18 November 2014

An ill wind: Revisiting Garm Hava

Last Sunday's Mirror column:

Newly restored, MS Sathyu's iconic film about post-partition times resonates more than ever in our polarised present.

A restored version of Garm Hava released yesterday under the PVR Director's Rare banner. It is nowhere near as wide a release as this 1973 film deserves, but if it is playing anywhere near you, go watch it. Because Garm Hava remains, nearly forty years after it was made, the most affecting, nuanced film we have yet produced about the experience of Partition. 

It is by no means a flawless film, but this column isn't about that. There are too many reasons why you should watch it: Garm Hava is not just MS Sathyu's first feature as director, but also Farooque Shaikh's first film role - and Balraj Sahni's last. Sahni, who delivers an exceptionally subtle performance as an ageing shoe manufacturer called Salim Mirza, is the pivot around whom the film revolves. 

Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, the screenplay (co-authored by the poet Kaifi Azmi and the screenwriter Shama Zaidi, who is also Sathyu's wife) steers Mirza through the bitter months of 1948, as his quiet determination to stay on in the place of his birth receives one body blow after another. 

"Full-grown trees are being cut down in the wind," muses Mirza to a tangawallah, as he returns from having seen off yet another branch of his family that is moving across the border. "It is a scorching wind," responds the horse-cart driver, "Those who do not uproot themselves will wither away." 

The film is set in Agra, but shot through by the idea of Pakistan. But 'Pakistan' here is an empty signifier, denoting nothing except departure. From the very first scene, where Mirza sees off a train, with a hand gesture somewhere between benediction and goodbye, we are inserted into a world in which people are either leaving, or thinking about it - and if they are not, then there's someone telling them they ought to. 

One of the leavers is Salim Mirza's elder brother, Halim Mirza, whose doublespeak is captured with economy by Sathyu's technique: splicing moments from his rabble-rousing 'nationalist' speeches, denouncing as cowards those Muslims who have "abandoned their heritage" by going to Pakistan, with him telling his wife that there is no room left for Muslims in India. It is clear that he is as opportunistic as the Muslim Leaguers he condemns. Another Pakistan-bound character is the duplicitous Fakhruddin, though not before switching loyalties from the League to the Congress, and placing as many obstacles in Salim Mirza's path as possible. 

But the film does not for a moment suggest that all those who left for Pakistan were somehow opportunistic, or cowardly. Garm Hava is astute enough to show us multiple points of view. When the business seems impossible to revive, Mirza's elder son succumbs to the chance of greater opportunity in a Muslim-majority country. 

Salim Mirza may hold out against going, but Garm Hava produces a powerful sense of how difficult it had become to stay. 

The same picture is painted by a book called In Freedom's Shade, a recent exemplary translation of Azadi ki Chhaon Mein, Begum Anis Kidwai's enormously thought-provoking memoir of the immediate post-Partition years. Kidwai's encounters were largely with a poorer class of Muslims than the Mirzas, people who had even less economic ballast to keep them where they were. They are either people in camps who have fled their homes with few belongings, or poor peasants from the villages around Delhi. But what Garm Hava shares with Azadi ki Chhaon Mein is its depiction of how little the formal assurances of the secular state were backed by people's lived experience. What Gandhi and Nehru promised (and tried to do) was one thing, and what state functionaries did was quite another. Again and again, Kidwai encounters poor, uneducated Muslims who have been told by officials - senior army men, thanedars, patwaris - that they must leave, because the Indian government can no longer be held responsible for their safety. 

Like Azadi..., and unlike the corpse-filled trains that have become numbingly overused shorthand for Partition, Garm Hava doesn't want to shock us with our history of violence. (The only physical attack in the film is a brick that hits Mirza during a minor riot; even the blaze that engulfs his karkhana is barely shown, though Sathyu has recently suggested that he might have done these scenes differently if he had the budget.) 

What it shows us instead is how enmeshed religious identity is in the socio-economic climate - right from this foundational moment of our nationhood. The baniya moneylender and the bank both refuses Mirza a loan, since Muslims may go off to Pakistan, leaving behind unpaid debts. The family haveli, registered in the name of his brother Halim, is seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property, and goes to a Sindhi businessman (AK Hangal in an unusual role). Meanwhile, prospective landlords turn Mirza away with that phrase we have so often heard thereafter: "We don't take non-vegetarian tenants." Even young Sikandar (Farooque Shaikh) must deal with job interviewers who make unsolicited suggestions that he might do better in Pakistan. 

Sathyu's decision to keep these landlords and interviewers invisible is an interesting one. One wonders whether it is meant to insert us, his viewers, uncomfortably into the place of these interlocutors. And then one wonders why more films in this country don't set out to make us uncomfortable, just once in a while. God knows, we need it.

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