Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro is one of Mirza’s most disturbing films, exploring the contemporary identities of Indian Muslims in Mumbai, a work that serves as an extension and indirect follow up to M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. In terms of research, Mirza spent time in the deprived milieu of Bombay, interviewing many hoodlums and rogues, all of which explicate a marked authenticity in the final film. This is a film about the street, and is dedicated to influential street theatre activist and Marxist-communist Safdar Hashmi, murdered in Jan 1989 by Congress thugs. Whereas both Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Naseem (1995) can certainly be inferred as a rejoinder to the upsurge of Hindu fundamentalism, consolidating tragically in the mid 1990s with the Babri Masjid demolition, the pseudo documentary style makes the representation of the Muslim community altogether exceptional in contrast to the largely deleterious representations perpetuated by mainstream Hindi cinema. But this is a film not solely about the Indian Muslim experience; Mirza uses this doctrinally sensitive issue to explicate a deeper political fragmentation, the perpetual displacement of an Indian underclass. It is significant to note that Mirza has said the 1984 Bhiwandi riots are a catalyst for the both the anti-Muslim sentiments portrayed in the film and the emerging communal politics of the late 1980s that was being shaped by the rapid ascent of Hindutva violence.
The central character in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro plays up to the archetype of the streetwise, narcissistic rogue and impish Tapoori but is complexly drawn, emerging as a deeply contradictory figure with a profoundly despairing point of view. Salim, played with a riotously anarchic streak by Pawan Malhotra, terribly underrated as an actor, in a breakthrough role, performs the role of a wannabe local hoodlum. Mirza’s sense of milieu is devoid of any kind of cinematic romanticism and the decision to shoot in the working class district of Mumbai foregrounds the iconography of the street to take on a wider symbol of class struggle. There were a number of films made in the late 1980s and early 1990s including Dharavi (1992) and Salaam Bombay! (1988), that architecturally broadened the dynamics of the Bombay filmic space, reconfiguring the passé spatial figurations of classic Hindi cinema. The urban slum often displaced from cinema is re-centred as a form of ideological inquiry in Mirza’s Bombay. The street as a communal place, explicating a complicated bind of ethnic, religious and caste differences was first explored by Mirza and Kundan Shah in Nukkad, the seminal Doordarshan TV series, and is a key spatial and thematic feature in the film.
The call for tolerance, understanding and religious harmony is advocated strongly through the sequence in which an activist/filmmaker, a clear reference to Anand Patwardhan, screens a documentary in the ghetto on the aftermath of the Bhiwandi (narrated by Naseeruddin Shah) riots and the political realities of communalism. It is a sobering political sequence in the history of Parallel Cinema, pedagogically articulated and with a didactic clarity of which an authorial political protestation links Mirza’s work with Hamara Shahar (1985) and Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko? (1986). Ethnic violence was quite high at the time of the film’s release and with the cataclysmic events of Ayodhya only a few years away, the politics of nationalism that lurk sinisterly in the background seem to make a direct ideological correlation between Salim’s poverty and the endemic religious hatred propagated by the state. Salim does choose to reform at the end, taking up a legitimate job and arranging his sister’s wedding, but his death that comes at the hands of an old enemy bleakly suggests the Muslim community in Bombay exists precociously on the precipice of life and death. The sense of loss in Mirza’s film registers palpably but it is allusively denoted, creating an indescribably wretched dissonance.