The larger picture

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Saeed Mirza’s book encompasses different genres but strikes a chord.

Post-9/11 the world is neatly divided between those who feel apologetic about their Muslim inheritance. And follow America’s fundamentalism without ever questioning Uncle Sam’s right to decide who should rule over Iraq or Afghanistan. And there is a handful who take pride in their unique culture, refusing to take any reference points from the West.

Seasoned filmmaker Saeed Mirza is among the latter. A bit of an outsider everywhere, yet at home with his uniqueness Mirza has penned this wonderful book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother.

Dispassionate observer

The book offers no daring insights but is, thankfully, not an exercise in nostalgia either. Even while talking of yesterdays on a personal note, he avoids a touch of anguish, preferring to see the larger picture all the while; much like a dispassionate observer, a non-participant outsider.

Following the tapestry of his life and his works, his films like “Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai”, “Salim Langde Oe Mat Ro” and “Naseem” as indeed his tele-serials like “Nukkad” and “Intezaar” managed to strike a chord with the common man and get critical acclaim too. Yet, he has not quite been able to translate that goodwill or words of genuine appreciation into a box office hit. Maybe because he has offered something that stirs, that provokes. He has never really spoken the language of mainstream formula films, never quite indulged in the stereotypes one associates with the saas-bahu soaps.

Now his book treads the same path, encompassing so many different genres, yet able to strike a rapport with a first-time reader. There are little anecdotes, some parables, subtle satire and more than a note or two of poetry, both medieval and contemporary, Oriental and Occidental.

He starts the book though on a wistful personal note, reminding us of that wonderful poem by Javed Akhtar: Mujh ko yaqeen hai sach kehti thhi, job hi Ammi kehti thhi, jab mere bachpan ke din thhe, chand pe pariyan rehti thhi. Mirza talks of that little bath when he was only around three. How he was cleaned and dusted by his mom, who would then fondly caress him, showering him with talcum powder, all along humming, “Sayeed Saab ban gaye gentlemain, Do paise ki ghadi lagaayi, teen paise ki chain, Saeed Saab ban gaye gentlemain.”

Early years

Soon, he transcends the mutual admiration club, and recalls an early lesson from his mother who could not quite grasp the subtleties of the English language. Addressing his Ammi, he writes, “I find it difficult to express myself in Urdu. I still remember your answer: ‘Write in any language, in any way, but express what is in your heart’.”

Subtly, he exposes the shortcomings of an education system where quality is synonymous with English to the detriment of pupils’ mother tongue.

As Mirza writes, “The problem is that my Urdu is inadequate, and I think the fault is yours. You slyly made sure that your children studied in a school where the medium of instruction was English….Yet you secretly despaired at what you had done. Those tentative classes in Urdu that I had at home were, I think, your attempt to somehow stem the tide that you knew would inevitably follow….It is a price we both have paid: you for the partial loss of your son, and I for drifting away because of a language.”

Bigger canvas

Later in the book, Mirza takes on a bigger canvas, moving away from a fond remembrance of his mother to a world where what the West says is often taken as the right thing. In “A time to remember”, he recalls his school days, and how things have not changed much since the time he was in shorts. “I would have happily sacrificed my aloo parathas and herbal sherbet for a sandwich and a cola. I would have probably sacrificed much more for a taste of those imported chocolates and cheese….since those early days of my school years, things have not changed much in India...”

Later, he is at ease talking of the works of Charles Dickens and the “complex” times he lived in. Just as he is while talking of Ibn Araby, Rumi, Mulla Nasruddin, Ghalib and Dagh Dehlavi, etc. But soon he corrects himself realising talking of the past does not always give us the roadmap of the future. He wonders, “Does the past really matter as the world hurtles towards a future that is relentlessly being sculpted by people like Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Warren Buffett, the Ambani brothers…?”

He weaves these little comments, sneak windows into our times that were, and the times that are with glimpses of his own journey, from a English-medium school boy to a economics and political science graduate, to his stay at the film school. And yes, he was deeply moved by Japanese filmmaker Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”, a story of an elderly couple who visit their children in Tokyo.

Yes, Mirza’s book is a wonderful compendium of memories with pertinent comments about a world that is often guilty of judging men and civilisations by what they have, not what they are.



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