By Arun Fulara. Posted on October 10, 2017
As seminal a moment as the Partition is in our history and as important and relevant its impact on our collective psyche, the event has barely been commemorated in our cinema. As if an unspoken understanding existed amongst filmmakers in our post-partition history to not depict the horrendous events that followed in its aftermath. Maybe it made sense then. The nation was new and fragile and the wound, too deep and fresh to be scratched at. However, what doesn’t make sense is why Hindi cinema continued to ignore this most momentous event of the 20th century in the sub-continent’s history. There’ve been just a handful of films made in Bollywood around partition and amongst these, M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The film follows the declining fortunes of Salim Mirza, a Muslim shoe merchant in Agra, in the immediate aftermath of the Partition and his struggles to retain a life of dignity in an increasingly hostile environment. The creation of Pakistan has split the Muslim community into two, with some of them leaving their homes in India to build new lives in the newly formed nation. Salim Mirza, however, refuses to leave what he rightfully believes is his homeland. The animosity, according to him, is transient and will blow over but not everyone in his family agrees with him. Mirza stumbles from one setback to another, professional as well as personal, till he’s lost everything and everyone close to him to either Pakistan or death. Broken and dispirited, he finally agrees to move to Pakistan but changes his mind at the last moment as he sees a group of young men protesting for change.
Novelistic in its approach, the film paints a vivid picture of what it meant to be an Indian Muslim in those tumultuous times. As serious as the theme is, the film is surprisingly humorous. It’s as much a portrait of an old-world North Indian family dealing with change and crisis as it is the story of partition. Sathyu beautifully captures the dynamics of the various relationships that exist in the Mirza household through scenes and dialogues that feel organic.
The film is Indian to the core in its use of motifs and melodrama, but it does bring to mind the Italian neo-realist cinema of Vittorio De Sica. Post-war depredations, the despair of a common man with old-world values struggling in a new society full of strife, and the slow unraveling of his world are things it has in common with both Umberto D and Bicycle Thieves. While De Sica explores his world through the lens of class, Sathyu does it through that of religion.
Made on limited funding from NFDC coupled with money borrowed from friends, the film is sadly, as relevant today, as it was then. The film screened last week in Mumbai in the presence of Sathyu and Shama Zaidi, the writer of the film, both of whom spoke with the audience post the screening.
MS Sathyu and Shama Zaidi during the making of Garm Hava
“Films are not made just with money, they are made with ideas”, said Sathyu to a query on how they managed to pull off the film in such a small budget. He might have added ‘conviction’ to it for all the actors in the film worked for almost next-to-no-money. It’s a political film made by a cast and crew full of IPTA members. From Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi who wrote the film to Balraj Sahni, AK Hangal and Shaukat Azmi who played key roles in it to the supporting cast filled with theater actors from Delhi and Agra, almost all of them subscribed to the progressive left-leaning ideology of IPTA.
Recounting the journey of the film, Zaidi said that it started when the writer Rajinder Singh Bedi suggested that a film should be made on those Muslims who’d chosen to stay behind post the partition. Ismat Chugtai, the famous Urdu writer, wrote the first draft of the story and promptly lost it. She wrote another draft, slightly different this time and handed it over to Zaidi to flesh it out into a screenplay. Luckily for Zaidi, she’d read the first draft and used elements from both to write the final screenplay in collaboration with Kaifi Azmi.
“We don’t make historical films and even when we do, they are launda-laundi films. Like Mughal-e-Azam is a love story, not a historical film”, said Zaidi when asked why we shy away from making period films.
The film remained stuck at the censor board for over ten months as the board feared that it could raise communal tensions in the country. Only when the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had seen the film and loved it, did it eventually release. In a delicious twist of irony it won the National Award for the best film on National Integration in 1974. The film travelled to Cannes and competed for the Palme D’Or and was also India’s entry to the Academy Awards in 1974.
The film serves as a mirror to our times and the climax of the film may yet hold a solution for those of us who despair of the growing polarization today. Instead of outraging from the confines of our bedrooms and cubicles, we may be better served by joining those who are raising a voice against injustice.