Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! works on many levels. It’s a shining example of the phase of Indian filmmaking that came to be known as parallel cinema. The movie explores problems typical of but not exclusive to Mumbai – affordable housing and the rights of tenants. It lays bare the agonies caused by a judicial system in which cases take years to be heard and resolved.
The 1984 production, written by Mirza and Yusuf Mehta, also serves as a chronicle of ageing. The renowned writer Bhisham Sahni, in his first film role, and Dina Pathak, movingly play the elderly couple who soldier on seeking justice for themselves and their neighbours. Sahni appeared in very few films, and this movie revealed that he was a natural in front of the camera.
The opening montage introduce the film’s themes of opposition and confrontation. Mumbai’s notorious contrasts, between beauty and squalor and wealth and poverty, roll out against a fake-jaunty song that sings the city’s chimeric praises.
Virendra Saini, who shot nearly all of Mirza’s films, memorably captures the chaotic nature of 1980s Mumbai. The streets are crowded and the lines for essentials long. Home, the refuge from the chaos outside, isn’t safe either. Mumbai’s inability to provide dignified housing to its residents is evident from the chawl where Mohan Joshi (Sahni), his wife Rohini (Pathak) and his extended family live. The structure is on the verge of crumbling. The wall paint has come off because of water seepage. Polluted water flows out of the taps. Wooden beams keep the ceiling in place.
The chawl owner, Kundan Kapadia (Amjad Khan), couldn’t care less. He lives in a high-rise apartment away from and above the squalor into which his tenants have been forced. When he hears the word “repairs”, he laughs long and hard.
Kapadia has a pair of black-suited promoters (Pankaj Kapur and Salim Ghouse) who advise him that it’s best to let the chawl collapse so that it can be replaced by a more expensive apartment block. The Joshis decide to take on Kapadia. They file a case against him, only to be introduced to a new set of horrors. The case drags on, the judges change, and the lawyers swallow up their money.
The movie’s tone is satirical, with the Joshis’ lawyers (Naseeruddin Shah and Satish Shah) providing the laughs. The promoters appear comical too until the moment they open their mouths and advise the couple to vacate their house and move to the far-flung suburbs. We are responsible for great economic progress, they remind the Joshis. We have cleared jungles and erected buildings that talk to the sky. We will reclaim the entire sea and build all the way till Dubai. The dialogue, crisp and filled with sorrow and rage, is by Sudhir Mishra.
Mirza doesn’t spare the chawl’s other tenants, who are self-serving and cynical and dismiss Joshi as a trouble-maker. All but one of their neighbours turn against the couple. And yet, the Joshis, relics of a Nehruvian India that has lost its ability to shield its people from corruption and injustice, refuse to lose hope.
The movie isn’t available on any streaming platform, but a couple of poor-quality links have been uploaded on YouTube. Some bits haven’t aged well. Kapadia and his cronies are portrayed as moral degenerates. The use of ironic songs is jarring.
The portions that work splendidly are the ones that expose just how broken and run-down Mumbai and the legal system are. Among the many elements in Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! that endure, it is the suggestion that in post-independent India, the courthouse isn’t very different from the crumbling chawl.