A meeting with the maker of the classic Partition film
Shama Zaidi and MS Sathyu in their Bengaluru home (Photo: Samuel Rajkumar)
THERE IS A SCENE IN GARM HAVA (1973) where the tongawala asks Salim Mirza as he emerges from the railway station, “Who did you bid goodbye to today?” It is 1947 and the Muslims of Agra are confronted with the fact of Partition. His brother, Halim Mirza, an All-India Muslim League member, has left for Pakistan despite publicly proclaiming otherwise. Now, Salim Mirza’s elder son, Baqar, too, has departed for Pakistan, tired of trying to salvage the family’s shoe manufacturing business. “What courage! Your heart is being sundered but you stay on… What cruel times are these!” To the tongawala, and in fact, to everyone, it seems irrational for a Muslim to stay put any longer. The economic and social pressures on the Mirza family continue to mount, but Salim Mirza refuses to join the ranks of bourgeois Muslims migrating to Karachi in search of opportunity. Ousted from his ancestral home—Halim is the legal owner, and after his departure, the state now considers it evacuee property—and unable to raise capital to keep his business afloat as creditors come to regard every Muslim as a flight risk, the placid, ageing patriarch shrugs off petty attempts to upbraid him for being a god-fearing, secular man who believes he should continue to live in dignity in his ‘watan’. Even after he is manhandled by a mob and accused, preposterously, of spying for Pakistan, he rejects his wife Jameela’s umpteenth attempt to get him to leave. “If we leave now,” he says, breaking the fourth wall and making the viewer an active ingredient in the postcolonial othering of the Indian Muslim, “they will think I was guilty, after all”. The lacerating grief of losing his darling daughter, Aamina, to suicide, after she is thwarted in love, finally makes the country inhospitable for Salim Mirza. The lover across the border who had promised to whisk her away, abandoned her to marry another, just as an earlier suitor had upon moving to Pakistan. As the last of the Mirzas, including the youngest son, Sikandar, who is unable to land a job in spite of his qualifications, prepare to leave the land of their forefathers, the tonga comes upon a people’s march demanding jobs. The young man seeks his father’s approval before joining the sea of protesters raising slogans in the hope of a better future. Then comes a moment within which is concentrated the entire content of Salim Mirza’s life—he tells Jameela he is tired of living in isolation, sends the tonga home with her, and reunites with the larger family he was about to leave behind. Kaifi Azmi’s verse frames the climax:
Those who view the storm from afar
For them the storm is both here and there
To join in and become part of it
This is the call of the times, both here and there
MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava is much more than a Partition film. It is at once a sensitive social drama about middle-class Muslim lives, a classical celebration of the human spirit, a time capsule of the monumental poetry and the diverse culture of Agra, and a search for what it means to be free and to belong. Where would we find such quietly optimistic characters like Salim Mirza—portrayed by the inimitable Balraj Sahni—today? “We wouldn’t,” says Sathyu’s wife Shama Zaidi, who co-wrote the script with Ismat Chughtai and Kaifi Azmi. “But then, we wouldn’t find the kind of optimism that was there in Naya Daur either. It is not just Garm Hava—generally, there was an optimism to the films made until the 1970s. The first generation of filmmakers expected that with freedom, we would get everything, and we didn’t.”
Zaidi and Sathyu’s old apartment in the heart of Bengaluru mirrors their expansive lives—there are framed old sketches of scenes from Maxim Gorky’s Mother, MF Husains, Filmfare awards that serve as doorstops, and shelves stacked with well-worn books in Urdu. A half-century since Sathyu and Zaidi set out to make the film, Garm Hava continues to serve as a classic example of what stories are capable of. “In one way, it is just the story of a family that has to make choices. More than anything, it is a sentimental look at the ups and downs of their lives as they navigate a cataclysmic moment in history. Of course, it becomes even more relevant today because of the communal forces that exist,” says Sathyu, 93. Garm Hava is regarded as Sathyu’s best work, though he went on to design for and work in theatre, and made such critically acclaimed films as Bara (1982), based on UR Ananthamurthy’s eponymous novel. “Sometimes it so happens that you reach your peak in the very first attempt. If you take Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, he could never reach that kind of a peak even though he made many good films. India had simply not seen that kind of cinema.” With Garm Hava, Sathyu and Zaidi wanted to break new ground by making a historically accurate Partition film set in Uttar Pradesh, not Punjab or Bengal, and recreating the life of the middle-class Muslim of the time with veracity. “You see, Punjabis who had migrated to Pakistan did not accept Muslims from other parts of India. Those from UP went to Karachi. Also, whereas from Punjab, people of all social classes migrated to Pakistan, from UP, only aristocrats and the middle class could leave. The poor of the Hindi-speaking areas did not go to Pakistan,” says Zaidi, 83.
