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Indian Cinema & Secularism: Saeed Mirza on the Sorry State of Political Satire

A rabbit hole of a book— 'I Know The Psychology of Rats' is a memoir of his and Kundan Shah’s time spent together.

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Film director, writer, documentary maker but most notably, a pioneer of the progressive new wave cinema— Saeed Mirza gave us heart-warming, bittersweet, funny, and often tragic characters like Arvind Desai, Albert Pinto, Saleem Langda, Naseem who became metaphors in themselves.

His TV serials, Nukkad and Intezar broke new ground in storytelling on state TV. His latest offering is as delectable and a tribute to his fellow-student, colleague, friend, and soulmate Kundan Shah who gave cinema the legendary 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.'

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A rabbit hole of a book— 'I Know The Psychology of Rats' is a memoir of his and Kundan Shah’s time spent together. Mirza calls it a “literary installation."

It is a multi-media journey complete with beautiful illustrations by another colleague, architect, and artist Nachiket Patwardhan. “I tried to combine all sorts of forms in this and create a mural through brush strokes via which you get an idea of this friendship, partnership, and this incredibly wonderful man.”
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What prompted him to write about his Gujarati friend and unlikely comrade at first was his death in 2017 after which people suggested that post his much-acclaimed 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron', he had “lost it”. That irked Mirza no end.

“We were so different from each other, but we were together at Film School. I saw his journey from Film School and beyond, such a tumultuous journey, it was like an odyssey. I experienced a great sense of loss when he died. For people to say he had "lost it" was so degrading for such an incredibly talented human being, trying so hard to understand the world we live in. Hence, this book.”

Why the title 'The psychology of rats?' Mirza says it is a Kundan Shah quote. He describes an incident at Shah’s office when a rat entered suddenly, creating commotion and scaring colleagues. Kundan Shah emerged with a broom, and banging it on the ground insisted he would deal with it, as he “knew the psychology of rats”. Mirza smiles as he says he does not think that Shah smelt one, or was referring to being on a sinking ship with rats scurrying off.

In the film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, there is much going on and Kundan Shah shot often with 48-hour long shifts, exhausting everyone. “The little man with glasses produced such a magnificent piece, that is Kundan for you. The character played by Anupam Kher got cut as there was no place for it, Shah had shot so much.”

The film has many inside jokes and references to his classmates and friends. The protagonists Vinod and Sudhir (played by Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani), were named after his friends, Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra. The villain Ahuja too was named after a classmate Ashok Ahuja.

Saeed and his other classmates too, all helped Kundan work on the film and one of the protagonists refers to Saeed Mirza too as ‘dadhi waala’, with the line "Albert Pinto ko gussa kyun aata hai," making a prominent entry as a codeword.

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On Being Administered the Filmy Bug Young

Mirza’s own work and life after Film School at Pune have been inextricably tied up with events taking place in India and the world. His father, a well-known film writer Akhtar Mirza, initiated Saeed into 'Battleship Potemkin', 'Bicycle Thief', and other such films at a very young age, gently teaching him, from as early as when he was a fourteen-year-old, the connection between Art, politics, and cinema and that films were not just fun and games.

Saeed Mirza moved on from feature films – making his last one Naseem – after the Babri Masjid fell and then moved onto documentaries and then three other books before this. Kundan Shah too, as Mirza’s book describes eloquently, was deeply affected by the events around him and hated being pigeonholed as a maker of comedies after the hit that 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron' was.

His next film is based on a news item of three girls committing suicide was not appreciated at the box office and Mirza describes how producers wanted Shah to just get the laughs out and “do entertainment, yeh reality rehne dein."

But Shah pursued his dreams and made, P se PM tak— a film about a prostitute (sex worker) who wants to be Prime Minister. In the film, says Mirza, only the ‘P’ was a pure character, the rest, all corrupted and compromised. The film tanked.
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Bombay Riots, Babri Masjid Demolition, and Grappling With a Personal Loss..

There is a section in the book which makes for a particularly poignant reading and relevant today too, when Mirza describes the time in January 1993, as Bombay burned in the riots after the Babri Masjid’s demolition, and he, Kundan Shah and a third friend sat in the graveyard where Mirza’s mother was buried. Mirza asks, "What more appropriate place to be when your city is on fire." It was there that Shah insisted that the only way out was to “rebuild the mosque, brick by brick, in f****** slow motion."

Just to make it clear to the believers, you cannot pull down a place of worship and get away with it. It is an idea that Mirza pushed back on. Why? Is he defensive as he carries a Muslim name?

“No”, he told me. “It is done, to me, it is an act done, which cannot be retrieved. A regime and a nation are being revealed in the process. You can build it back, but so what? It was levelled, was it not? Reconciliation does not come by building a mosque back. It comes when people of a country realise that things have gone awry, and to reach that stage you have to have that level of empathy as people do we have that? I don’t think so. Specifically, elements of the ruling elite that we have, the upper class and upper middle class are actually silently applauding this kind of action. So what are we talking about? I think when people realise that this particular act did not serve any purpose anyway, it was an act that was fundamentally bigoted, that things will change.” Till then, he says, “it is time to fight for the Constitution, fight to regain our humanity and compassion.”

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What about now? Would the famous stage scene in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, swaying and morphing effortlessly and very meaningfully between the Mahabharata, Akbar’s court, and much else be even possible to be shot now? “Impossible," rues Saeed.

“Today, you require a fringe group to raise its voice, and then get picked up by mainstream media and use it to create an issue out of nothing, make it a national issue and manufacture hysteria. Is it genuine or manufactured? I don’t even know sometimes."

And where would the two main characters of the film be today, if they existed in real life? “They would be in jail for sedition. We seem to be moving backward now at a furious pace. We always thought we would overcome these hiccups with freedom and the Constitution, but it is very frightening where we are now.”

A rabbit hole of a book— 'I Know The Psychology of Rats' is a memoir of his and Kundan Shah’s time spent together.

A snippet from Saeed Mirza's book 'I Know The Psychology of Rats'

Image: (From Saeed Mirza, I Know the Psychology of Rats, illustrated/designed by Nachiket Patwardhan, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2023, page 157.)

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(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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