By Subhash K Jha
Film: Garam Hawa
Stars: Balraj Sahni, Shaukar Azmi, Gita Siddharth, Farooq Shaikh
Director: M. S. Sathyu
Rating: *****(5 stars)
MUMBAI: Very few Indian films have had the enduring impact of M S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. This is the kind of rare cinema that serves the very core purpose of art.And now this tale of imperishable resonance comes to us in a restored digitally mastered avatar.
Welcome back, Sathyu.
It stimulates the heart, stirs the soul, lifts the spirit and pricks the conscience. Dealing with Muslim pride and Islamic isolation during times of the stress and separation of the Partition, the relevance of Garam Hawa resonates to this day. Over 65 years after independence, and the Muslim population of India is yet to secure that sense of belonging which the Indian Constitution had promised during the time of the Partition.
M S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa brought in furious winds of change in Hindi cinema and its approach and attitude to the theme of Muslim isolation in pre-Partition India. Though it is set in Agra just after the division of India into two separate countries, Garam Hawa doesn’t focus on the riots and bloodshed that followed the decisive moment in history. Sathyu’s film,brilliantly written by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi, seeks to pin down the violence that the community experienced from within their own hearts and souls. That sense of agonized isolation when history seems to have betrayed a whole community and its people comes vividly alive in Garam Hawa as Salim Mirza(Balraj Sahni) watches his family torn apart as one by one they all leave,most of them for across the border and a beloved daughter for the other world.
Heartbreak is a constant in the narration. But the sound of the broken heart is muffled in the aggressive voices of politicians and religious leaders seeking to establish their own self-interest in a nation that desperately needed selfless leaders in the post-Gandhian era.
“Aaj kissko chhod ke aaye ho, Miyan?” Salim Mirza’s faithful tongawallah asks when he emerges broken-hearted from the railway station. At this point I somehow couldn’t help thinking about Kaifi Azmi’s immortal lines of Sahir Ludhianvi for Guru Dutt in Kagaz Ke Phool. Dekhi zamanein ki yaari bichde sabhi baari-baari.
Indeed, Guru Dut could have made Garam Hawa if he hadn’t decided to make Chaudvin Ka Chand , a sugary ode to that tawdry artificial Islamic oddity of Indian cinema known as the Muslim Social. Garam Hawa was a film that needed to be made. It had a relevance beyond history and politics at that point in time when Hindi cinema was busy rediscovering its roots, trying to find a reason to be real rather than wrapped up in fantasies.
This film is as real as Indian cinema gets. The crowded mohallas and streets of Agra are shot in documentary style. But the characters don’t seem to occupy that dispassionate space that documentaries are known to nurture. Though they are part of world that seems free of cinematic affectations the people in Sathyu’s cinema seem to represent the purest form of cinema in their ability to convey emotional home-truths with a directness and transparency that dissolves the distance between the screen and the audience.
We are without fuss taken into the world of Mirza’s family. We learn soon enough that Ameena (Geeta Siddharth) is the apple of Salim Mirza’s eyes. Co-writer Kaifi Azmi drew liberally from his own gentle and sensitive relationship with his daughter Shabana Azmi. And Balraj Sahni, that actor-extraordinaire who didn’t seem to be acting at all, drew from his own relationship with daughter Shabnam who, like Ameena in the film, committed suicide.
In the sequence where Balraj Sahni had to react to his beloved daughter’s death, the director M.S.Sathyu asked Sahni to emote as if his own daughter had died.
Cruelty in art often begets brilliance. Balraj Sahni’s performance in Garam Hawa epitomizes the spirit of unadorned brilliancy. He gets into Salim Mirza’s skin, imbibing his character’s skills as a shoe manufacturer with as much dexterity as absorbing Mirza’s inner life.
Troubled by the strife of a community isolated in their own land, Salim Mirza never buckles under. When his shoe factory is burnt down he gets down to basics, and starts making shoes on the floor with a core group of labourers.When his wife (played with outstanding conviction by Shaukat Azmi) berates him for staying on in a country that no longer seems to care for him, Salim smiles a sad pained smile. It hints at a world that we’ve created where victimization and isolation are a given.
Garam Hawa uses meager resources to its advantage. The homes, first Mirza’s ancestral home, and then the smaller rented place bought after the ancestral home is taken away, are so real you can smell the rotis in the chulha from the kitchen and the scent of jalebis and pakodas wafting in from the street down below. Sathyu shot on the streets of Agra guerrilla style, since permission was denied to shoot a film on the volatile subject of the Indian Muslim’s isolation .
Again this denial of creative freedom worked to the film’s advantage. It brought to the narration a sense of urgency and inevitability.
There is also an aura of immense poignancy in the predicament of this suddenly-displaced people. The sequence where Salim Mirza’s old mother hides in the kitchen and refuses to evacuate their ancestral home is to this day recalled for its emotional velocity.Sathyu’s film never uses these moments to generate sentimentality. Throughout we sense the feeling of suspended despair brought upon a people who desperately want to hold to their sense of belonging.
Garam Hawa is many things at the same time. It’s an evocative mirror of a people who chose to stay on when the land was divided . To this day it remains the only truly authentic look at the Indian Muslim without stereotyping or, Allah forbid, making him part of the La-la-Land known as the Muslim Social where the characters wear sequins and mouth Hai Allah and Tauba Tauba, as though they were rehearsing for parts in a highschool skit based on comic books about nawabs and houris.
Garam Hawa is also a love story. It is the intense tragic story of Ameena’s two aborted relationships, first with her cousin Kazim (Jamal Hashmi), her childhood sweetheart who’s stolen away by Pakistan, and then her ardent suitor Shamshad (Jalal Agha) who leaves the country promising to return but never does. The second betrayal kills Ameena.
Finally, in a bizarre evocation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There None, Salim is left in India with only his wife and younger son,the rebellious Sikandar (Farouq Shaikh) who refuses to leave India for “greener pastures”(read: Pakistan). In Sikandar writers Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi represented the voice of the young Indian Muslim. Sikandar won’t turn his back on his homeland and run away.
The film ends on a note of heart wrenching optimism when Salim Mirza changes his mind at the last minute about leaving the country.
Did he make a mistake in staying on? The question resonates across the film’s epic canvas . You really don’t know if Mirza should have stayed on. But you do know that the man’s innate dignity and decorum, his sense of moral and political propriety would see him withstand the most searing cyclones of communal dissension.
Balraj Sahni as Salim Mirza gives what many film experts consider the one single-most flawless performance in the history of Hindi cinema. He gets into the skin of his character and inhabits the inner-most recesses of Salim Mirza’s soul. You really don’t see Balraj Sahni on the screen. You see this Muslim patriarch of a disintegrating family who never stops believing his God even when He seems busy elsewhere.
Garam Hawa is not just a cinematic experience. It is much more. It is a treatise on life’s most precious emotions. Unfiltered, raw and still hurting.
These are wounds that never healed. And never will.