It is not just Garm Hava—generally, there was an optimism to the films made until the 1970s, says Shama Zaidi, , who co-wrote the script with Ismat Chughtai and Kaifi Azmi
HARDLY ANYONE SAW GARM HAVA IN THE beginning. “It didn’t get a proper distribution. Some people, including politicians who thought they had been portrayed in the film, tried to stall it. LK Advani, who wrote in a review that we got money from Pakistan to make the film, later admitted he hadn’t actually watched it at the time. It was much later that the film picked up awards and got invited to festivals,” says Zaidi. Restored and re-released in 2014, the film is perhaps one of the most accessible of New Wave films that were rooted in real issues.
“Garm Hava is not a simple or transparent film. It explores what life as a young woman growing up in small-town Agra was like. A handful of films of that era, including Sara Aakash (1969) and Uski Roti (1969) trained our gaze away from metro centres and took us to another India that we did not typically encounter in mainstream films. And by taking us to those settings, asked us to consider what citizenship meant in those places,” says Rochona Majumdar, a historian of modern India and author of Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony (2021). “Today, with the rise of OTT platforms, we have many interesting stories from small towns and from different social groups. One could argue that Garm Hava was a pioneer in this sense—it spoke to an India in transition.” Majumdar, a professor at the University of Chicago, says that what Garm Hava, in particular, communicates powerfully a set of values that are no doubt Nehruvian and secularist, but without a complete abjuring of the Muslim identity. “What the Mirzas had, and wanted, was continuity in their place of birth,” says Majumdar. “The quiet violence that pervades their lives, questioning their right to existence, makes the film ever so powerful.”
Some years ago, when Majumdar and her husband were on a walking tour of Agra, they tried to locate the haveli where Garm Hava was shot. They wanted to see the courtyard, the steep staircase—all integral to “the atmosphere of a respectable middle-class life of the time that Garm Hava creates”. Indeed, some of the scenes that make the most indelible impression on the viewer are those of Aamina’s laughter ringing through the house, the grandmother’s sardonic wit peppering happy family dinners that get diminished over time, Baqar’s young son spying on lovers and asking if they fly kites in Pakistan. Home is a refuge against the scorching winds of the film’s title. But not for long—the family tree wilts in due course, leaving only a gaunt silhouette behind. When the Mirzas are forced out, and a Sindhi businessman, played by AK Hangal, acquires the haveli, the world around them seems to turn even more hostile, refusing to rent a house, burning down their factory, denying Sikandar a job and Salim, an upstanding citizen, the respect that is his due.
“I have seen the film 300 times and each time, it moves me deeply. Ro ro ke paagal ho jaati hoon [I am moved to tears]. If you ask me, it is the best Hindi film ever made,” says actor Shabana Azmi, whose mother Shaukat Kaifi plays Jameela in the film. “Many characters were inspired by real people. Large portions of Sikandar’s relationship with Aamina were inspired by my relationship with my brother. My mother said that acting in Garm Hava, she did not feel like she was saying dialogues—it was a slice of life.” It is without a doubt the most sensitive film ever made on the lives of Indian Muslims, says Azmi. “It breaks away from the Turkish topi and sherwani trope to turn its gaze to ‘mainstream’ Muslim characters.” In Ismat Chughtai’s story, Salim Mirza’s character was originally a station master. “It was my father, Kaifi Azmi, who turned him into a shoe manufacturer. There is a backstory to this. He was attracted to fighting for the rights of workers and worked with a shoe factory for a while,” Shabana Azmi says. “Balraj Sahni, who plays the role to perfection without any chest thumping, was initially worried about pulling off the part. My mother convinced him, and he sought her help to find a Muslim family he could stay with for 10 days to imbibe their ways.” The old woman who refuses to leave the haveli and hides in a hovel is a character from her mother’s childhood that she had told Kaifi Azmi about. “The makers of the film believed art could bring social change. Their political medium was cinema,” Azmi says.
