Stories, Histories, and Inheritance: Close-Up on Saeed Akhtar Mirza's "Naseem"

The final feature made by the Hindi director is a dirge for everything India could’ve been but chose not to be.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Saeed Akhtar Mirza's Naseem (1995) is now showing in the series A Journey into Indian Cinema.

“The karsevaks in Ayodhya are gathering with bricks. There is tension in Faizabad. Muslim families are leaving…”

Mere hours before a right-wing Hindu mob of 150,000 people tore down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, on December 6, 1992, the eponymous teenaged protagonist (Mayoori Kango) reads out the day’s news to her ailing grandfather (Kaifi Azmi) in Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem (The Morning Breeze, 1995). “That’s enough, darling,” he stops her.

“We had a dream in 1947 about the kind of country we wanted to be. That collapsed over a period of time but the actual last stroke to me, personally, when the Babri Masjid came down,” Saeed Akhtar Mirza says in the Netflix documentary about his life and works. Naseem, as it juxtaposes a secular past with a communal riot-struck present, is Mirza’s most personal work and the last feature film he made. Set in 1992, it is the story of Naseem as she tries to reconcile the two different Indias she knows: one that her grandfather tells her stories from and the one around her that is brewing with hate. “Naseem was almost like an epitaph. After the film, I had really nothing to say. I needed to regain my faith and retain my sanity,” Mirza said in an interview.

Mirza was born to Hindi film script writer Akhtar Mirza and Iffat Ara Mirza in 1943. When he was ten years old, on the day of Eid, he told his father that he didn’t want to go into the mosque and pray. “Why?” his father asked. “I don’t believe that god exists,” he said. He did not grow up practicing Islam but was brought up within an ethos that was culturally Muslim and politically pluralistic. The Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, on the other hand, was 23 when he quit his study of Urdu and Persian to join the Quit India Movement. When he was a child, his father enrolled him in an Islamic school, a madrassa, where Azmi organized the students and led them in a demonstration against the orthodox administration. In an interview with the BBC, he had said, “I was born in a slave India, grew up in an independent India and would like to die in a socialist India.” Azmi wrote the poem “Doosra Vanvaas”(The Second Exile) after the Babri Masjid demolition, in the wake of the communal riots that took place all over India, killing over 3,000 people. 

Naseem comes out of an immense pain that the likes of Azmi and Mirza underwent after the Babri Masjid demolition; the pain arises not just out of witnessing the secular social fabric of the country being torn to bits but also from the fact Muslims were being questioned and being asked to prove their loyalties towards a country that has always been theirs.  The making of Naseem is of course a political statement but the casting of Kaifi Azmi as Naseem’s grandfather, both faces of a transient non-radicalized Islam, makes it an even stronger voice of protest against the rise of communal politics.

Communal riots in India are geared towards opposing the Constitution and establishing India as a Hindu country by killing the Muslims who stayed back in India during the Partition or threatening them to move to Pakistan. “Why didn’t you choose to move to Pakistan?” Naseem’s father (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) asks Kaifi Azmi’s character in the film. “Because your mother and I loved the tree in our backyard too much,” he replies. Naseem is an insistence that Muslims chose to live in India out of love and to overlook that love is not just heinous but also insincere and disingenuous.

History is the facts our books teach us: wars, their dates, their warriors, the fact the Hindu god Ram was born in the exact spot where the Babri Masjid was built in the 1500s, and the need to reclaim that “truth” by razing that mosque down to the ground. Naseem is Mirza’s effort at attacking that unitary idea of history. He replaces the books with stories; stories that Naseem begs her grandfather to tell her again and again. When one is regaled by stories of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Subhash Chandra Bose from their childhood, one is prone to believe that it was the efforts of these men that won India independence from the British. “We were there too,” insists Naseem’s grandfather. He then explains that when he was younger, he and his friends had burst fireworks in defiance of the curfew the British administration had declared on the day of Diwali. In another instance, unable to process the frustration of not being able to do anything for the country, he takes his British-made coat and sets it on fire. Naseem is Mirza’s way of rewriting the history that the books have handed down to us and writing in the many histories we choose to deny. It is his political acknowledgement of the fact that revolutions should not be measured by the size of their rebellions; an unnamed citizen’s defiance is as important as Gandhi’s marches, stories are as important as facts.

Mirza’s Leftist leanings have always made him side with the marginalized. The Bombay of his films is not the city of the sea and skyscrapers that Bollywood loves; it is the parallel city of dingy lanes, grimy houses, and dark lives. Mirza’s cinematic gaze is fixed upon Mohammad Ali Road, the margins of the city pushed into being a ghetto; the city of shuttered rice mills, the city of its angry people. It is this city that emerges consistently in Mirza’s Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai, 1978), Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (Why Should Albert Pinto Be Angry?, 1980), Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (Summons for Mohan Joshi, 1984) and even in his TV series Nukkad (Street Corner, 1986-87). There is a seething anger that is evident in Mirza’s earlier films; one that emerges from not fitting in, not getting what is promised, and never becoming what one wants to become. With Naseem, that anger transforms to a helpless surrender and the film becomes a dirge for everything the country could’ve been but chose not to be. 

If a less nuanced filmmaker made Naseem, they would’ve made Islam seem like the best religion in the world and Muslims, God’s chosen people. As much as Mirza is against radicalized Hindus, he draws out the myopic visions of the radicalized Muslim too. He points out how within both religions women continue to suffer under a patriarchy legitimized by the holy texts. It is, therefore, important that Naseem becomes the inheritor of her grandfather’s stories and not her brother. It is she who guards them and retells them. Mirza makes an active effort to shift the responsibilities of history-making and history-keeping to the hands of women. While Naseem rejects a world where people who engineer riots go on to attain immense political power, it also ends with a sliver of hope that people, especially young people who have grown up hearing stories, will keep questioning hegemonic ideas of history.

“If ninety percent of the so-called big budget films that have the formula for the pulse of the nation in their hands fail, who really has the pulse of the nation? Who knows what people want?” Mirza asks in the documentary. He made Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan four years after Shyam Benegal’s Ankur made the Indian New Wave speak in Hindi. Although that wave has often been called the Parallel Cinema movement, Mirza’s entire career has been spent wondering if the world of his films and those of his comrades is really the parallel to the mainstream. In fact, his films have aimed to overturn the definitions film goers have had of the world. They question how things can be considered mainstream when they only speak of the economically prosperous minority. 

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