director Mirza portrays different faces of the minority community. Hard-hitting dialogues by Hriday Lani juxtapose the educated, hard-working Muslim versus the uneducated one who is misled into pitying himself as a victim. Salim took to crime because he knew no other means of survival. His father could not afford to educate him and he hated to see his mother slogging at the sewing machine.

Naively, he believed that goondaism earned him respect. The café he frequented had pimps, smugglers, hitmen as customers and he saw them on back-slapping terms with high police officials. It made him feel important to hobnob with them. By the time he realises his mistake, it is too late.

He is inextricably caught in the web of a dangerous, unscrupulous mafia who want him to ignite a riot. His plea that his dhanda is not to create a danga falls on deaf ears.

The film ends on a tragic note. When Pavan Malhotra asked Mirza why it was necessary to do so after Salim had got reformed, Mirza replied, “Salim had to pay the price.” In an earlier era, writer-director Vijay Anand had, similarly, made the repentant protagonist of Kaala Bazaar serve a prison term for having been a black-marketeer, once. Both filmmakers condemn crime, no matter what the compulsions.

Nevertheless, your heart bleeds for Salim because it is the circumstances in which he grew up that made him what he is. Poverty, lack of education, self-pity and the lure of quick money is a lethal combination. But while Salim paid the price for being a goonda, the system that created him went scot free.

Have things changed 30-plus years later?

(The writer is an independent journalist and author of biographies on Madhubala and Dev Anand. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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