“The film is a precious document,” says lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar. “From 1947, for a period of 12-13 years, no film addressed the event of Partition. Many films that did so much later couched it in metaphor. And Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) was the first Hindi film about Muslim characters, but it was about imaginary Muslims. Like the Hollywood Western with a one-street town and duelling cowboys, Indian cinema created a fake Muslim world populated by phony nawabs, courtesans, beautiful daughters of nawabs, and heroes who were poets. Garm Hava was the first film that called a spade a spade. It was about real people and their real anxieties. Each dialogue made me think I had heard it somewhere, each scene was one familiar to me. And it had Muslims of all shades—from wily politicians to simple people who gave in to their problems. In the end, Salim Mirza realises that there is nothing special about his problems—that they are the same as those faced by the average Indian—and joins the mainstream.” The film, Akhtar says, is full of nuances that reveal the many facets of society. “Salim Mirza’s polite refusal to participate in the shoemakers’ association strike [he would rue this later, when the association refuses to award him contracts] is an example of how the minorities tend to shy away from the mainstream, even as the mainstream refuses to accept them,” Akhtar points out.
Would Zaidi and Sathyu make a film like Garm Hava today? “It is a subject of that time. I would do a different story, maybe about the plight of the Muslims in south India—this recent controversy over the hijab ban, for instance, is rather silly; it is a purely political statement on both sides,” says Zaidi. “What would make a good film is [2022 International Booker Prize winner] Geetanjali Shree’s novel [Hamara Shahar Us Baras] about the communalisation of a city. Her stories are edgy. They don’t make you feel good.” Zaidi is at present wrapping up work on Shyam Benegal’s biopic of former Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Sathyu is revisiting Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq—he has designed for several productions of the play—to help stage it in contemporary clothes. The couple have often been quoted about the dearth of films on important issues, and of accurate historical narratives in film. “We just don’t make very good films in India,” Zaidi elaborates. “Most people who make films across the world have been trained in filmmaking. In India, there are only two film institutes, while there are hundreds of art schools, journalism schools and music schools and as many as 25 government-run fashion schools.”
While the theme of Partition is far from the usual diet of Indian audiences, it has been addressed directly and metaphorically in a number of films, points out Paromita Vohra, who wrote the script for Khamosh Pani (2003), an award-winning Indo-Pakistani film about a widowed Hindu woman living in Pakistan in the 1970s. Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra (1961), though a precursor to Garm Hava, backfired because of its convoluted plot and its treatment of the riots in the wake of Partition. Chopra returned to the theme in Waqt (1965), a film about a family that is separated after an earthquake. Indeed, an entire genre of “lost-and-found” films in Hindi cinema obliquely alludes to Partition. “I saw Garm Hava much later in life—I wish I had watched it before writing Khamosh Pani. The film is an island in a sea of films. Unlike much of parallel cinema, it is rooted in the emotion of social drama. And it is not just about identity—it is a larger film than that, and it eschews the doctrinaire kind of quality that art films tend to have,” Vohra says. One of the larger projects of Bollywood, says Vohra, is defining who is an Indian, culturally. “That figure is usually a north Indian upper caste person who is nationalist by nature, and inspired by socialist ideas and a sense of community. In Garm Hava, that figure is a progressive Muslim.”
“To me, Garm Hava is really about working-class politics, and it is a film where narrative outshines narration,” says Hariharan Krishnan, former professor of film studies. “But I came to understand the real import of it much later. When I first watched it as a film student—I remember Sathyu and Shama bringing the film to the FTII campus—my classmates and I compared it with Euro cinema, and wondered about the colour scheme and other technicalities. We quizzed the filmmakers about stylistics, and Shama said to us, ‘what are you talking about, we made a film about something.’”
Garm Hava is also a love story. As a heartbroken Aamina recalls the tender moments she shared with Shamshad in the shadow of the Taj, we are filled with a sense of doom. We know what is coming, and fear that Salim Mirza’s love for his watan, too, would go unrequited. “In the final scenes, when Salim Mirza decides to give in to the forces propelling him to cross the border, my heart sank,” says screenwriter Anjum Rajabali. “It would still have been a sensitive story.” But Mirza has a change of heart—why shouldn’t he stay and take part in nation-building? For better or for worse, his is a love story without an end.