Saeed Akhtar Mirza retired from filmmaking in 1995 with Naseem. It was an unexpected departure for a filmmaker who had been a key player in the parallel cinema movement. Was it creative exhaustion or disillusionment with the corrosive wider social and political dimensions that led to Mirza’s departure? Mirza says he felt like he had nothing else left to say and Naseem was made as an epitaph to his career as a filmmaker. The body of work produced during the 70s, 80s and 90s often articulated the anxieties of the Muslim experience in India with films such as Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), a film which I have written about at length in a previous post. Mirza’s representations of Muslims living in India in a period of intense communalism were rare and distinctive in their depiction of an underclass reality, and one which Mirza situated as part of a broader class struggle.
Naseem is one of Mirza’s most personal films and thankfully the film has finally been digitally restored and released on DVD as part of a slew of NDFC films. Naseem is the name of a young Muslim girl who spends her time listening to the contemplative and poetic stories recalled by her ailing grandfather, played by lyricist and poet Kaifi Azmi (who also contributed to the script of Garam Hava) in a rare screen role. Events are set in 1992, slowly leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the external turmoil of the communal rioting creates a deeply unsettling mood throughout. The narrative unfolds largely through the eyes Naseem with much of the action focused on her interactions at school and at home with her friends and family. The grandfather remains on his bed throughout the film, observing and commenting on the world around him. His presence is a symbolic one, representing not only the past but offering an example of a Muslim who has experienced the trauma of partition yet who has also witnessed a time when co existence was the norm. Such norms are tested by the rioting that the family witnesses on television, fearing for their lives and feeling increasingly isolated because of their faith.
When Mushtaq, the oldest of the family, brings home a friend, a debate ensues about what the proper reaction should be from the Muslim community. Mushtaq’s friend Zafar (Kay Kay Menon in one of his first roles) is a symbolic contrast to the grandfather, representing the future and the emerging radicalisation of Muslim youth. When Zafar says Muslims are being butchered on the streets, the grandfather sceptically replies that it is not just Muslims but the poor who are in fact being murdered. Such wisdom can do little to ease the outrage of the rioting which continues unabated. A constant threat emerges to Naseem as her movements become restricted due to her brother’s feeling that they could be attacked. The final sequence is by far the most moving with Mirza staging the death of the old Muslim secularist patriarch (the grandfather) to the jingoistic demolition of the Babri Mosque. In many ways, Mirza positions the demolition of the Babri Mosque as a turning point in the history of a new India, signalling the erosion of co existence, the intensification of communalism and an age of uncertainty for Muslims who live in India; it is a powerful political statement about what was about to unleashed with the rise of Hindutva and where we are today in Modi’s India of ethnic cleansing and state sponsored genocide of Muslims. There is no doubting that Naseem belongs alongside Garam Hawa in its realistic and complex depiction of the Muslim family.