By Jawed Naqvi
November 18th, 2014
I WATCHED Garam Hawa again the other day. When it was first released in 1973, I returned from the movie hall with renewed hope for India and, if discreetly short of a swagger, with an air of assurance for its fabled secular soul.
This time around, when it was re-released after being painstakingly retrieved from damaged negatives, I saw it with my two grown-up daughters and a Dalit cook. The girls were glued to the film but thought they saw me rubbing my eyes, perhaps wiping a tear or two with the shirtsleeve. The cook liked it but saw no reason for anyone to get emotional.
I have always admired Balraj Sahni as one of India’s great actors at par with Dilip Kumar and Motilal. Off the screen, Balraj Sahni was an unalloyed Marxist albeit of a scrupulously non-dogmatic variety. In fact, much of the team that came together to make this momentous film about Partition had their roots in the Indian People’s Theatre Association, better known as IPTA, once a hugely popular cultural adjunct of the Communist Party of India.
M.S. Sathyu directed the film and his wife Shama Zaidi co-wrote it with the late communist lyricist Kaifi Azmi. An unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai provided the plot. Charlie Chaplin and his many comrades who faced McCarthy’s witch-hunt for their egalitarian worldview or American communist chief Howard Fast, who wrote the fable of Spartacus into an iconic movie, would be proud of Sathyu’s team.
And they would be totally impressed with Balraj Sahni.
The atheist Hindu migrant from Rawalpindi plays Salim Mirza in the movie, the stoically unflappable head of a Muslim joint family in Agra caught in the throes of India-Pakistan Partition. Though the unspeakable violence and communal strife of Partition has been recorded in detail in novels, films, short stories, documentaries, Garam Hawa, roughly translated as ‘the hot winds’, gives a palpably searing view of how a reasonably happy Muslim family is slowly and inevitably torn asunder by the sheer winds of Partition. The Garam Hawa had uprooted a prosperous orchard, Mirza Sahib mumbles to the Tonga driver on their way from the train station. The two had driven there several times in recent days to see someone off to Pakistan.
As the movie opens, an emotional but quietly dignified Balraj Sahni is waving to a train carrying his elder sister to Karachi. No tears, no dialogue. Just pursed lips and a faint, philosophical smile says it all. Mirza is neither a Congress acolyte, nor does he hold a view that could be defined as hostile to the idea of Pakistan. He just loves his family and his friends, many of them Hindus.
Salim Mirza sees no reason to join those in his family who think otherwise, like his elder brother Halim Mirza, a Muslim League leader.
He sees no reason to mistrust his Hindu friends. Moreover, Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of Godse had brought nationwide communal killings to a contrite halt. Salim Mirza believes things would look up for the Muslims who had otherwise been weakened and targeted because of the exodus of others. They would be intruding on the settled lives of others in Punjab and Sindh though, a caring Salim Mirza cautions anyone among the potential migrants who cared to listen.
His daughter kills herself with a blade when two of her suitors go away to Pakistan but fail to keep their promise to marry her. The tragedy is compounded: Mirza Sahib is accused of espionage though the court later acquits him. Hindu landlords refuse him a house when Mirza has to leave his ancestral home, evicted by the state because it was registered in the name of Halim Mirza, who after a few tall claims about looking after Muslims in India, migrates to Pakistan.
Mirza’s banker tells him he could no longer promise a loan for the family’s struggling shoe factory. Too many Muslims had gone away without paying back the bank, he is told. It is true that many people have gone away, but why are you punishing those that have stayed back? Mirza’s polite query didn’t have an answer then, nor does it have one today.
The climax scene was flaunted as the backbone of the movie but the context, in my view, has changed and the response may be different today. After seeing off practically everyone, Mirza finally ponders migrating to Pakistan. The espionage charge had broken him. However, his younger son, played by Farooque Sheikh in his maiden screen appearance, sees it differently. He had done well at college though like his other classmates, including Hindus and Sikhs, he was struggling to find a job.
Farooque Sheikh (as Sikander Mirza) doesn’t want to see his parents go away to Pakistan when they needed him most so he too climbs into the horse carriage. On their way, the family encounters Sikander’s job-seeking friends in a crowd of slogan-chanting protestors. The red banners beckon Sikander. His father sees the anguish on his son’s face and lets him merge into the crowd. I think I am tired too of this lonely life, mutters Salim Mirza suddenly. Shuffling towards the energised crowd, he tells the Tonga driver to take his wife home.
Garam Hawa was an important and sensitive film on the Partition. True, it may have missed an audience in Pakistan when it was first released in 1973, not the least because the country was coming out of its own existential trauma around that time. I believe Sathyu’s film is even more relevant today. Pakistan is caught in a new existential crisis not necessarily of its own making. Across the border, in India, the inviting crowds and the reassuring banners that beckoned Salim Mirza and his son to get off the Tonga have all but disappeared.
Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.