Classics Revisited: Farooque Shaikh’s film debut Garm Hava(1973)

Very few Indian films have had the enduring impact of M S Sathyu’s Garm Hava. This is the kind of rare cinema that serves the very core purpose of art. 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 Garm Hava resonates to this day. 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  GaramHawa doesn’t focus on the riots and bloodshed that followed the decisive moment in history. Sathyu’s film,brilliantly written by KaifiAzmi 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 Garm Hava 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 Saab’s immortal lines of Sahir Ludhianvi for Guru Dutt in KagazKe PhoolDekhi 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.

 Garam Hawa is as real as Indian cinema gets. The crowded mohallas  and gallis 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 ShabanaAzmi. And Balraj sahni, that actor-extraordinaire who didn’t seem to be acting at all, drew from his own relationship with daughterShabnam 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 ofjalebis 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 advatange. 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.

Garm Hava 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.

 Garm Hava 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  heartwrenching 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 BalrajSahni on the screen. You see this Muslim patriarch of a disintegrating family who never stops believing his God even when He seems busy elsewhere.

Trivia

  • Balraj Sahni died a day after he finished his dubbing . He didn’t live long enough to see his performace being recognized as a milestone.
  • The first version of the script was rejected by the NFDC . That’s when Kafi Azmi and Shama Zaidi were brought in.
  • The protagonist in the  original unpublished Urdu  story by Ismat Chugtai was a station master. Co-writers Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi changed him into a shoe manufacturer.
  • Balraj Sahni was not sure he would be able to carry off the role of  a Muslim patriarch. It was Shaukat Azmi who convinced him to go for it.
  • Balraj Saab’s daughter’s childhood sweetheart Kazim was played by actress Farah and Tabu’s father Jamal Hashmi.
  • Geeta Siddharth who played Balraj Sahni’s darling daughter later went on to star as Shabana Azmi’s best friend in MaheshBhatt’s Arth.
  • Garam Hawa was Farouq Shaikh’s film debut. Farouq was studying to be a lawyer.He rebelled against his parent’s wishes to become an actor.Farouq was give a princely remuneration  of 11,00 rupees.
  • There was outrage over the Muslim girl Ameena making love in a boat with her suitor.But Sathyu Saab stuck to his guns and insisted that the sequence was important to establish her betrayal and subsequent suicide.
  • Due to budget constraints the entire dialogue of the actors was recorded on  a audio tape which got waylaid.All the actors had to dub by reading out from the dialogue sheets.
  • Mirza’s relationship with daughter and younger son were modelled on Kaifi Azmi’s own relationship with his children Shabana and Baba Azmi.
  • The scenes between the siblings played by Geeta Siddharth and Farouq Shaikh were inspired by Shabana Azmi’s relationship with her brother Baba Azmi.
  • The voice for Balraj Sahni’s old mother was dubbed by actress Dina Pathak

Shaukat Azmi Speaks On Garam Hawa

“I vividly remember the shooting of  Garam Hawa. In theatre for IPTA I had played many lead roles with Balraj Sahni. This role of his supportive wife was not difficult for me at all. Even today if you tell me to do a scene I can do it in a jiffy.The dialogues by my husband (Kaifi Azmi) were very natural.Balraj was hesitant about doing the role. He asked me, ‘Kya main yeh role kar sakta hoon, Shaukat Appa?’I assured him that only he can pull it off, that he was a better actor than me. It was because I convinced him that he did the role. To prepare for the part Balraj Sahni had gone and stayed with a family in Bhiwandi, an area populated by Muslims. …For me the hardest scene was the one where I had to react to my screen daughter’s death.I am a method actress, and  I could actually feel the emotions of a mother who has lost her child.If  I tell you how we did the dubbing you’d probably laugh in amazement. Balrajand I had to dub without sound on screen. And the tape containing the dialogues was lost.So we had to relive the emotions through our imagination. We had no audio reference for the dubbing.For the first time we all felt we were working in a movie where the dialogues seemed to be like real life. We were all from the Indian People’s Theatre Association(IPTA) and we had no money.But being from a theatre background we were all used to roughing it out. My nephew Ishan Arya was the cameraman.We all believed in the film.We knew we were working on something extraordinary.The scene where the old lady wants to return to her ancestral home is from my own life. When my father left his ancestral home, a distant relative took over the house. My grandmother felt  it was unjust to evict her from her own home where she had come as a bride.When she was on her deathbed she told her son,my father that unless she returns to the ancestral home she can’t die.My father took his mother in his arms and carried her to the ancestral home. I had related this incident to  Kaifi and he included it in the film so beautifully.”

