A cursory search of the term ‘chawl’ offers a definition of ‘low quality housing’, which can’t be any further from the truth regarding the abject state of housing for the lower and underclass in India. What chawl actually equates to is poor sanitation, overcrowding, cramped living conditions and squalor. Saeed Mirza’s 1984 work Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! is a didactic socio-political satire that was made around the same time as Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), and which shares much of the crew including Mirza and Shah who collaborated on a series of projects through the 1980s. Mirza aims squarely at both the state of housing and rampant corruption in the judicial system, adopting a semi realist approach with use of on location shooting at Taher Manzil (Do Tanki) and Goregaonkar Chawl (Dadar) in Bombay, imbuing the narrative with an unembellished level of authenticity.
Anchored in Bhisham Sahni’s dignified performance as Mohan Joshi, an aging unyielding one-man activist who takes on a fraudulent landlord – Kundan Kapadia (Amjad Khan) may have been a risk since Sahni was a writer by trade and possessed little acting experience. Nonetheless, being the brother of Balraj Sahni certainly testified the acting gene was shared with Bhisham who exudes a pathos that is disarming. The gist of the narrative hinges on Mohan Joshi’s stop start attempts to sue Kapadia saab for his totalizing neglect and refusal to maintain the chawl in which Joshi inhabits along with his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Mirza opens with a scornful montage of Bombay celebrating the city for its glaring contradictions and which are juxtaposed to the playful lyrics of a song that talks of pride, identity and despair. One of the first shots is of a wagon but as the camera begins to rotate, we slowly recognise the wagon is in fact on its side, a casualty of a vehicle accident, coming to symbolise the duplicitous, topsy turvy nature of events that will transpire but also illustrating the disorderly demeanour of Bombay. As the montage progresses images of people sleeping on the roads and pavements become more frequent and when juxtaposed to the piercing lyrics: ‘This is heaven…’, the idealistic tone gives way to something far more pessimistic.
Cue Joshi’s entry down a flight of wooden steps in the run down chawl, narrowly avoiding water cascading down from a burst pipe. Joshi’s low-key entry radiates an ordinariness but a refusal to back down, to resist, is tied up in Sahni’s real life history as a social activist who not only worked with the IPTA in the 1940s but was also a member of the Communist Party of India. As Joshi makes his way through the chawl, Mirza cuts to a series of establishing shots that are strikingly unfiltered, extenuating the rawness of an indigent milieu. Spurred on by an early morning conversation with a fellow resident in which the courts could help elevate their sense of social deprivation, Joshi is determined to take on the landlord as a matter of principle. As he walks back to the chawl, the inner monologue points to altruistic, socialist inclinations, with Joshi musing that resistance would benefit all of the tenants.
Nonetheless, Joshi’s political idealism is dismissed by his family who either don’t have the time to challenge the landlord or simply live in a state of subjugation. Joshi is joined by his wife and partner Rohini (Dina Pathak) from whom he draws a collective strength, and together they certainly seem to represent a bygone age of questioning the status quo and trying to make the system accountable for their crimes. In this respect, Joshi appears to be the exact opposite of Salim (Balraj Sahni) in Garam Hava (1973), although they both share an unwavering stoicism and self-respect. Joshi’s belief in collective action and community intervention is best captured when he visits the residents of the chawl, trying in vain to get names on a petition that can be used in court to evidence the landlord’s refusal to carry out repairs. Only one resident chooses to sign the petition, reiterating both a widespread disillusionment with civil institutions and a sense of dread that comes with going up against the treacherous landlord.
The figure of the zamindar has often been a popular source of on-screen villainy in popular Hindi cinema, and Kapadia is represented as a contemporary variation of this archetypal convention. Seeing a major star like Amjad Khan pop up in such a low budget independent film is clearly surprising but his imposing on-screen presence as the abhorrent Kapadia is a master stroke of casting and was a real coup given his significant star status. Kapadia’s constant pushback is largely programmed by two promoters (Pankaj Kapur and Salim Ghouse) who are cartoonish manifestations of an outrageously ruthless capitalist neoliberal India that was beginning to chomp through the Bombay landscape, displacing families, uprooting communities and trampling on the rights of the lower classes in order to make way for a wretched blood-soaked skyline of high-rise deluxe apartments. Mirza depicts a tainted system that empowers landlords while institutions like the repair board which are supposed to be providing a public service for the greater good are riddled with delay and effectively ruined.
Much of the narrative is played out in the confines of the courts with Mirza parodying a judicial process that puts up endless obstacles and ties itself up in a maze of bureaucratic red tape that only benefits those with infinite resources at their disposal. The farcical nature of intervention that never transpires to resolve the inhospitable and dangerous living conditions snowballs into an epic six-year court battle that culminates in an over egged visit by the judge proceeding over the case to the chawl to bear witness to the intolerable state of things. The defence and prosecution are inept as each other, using Joshi’s sincerity as a means of massaging their irrespective egos and wallowing in an unholy resignation. Advocate Malkani (Naseeruddin Shah) is the epitome of faux middle-class piousness, taking up Joshi’s cause so that he can revel in financial exploitation while pretending to empathise with the cause of the oppressed.
Upon recognising the gravitas of the judge’s impending visit Kapadia acts speedily to adorn the chawl with an impromptu lick of paint with the aim of hoodwinking the judge into thinking the chawl is not as bad as it has been made out by Joshi and the prosecuting advocates. Unsurprisingly, the judge’s visit descends into a charade with both parties exchanging a beat box parade of empty nothings. In the very end it falls upon the demoralised Joshi to ratify a final act of desperation, tearing down the wooden stilts propping up the chawl and triggering a partial collapse, his body engulfed by the rubble and fleetingly silencing the machinations of hegemonic structures and power.
With a screenplay co-written by Sudhir Mishra, dialogues by Ranjit Kapoor and Kundan Shah as consultant, Mohan Joshi… was a continuing collaboration between a close knit group of very talented artists who were central to the evolution of Parallel Cinema through the 1980s, a period where we saw the satire form used repeatedly as a vehicle for wider social and political dissent, and which subjectively in many ways was in spirit echoing the absurdist influences of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome.