indian cinema heritage foundation

Remembering M S Sathyu's Classic Garm Hawa

06 Jul, 2020 | Short Features by Ajay Brahmatmaj
Image Courtesy: Filmfare, February 23, 1973

Garm Hawa has a special place in the history of Indian cinema. Told with simplicity and honesty, the film explores the conflict among Muslims who did not leave India after Partition. Elegantly deploying the inherent symbolism of the Taj Mahal and the Fatehpur Sikri in Agra, once the capital of undivided India, the film tells the story of the Mirza family.

Halim and Salim Mirza are brothers. Both, with their respective families, live in their ancestral haveli, with their mother, who is quite old. Halim is a leader of the Muslim League and also the legal owner of the haveli. Salim runs a shoe factory. Salim has two sons – Bakar and Sikandar. He also has a daughter Amina, who is in love with her first cousin, Halim’s son Qasim. Their relationship abruptly comes to an end when Halim leaves with his wife and son for Pakistan.

Qasim does come back with the intention of marrying Amina, but a few days before the wedding, he is arrested for not having proper documents to stay in India and forcibly sent back to Pakistan. He does not come back. Saddened by the cruel twist of fate, Amina does not give up hope. She accepts Shamshad, another first cousin (first-born of her father’s only sister) who had been pining for her for years, and hopes to marry him soon. This relationship too doesn’t culminate into marriage. Amina kills herself. Father Salim refuses to leave India despite his daughter’s death and the false accusations of spying for Pakistan leveled against him. The atmosphere of callousness and suspicion around him has no visible effect on Salim who believes that Gandhiji’s sacrifice will not go in vain and eventually everything will be all right.
 

Shaukat Azmi and Balraj Sahni in Garm Hawa (1973). Image Courtesy: Filmfare , August 1973.
Garm Hawa is often seen as a film that ended the long silence maintained by Indian filmmakers on the splitting of the subcontinent.
Produced with the help of the state-owned Film Finance Corporation, Garm Hawa was the first film that explored the painful and torturous consequences of Partition in a political context. MS Sathyu, who was very active in IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) circles, was able to make the film within a shoestring budget by putting together a team of like-minded artists and technicians. The film is based on a story written by Ismat Chughtai. Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi wrote the screenplay. Azmi also wrote a ghazal for the film, portions of which are heard during the first and last scenes of the film. Balraj Sahni plays Salim Mirza. The supporting cast includes AK Hangal and scores of local actors from the IPTA chapter in Agra. When it was released in 1973, Garm Hawa was instantly recognised as a film that did not conform, and sailed against the winds.

Satyajit Ray wrote about Garm Hawa: “In context of the contextually-void Indian cinema, Garm Hawa has done full justice to Ismat Chugtai’s work. The film, despite having a lot of other technical issues and aesthetic shortcomings, remains a milestone in the history of Indian cinema, purely on the basis of its subject. Yet, compared with the other films released in India in 1973, Garm Hawa can be called a small film that neither had any big stars acting in it nor a conventional masala plot.”

Doubtless, numerous films were made on Partition before Garm Hawa. But in none of them does one find the filmmaker scratching the surface of reality to find deeper, truer meaning. Although in films like Lahore (1949), Apna Desh (1949), Firdaus (1953), Nastik (1954), Chhaliya (1960), Amar Rahe Yeh Pyar (1961) and Dharmputra (1961) we encounter characters affected by Partition, we do not see anything more than vague references to the event and its fallout.

It is more than a decade later with works like Govind Nilhani’s Tamas and much later, Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Pinjar that we saw stories about deaths and mass destruction that Partition had brought in its wake. In Pinjar, Dr Dwivedi’s fresh resolution to the emotional crisis of Paro is largely inspired by the original thinking of the work’s author Amrita Pritam. Anil Sharma’s Gadar (2000) is also set around the time of Partition but the film appears to be blinded by notions of nationalism. Without these exaggerations, perhaps the film could have been called a creative success to some extent.

Garm Hawa is often seen as a film that ended the long silence maintained by Indian filmmakers on the splitting of the subcontinent. The writers and director of the film explored the thinking, dilemma, perception of reality, and sociability of the average Muslim living in India. Our country is yet to fully recover from the post-independence socio-political horror. The havoc can be felt even today. To many, Partition was a consequence of the hurry and mistakes on the part of our political leaders at the time. In pursuit of power and ensuing clash of egos, Nehru and Jinnah gave little thought to lives of millions who were displaced, dispossessed and damaged forever. 66 years after independence, the pain of the affected men and women still stings our present. Animosity and mistrust have become part of our psychosis. Decades later the problems of India-Pakistan, now India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, have remained roughly the same. The seeds of these problems were sown during Partition.
The filmmakers before Garm Hawa never explored this failure of the political class, though there exists in literature a sensitive and realist portrayal of the trauma of Partition.
Based on our reasoning and belief systems we blame one or the other individual for Partition. Actually the real culprits were national leaders. In an interview with Leonard Mosli in 1960, Nehru said: “After years of fighting we were tired. Only a few of us would have agreed to a scenario where we could be jailed – a strong possibility if we fought for undivided India. Besides, we had all heard about deaths in Punjab. The plan for Partition gave us a way forward and we accepted it. We had hoped that Partition would be temporary and Pakistan will eventually join India.”

These words may sound perplexing today but they accurately articulate the prevalent viewpoint among the political class during that time. The filmmakers before Garm Hawa never explored this failure of the political class, though there exists in literature a sensitive and realist portrayal of the trauma of Partition. Unlike filmmakers, the writers in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali had made their views known: they rejected the two-nation theory. Time and again these writers brought to life on paper the pain and political neglect they saw all around them. Surprisingly none of these great writers ever found their work adapted for a film by a filmmaker.

Not only did Indian and Pakistani filmmakers stay away from the subject, international filmmakers also overlooked the colossal human tragedy. The inertia of the international film community that made scores of films on WWII and other international events is, to say the least, quite remarkable. In various television and newspaper interviews, Gulzar and Shyam Benegal have spoken about the indifference of the Hindi film industry towards Garm Hawa.

Not surprisingly the film ran into trouble. The officers of the Censor Board felt that subjects like Partition were best avoided. Quite on the contrary, filmmakers and well-informed social and political activists were very anxious to talk about issues at the root of Partition. The censors held on to the film for six months. To gather support for the film a special screening was organised for political leaders and members of Parliament. Finally on the initiative of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her Information and Broadcasting Minister I K Gujral supported the film and it was passed by the censors to be screened for general public.
Not surprisingly the film ran into trouble. The officers of the Censor Board felt that subjects like Partition were best avoided. Quite on the contrary, filmmakers and well-informed social and political activists were very anxious to talk about issues at the root of Partition.
The first scene sets the tone for the film.  A scroll reads, 1947, and the map of undivided India appears. Mahatma Gandhi’s photograph is on the screen followed by a picture of him with Lord and Lady Mountbatten, pictures of Nehru, Patel and Jinnah and the transfer of power, stills of Nehru addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, people dancing with joy celebrating independence followed by an image of the divided sub-continent. The images of Partition move swiftly over the map of the divided sub-continent. Three gunshots are heard, Gandhi’s photograph falls, and in Kaifi Azmi’s voice we hear (in translation below):

“The country partitioned and the heart came to pieces,
Tempest in every chest, over there and over here,
A funeral pyre blazing in every house,
Every town a graveyard, over there and over here,
No one read the Geeta nor the Kuran,
Religion stood perplexed, over there and over here.”

Azmi’s voice over the collage of the images of Partition gives the film a tone of decay and despondency. The sadness that came along is cemented by Gandhi’s assassination. Gandhi’s death stopped the riots in many parts of the country, which is why perhaps in the film Salim Mirza believes that Gandhiji’s sacrifice won’t go in vain, not knowing how divorced this specter of hope was from the reality around him. Muslims’ loyalty was constantly questioned and the indifference towards them did not lessen.
Salim responds, “Elder sister… Her husband is already in Karachi. Today his children have also left… How many healthy trees will be felled in this hot wind?” To which the tongawallah retorts: “Indeed the wind is quite hot, it will dry out all those who refuse to uproot themselves.” The theme of the film is to be found in these lines.
In many scenes we see this indifference. In one scene the tongawallah hikes his rates from eight annas to two rupees. When Salim objects, the tongawalla tells him, “If you want to go in eight annas, go to Pakistan.” Salim doesn’t lose his temper. “Everyone is interpreting the new found freedom in their own way,” he says. Salim’s brother decides to go to Pakistan. In a family meeting, he says: “Do a BA or an MA or do what you will, but a Muslim can’t get a job in India.” Later in the film we see Salim’s son Sikandar being rejected at job interviews.
“Do a BA or an MA or do what you will, but a Muslim can’t get a job in India.” Later in the film we see Salim’s son Sikandar being rejected at job interviews.
Salim stares fixedly at a departing train. With heavy feet he walks back to a tonga. “So, who did you come to see off today,” the tongawallah asks. Salim responds, “Elder sister… Her husband is already in Karachi. Today his children have also left… How many healthy trees will be felled in this hot wind?” To which the tongawallah retorts: “Indeed the wind is quite hot, it will dry out all those who refuse to uproot themselves.” The theme of the film is to be found in these lines. We see Salim refusing to uproot himself and his family and drying away slowly with the impact of time and circumstance.

At one point in the film Salim explains to his son that money doesn’t ask a man’s religion. Yet everyday in the city the mistrust and suspicion against them grows. A frustrated Salim asks: “Why are those who have stayed back and want to stay back being punished for those who have left?”
Only in one scene does MS Sathyu show us the face of the person who rejects Salim’s family. It is a merchant refusing them credit.
Only in one scene does MS Sathyu show us the face of the person who rejects Salim’s family. It is a merchant refusing them credit. In rest of the scenes we don’t see the faces of the oppressors: the bank manager who refuses Salim a loan, the landlord who refuses him a house for being Muslim, and the interviewer who rejects his son Sikandar, are all hidden from the camera. Only their voices are heard. There is no face to the sudden social pressure faced by the Muslims in India. Sathyu displays a lot of cinematic skill in depicting this faceless socio-political monster. The message is clear: the situation is not favourable for Muslims.

Ever since its release, a section of critics have consistently refused to consider the film as fair portrayal of the consequences of Partition. According to them the film makes no mention of the Hindus who stayed back in Pakistan. According to them the characters in the film are never seen criticizing their community for what happened. This incorrect and inconsistent reading of the film in the name of balanced depiction has led to marginalization of Garm Hawa in the sphere of public discourse. The film therefore did not spark the kind of debate and discussion it was expected to in the four decades since it was first released.
 
Image Courtesy: Ajay Brahmatmaj 
Garm Hawa impresses at many levels. The minute detailing stands out. Every character is well developed and has a motive and the way each of them move in their respective trajectories to tell the story is not just brilliant but is also an excellent example of how great stories can be transformed into greater screenplays.

Garm Hawa impresses at many levels. The minute detailing stands out. Every character is well developed and has a motive and the way each of them move in their respective trajectories to tell the story is not just brilliant but is also an excellent example of how great stories can be transformed into greater screenplays. The casting of the film is also near perfect and it is difficult to imagine any other actor playing any of the characters. The film doesn’t take an emotional route to show the extent of damage in the Mirza household. At no point in the film does Sathyu try and create sympathy in the mind of the audience for a broken Salim either. Dealing with the absurdity around him Salim doesn’t look visibly disturbed. He doesn’t even pay attention to people’s comments. He blames everything on the situation rather than poisoning his own mind. The character Sathyu makes us sympathize with most is Amina. We are shocked by her suicide. Eschewing melodrama Sathyu shows Salim react to Amina’s death with nothing more than a slight movement of the eyes.
The character Sathyu makes us sympathize with most is Amina. We are shocked by her suicide. Eschewing melodrama Sathyu shows Salim react to Amina’s death with nothing more than a slight movement of the eyes.
Salim belongs to the generation when men looked at matters outdoors and women indoors. The women in his family have a very different understanding of Partition. For them their world is the haveli they live in. Salim’s mother for instance doesn’t believe Partition has taken place and that soon the Indian government will confiscate her haveli where she had been living ever since she came in as a young bride in a palanquin. The mansion’s legal owner Halim Mirza has gone to Pakistan. At the time of leaving, the old woman hides herself in a corner of the house.
M S Sathyu. Image Courtesy: AJAY Brahmatmaj
By now Salim’s wife understands Partition better. In hushed tones she talks about going to Pakistan but doesn’t openly oppose her husband’s better judgment. After Amina’s suicide, when Salim finally decides to go to Pakistan, his wife complains that if Salim had made up his mind earlier, their daughter would have been alive.

The climax of Garm Hawa is both symbolic as well as political. Tired of the social opposition, Salim says: “People don’t cross paths with me. They get up and leave when they see me come in. People turn their faces away when they see me. There is a limit to everything. I now know that it is impossible to live in this country.”

Salim decides to go to Pakistan with his wife and son but Sikandar opposes him and says, “We should not leave India but stay here and fight for our rights with the common man.” Salim pays no attention to his son. The next day we see him at the Taj Mahal with moist eyes as if all his pain is flowing with his tears. Finally he sits in a tonga to go to the station with his wife and son. On the way they see a public demonstration. A slogan is heard: “India wants food, shelter and clothing.” Salim now accepts what his son had said earlier. Salim says: “Go on son, I won’t stop you. Man cannot live alone for long. I am also tired of this isolation. Take the tonga back….” Sending his wife back home on the Tonga, he too joins the demonstration with his son. Again Azmi’s voice is heard (translated below):

“Those who witness the storm from afar
For them the storm is there and here too
Join the flow and flow like one
That’s the call of the time there and here too.”

This piece has been translated from Hindi by screenwriter and columnist Mayank Tewari

 

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फिल्म समीक्षक,रिसर्चर और यूट्यूबर अजय ब्रह्मात्मज पॉपुलर फिल्मों से परहेज नहीं करते. अजय की  कोशिश है कि पॉपुलर फिल्मों को समझा जाए और उन्हें  गहन एवं गंभीर विषय का दर्जा दिया जाए.उनकी दो पुस्तकें 'सिनेमा समकालीन सिनेमा' और 'सिनेमा की सोच' वाणी प्रकाशन से प्रकाशित हो चुकी हैं. 'ऐसे बनी लगान',(सत्यजीत भटकल),'जागी रातों के किस्से'(महेश भट्ट) और 'जीतने की ज़िद'(महेश भट्ट) उनकी अनूदित पुस्तकें। नॉट नल से पतली पुस्तक सीरीज में फिल्मों,फिल्मकारों और कलाकारों पर 10 ईबुक प्रकाशित।
फिलहाल स्तम्भ लेखन और समीक्षा में सक्रिय।


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