M S Sathyu Speaks On Garm Hawa

Did you ever expect  this kind of impact with Gram Hawa?

No, not at all. We only wanted to make an honest film.

How did you  shoot in Agra?

It was very difficult.We did a  lot of candid photography.Many times we hid the camera and shot on the streets.Luckily for us BalrajSahni was the only actor among us who was known.

What prompted the impeccable casting?

All of us were working together at IPTA. Even  the  actors who played students were from Agra and Delhi.I think the authentic casting  worked.No one  was in it for money. There wasn’t any.

The dubbing was done without audio?

I couldn’t afford a Nagra. In any case there was no point in recording in the noisy streets of Agra. So we edited a ‘silent’ film and then  invited all the artistes from Mumbai, Delhi and Agra to dub. Because they were from theatre it wasn’t difficult for them to remember their lines during dubbing.

Balraj Saab died the day after he finished dubbing?

When I had finished his dubbing he wasn’t satisfied with one line. So he called me over to re-dub that line at Raj Kamal Studios.So I went there at lunch time and re-recorded that one line.

What are your thoughts on the entire making of Garam Hawa?

It was a huge challenge for all of us to shoot on the streets of Agra. Being my first film I had the passion to pull it off.It was a first film for many of us.We had very little shooting equipment. We had only six lights.

Garam Hawa figures in every list of best Indian films?

That used to surprise me initially. But now seeing it objectively I understood why it is so important. Before Garam Hawa the Mumbai film industry had not made any significant attempts to understand the minority community. I think that’s what made GaramHawa so daring.

Prior to Garam Hawa there were the Muslim Socials?

They were very unrealistic and represented a feudal background that had long ago ceased to exist. Characters in Mere Mehboob and other films were spouting shayari and seemed far removed from reality. India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and no realistic films about them were being made.In our films the minority communities are generally lampooned and caricatured.I wanted to show  my characters as belonging to the mainstream.

What makes Garam Hawa so relevant is that the Muslim community in India continues to feel isolated even  after so many years?

Yes, and  people like Saeed Mirza and Shyam Benegal  have attempted  films on the theme of a minority community’s isolation. Later on the films made on the theme became anti-Pakistan. That is dangerous. The Indian Muslim is as trustworthy as an other Indian.

I feel your career as a filmmaker got eclipsed by Garam Hawa?

Yes, it happens.Sometimes you hit the peak in your very first film.For example I consider Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali his best. I don’t think he ever reached that level in his later films.

So would you say Garam Hawa was your Pather Panchali?

(laughs) In a way. But then I later made some significant films that didn’t have the same impact. My fourth film Sookha for instance was an important film. But it was a dry subject. It lacked the emotional value of Garam Hawa.But making Sookha was far more difficult than Garam Hawa.

You haven’t directed a film in a while?

My last film was Ijjodu in Kannada in 2009 for Reliance Big Pictures. They proved to be the most unreliable movie producers. No doubt they allowed me to make the film. But they didn’t release the film.

Any plans to make a new film?

Yes, I want to make a  film on the life of  a Hindustani-Carnatic singer.It brings into play many styles of music. I want to make it in Karnataka, Hindi, Bengali.This would be my first full-fledged musical. Garam Hawa had only one Qawwalli. Sookha didn’t even have background music.

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