"No one wants to watch depressing, real things."- Saeed Akhtar Mirza
Saeed Akhtar Mirza is a film director and screenwriter known as a Leftist-Sufi. Mirza was an important part of India’s parallel cinema movement in the 1980s and made iconic films like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai, Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. He also directed Nukkad, a TV show set in Mumbai during the ’80s, which is regarded as one of the greatest political satires on Indian television. In a conversation with Hardnews, Mirza touches upon why Indian television is the way it is today and how the characters of Nukkad would have dealt with demonetisation.
In your show, the nukkad was represented as a multi-religious space working, living and celebrating together. A lot has changed in the city since you wrote the show in the mid-1980s, do you think such spaces still exist? Or have they been done away with in the post-Babri Masjid moment and with the rise of the Shiv Sena?
In some ways, it still does exist in some neighbourhoods in Bombay; however, in that particular time, it was far more prevalent. The neighbourhood showed in the show was visible everywhere during the 1970s and ’80s. Since then, there has been a movement away from them which has been accompanied by a very particular ghettoisation of the mind. After 1993, a lot of things changed demographically in a place like Mumbai, seemingly the first casualty were neighbourhoods like the one shown in Nukkad. The break is disturbing and a lot has changed.
What has contributed to the withering of these spaces?
The writing on the wall came a lot before the Babri Masjid demolition. It was instead an announcement of these forces coming to the fore. The rise of the Shiv Sena was chauvinistic and sectarian, but Nukkad wasn’t so much a counter to them but the general communal agenda across the country. If you read reports since 1947, there have been something like 47,000 riots, which include large-scale and small-scale skirmishes. That was 10 years ago, and if the recent figures emerge the numbers will be double. It includes caste, communal and linguistic riots, the number is a hell of a lot. Nukkad stood by the Constitution of India and we held it somewhat sacred.
The State today represents the interests of each section of the people who have no interest in the lives of ordinary people. It has to be aspirational, that’s why you have ‘acche din’ (better times) or ‘India Shining’. It’s a political philosophy. You cannot have a P Sainath, Rana Ayyub or an Arundhati Roy come and disturb the view, this wonderful image.
It has been over 30 years since Nukkad aired, do you think the themes that you chose are still relevant in everyday life in cities across India?
Sometimes I am made to wonder when people pose this question to me, when some people say that the ideas became outdated with the coming of liberalisation and the market, but I felt incredibly vindicated with the win of the Aam Aadmi Party. It vindicated what we wanted to say in 1984, and it proved that we weren’t too far off. What happened three or four years ago proved that we weren’t irrelevant. In other words, it was possible for the issues we raised to be relevant today. Another related point is, can people raise the questions we did then, today?
The aam aadmi [common man] is being ignored, and what he did was to revolt against the system, it was a revolt against the established corroded system. There are a lot of problems with the Aam Aadmi Party but what they proved was that there was a hunger for change.
How was it to work with Doordarshan then? Why are such shows not made on private channels such as Zee or STAR anymore?
With globalisation, the nature of the content is determined by the people who put their ads onto a programme. What can you sell on a programme, the advertising content is determined by what is shown. For example, a show has a kind of a house, a kind of family, a kind of a grandfather and grandmother that look incredibly aspirational, and when the ads come into play it matches the content of the serial. What would you do with ‘losers’? Content is determined by the type of people who back content and also the mindset of the people who are going to make it. The moment you have corporates coming into the making of the content, you will have a certain form of content being made. Therefore, the content is determined by the backers. People will never get what they want and never like what they get. Absolutely, there was a freedom that DD gave us, but Nukkad was taken off air because we cut too close to the bone. Rajiv Gandhi said we were getting too political and we were taken off air. Also, the last episode we did in the first section, the entire nukkad was being brought down because some developer had taken over, we were told to get off air. We decided to demolish the set. The future is going to be an outcome of the development we have seen today because it is an indication of what is going to happen.
The State today represents the interests of each section of the people who have no interest in the lives of ordinary people. It has to be aspirational, that’s why you have ‘acche din’ (better times) or ‘India Shining’. It’s a political philosophy. You cannot have a P Sainath, Rana Ayyub or an Arundhati Roy come and disturb the view, this wonderful image
How has liberalisation changed the way we watch TV?
The kind of content you get on other platforms and other online media, not only television but on Facebook or YouTube, iTunes, it will be matched in some sort of way. Fundamentally, it has a political and economic philosophy behind it: thou shall not question the state of affairs. Fundamentally, you shall not engage with the way things are. The young people today see the future with a lot of anxiety, it’s tough getting a job that you genuinely want. Graduation is not the road to salvation, one can ask where are the jobs? It is impossible to get a living wage or find a life of dignity. So then how is graduation (getting a bachelor’s degree) the path to betterment? Where will this frustration lead to, how will the anger and energy be channelised? I believe it will be channelised to sectarian and communal intent. The biggest rural employers are security guard companies. So do people want to watch any of this? No. Why? Because this isn’t the dream. No one wants to watch depressing, real things.
How do you think the idea of the working class that you represented in the ’80s has changed now?
The working class’s back has been broken. We have moved from the production line to the service industry. Other than a small automotive industry, what do we produce any longer? We don’t. The rest has been smashed either by the Chinese imports or by someone else. The manufacturing base has gone out of the window. It has changed the way the working class feels. The liftman, the doorman, the security guard, they are all immaterial to the narrative. I read somewhere that there are 69 jobs available and three and a half lakh people have applied for them. When I see the image of the political class, when I see the saffron-clad chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, I ask myself what does he represent to the people of the state? And I sometimes wonder what have the people of UP got before? It is a roll call of thugs, where does one turn?
I saw this coming a long time ago. The Babri Masjid was a tipping point. Every political party has used the same people who brought down the Babri Masjid, they have used these storm troopers.
The biggest rural employers are security guard companies. So do people want to watch any of this? No. Why? Because this isn’t the dream. No one wants to watch depressing, real things.
How would Nukkad have dealt with demonetisation?
There was an episode of the show, where one beggar went to ask a bank for a loan. The drunk had pushed him to go and ask for it and told him, Go, get money because even a begging place is being sold. So the beggar asks, Why would a bank give me a loan? The drunk says, “Idiot, you’re doing samaj sewa (social work), you’re removing the guilt of people. Why wouldn’t the bank give you a loan?” So he goes to the bank and pretends to be a person working for society. At some point, while asking for money, they want to know how many zeroes there are in one thousand and the drunk promptly suggests, “Just to not make a mistake let’s add two more.” Suddenly it’s 10 lakh and they get a loan!
Demonetisation wouldn’t have affected them, in a sense. I believe that when you talk about a thousand-rupee note being changed, I don’t think they dealt with demonetisation. There would have been a Nukkad solution to it, they would have a street solution to it. They could have stood at the front of the line and taken 10 percent. All the people who had chunks of money used their drivers, servants, mistresses to get them cleared, they got all their money through.
It’s telling that Nirav Modi has turned out to be a thug. He was always a thug. But the common man might not think like that. For the longest time, the Indian cricket team had a Sahara banner on their chest. Didn’t anyone see the irony? I saw it. I couldn’t stop laughing. All the top film stars who were running around with him, where are they now?
How would Nukkad have reacted to GST?
I don’t know how they would have reacted to GST, but I know for a fact that they would have found a way to not pay it.