Sunday, February 3, 2008

Mum's The Word

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


Film directors who write are a comparatively rare species. Offhand, one can think of Neil Jordan, whose The Crying Game and Mona Lisa on celluloid are matched by novels such as The Dream of a Beast and Sunrise with Seamonster. Then, of course, there was Satyajit Ray, whose Feluda and Professor Shanku characters remain popular. To this short list, you can add the name of Saeed Akhtar Mirza, whose last feature film, Naseem, appeared over a decade ago. Mirza’s book, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, isn’t strictly classifiable as a novel, being a series of vignettes comprising Sufi fables, childhood memories, re-imaginings and a short film script to boot. As he himself writes, it can be categorised as “miniatures set in a mural: a kind of reflective, personal journey set in a background of ideas, politics and history”.

The danger of such a text resembling a diaristic ragbag is always present, but Ammi does have the virtue of being loosely held together in the form of long, rambling addresses to Mirza’s deceased mother. Another problem, however, is that Mirza wears his politics on his sleeve, overloading the text with polemic. Thus, liberal, anti-materialistic and anti-communal values are openly espoused, with several asides dealing with the glories of the Ottoman Empire in its heyday as opposed to today’s free-market West. It’s not that one has a bone to pick with such attitudes; it’s just that open proselytizing weakens the spine of any book if it’s not seamlessly integrated into the narrative.

That having been said, it’s undeniable that there’s an endearing charm to much of Mirza’s unaffected prose. In particular, his imagined tale of the love story of Nusrat Beg and Jahanara, set in the Thirties and Forties, is winsome and beguiling. Also readable are some of his childhood memories, along with passages that describe his ideological awakening and his days at FTII. And his recreation of the gentle, calm Bombay that his parents arrived in to create a future for themselves is certainly evocative. At these times, one finds oneself wishing that Mirza had planned the entire volume in the form of a memoir, rather than casting his net so wide and far.

Less pleasing are the author’s many ruminations on the crassness of today’s capitalist times and the little homilies on communal tensions, particularly relating to the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the riots and subsequent bomb blasts in Mumbai. One has no quarrel with his humanistic sentiments, but his editorialising contains nothing that one hasn’t come across before in column after newspaper column.

The latter portion of the book again reveals the looseness of the structure: here, one finds pen-portraits of some of the marginal and dispossessed Indians that Mirza has encountered during his travels across the country. These are illuminating, yes, but seem to belong in quite another volume. The film script that Mirza appends to the book by way of epilogue, dealing with the plight of an Afghan refugee in the United States shortly before and after the strike on the Twin Towers, is notable for the economy with which it creates characters – but is weakened by breaking the show-don’t-tell rule in its final scenes.

In his preface, Mirza candidly confesses that his wife, Jennifer, “liked the book in many parts but somehow felt that as a whole it seemed disjointed and lacked cohesion”. Despite the revisions the author made because of this comment, it still rings true.

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