Thought Box



by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri May 1 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 5 secs

On Balraj Sahni’s birth anniversary, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at the lasting legacy of Garm Hawa, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, and wonders if its protagonists would make a different decision in 2024…

Yeh daagh daagh ujala, yeh shab-gazida Sahar /Wo intezar tha jiska ye wo sahar toh nahin /Ye wo sahar toh nahin jiski aarzoo lekar /Chalein thay yaar ki mil jaayegi kahin na kahin – Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Would Salim and Sikandar Mirza’s decision have been any different circa 2024? And, would a film like this be possible in 2024? As M.S. Sathyu’s justly celebrated film turns fifty and I watch it once again after ages, I am aware that this is the first time this question has struck me vis-à-vis Garm Hawa. In 2024, seventy-six years after the year the film’s events are set in, and fifty years after the film was released, the questions have an urgency of their own.

Consider this: a week ago, the prime minister of the country, on his election trail, derided the Muslim community, of course without naming it, by equating it with ‘infiltrators’ and ‘those with many children’. There couldn’t have been a more direct insult to an entire community and a more brazen appeal to everything that is base about us as a nation. But of course, this is the not the first time we have heard views like these and it definitely won’t be the last either.

What struck me is how the conversation has not changed in seventy-six years. If anything, the questions that Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni) and his family were confronted by in Garm Hawa have only exacerbated and become shriller. What were then hushed whispers and asides are now part of the mainstream. In Garm Hawa, we have landlords refusing to rent out houses to a Muslim. Or to non-vegetarians. But there’s always an embarrassed smile and shrug they couch their bigotry in. We have a rickshawallah charging a hefty two rupees from Mirza when the rate is ‘aath aane’, as he reminds the rickshawallah, only to be told that those rates are ‘for my own people’. In effect, the Mirzas are not.

Banks won’t lend money to enable Salim and his son Baqar (Abu Siwani) to run their shoe-manufacturing business. There are allusions to many businesses run by Muslims being forced to shut shop. As Mirza’s brother, who leaves for Pakistan, says, ‘Ab Hindustan mein kisi Musalman ki koi jagah nahin.’ The younger Mirza scion Sikandar (Farooq Shaikh) is unable to find a job – at some offices because of his religion, at others despite it, when, for example, a co-religionist in an organization is scared of taking him on lest he be suspected of minority appeasing. A minor skirmish on one road leads to days of rioting. Salim Mirza is rounded up on frivolous charges of being a spy, and though he is acquitted by the court, as someone says, ‘Who remembers a court’s acquittal?’ The Mirzas are time and again told, ‘Why don’t you go to Pakistan?’

It is uncanny how echoes of these innuendoes have not only survived but also magnified in the recent years. We have housing societies openly advertising that Muslims are not welcome. Charges are framed against anyone in the community on any pretext whatsoever. Places of worship and entire slum colonies are razed on the flimsiest grounds.

Garm Hawa is set in a Muslim family in Agra circa 1948 in the months following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The film’s opening credits end with a freeze frame of Gandhi with three shots heard on the soundtrack, followed by these lines in the voice of Kaifi Azmi illuminating the madness of the time:

Taksim hua mulk toh dil ho gaye tukde /Har seeney mein toofan yahan bhi tha wahan bhi /Har ghar mein chita jalti thi lahrate thay sholay /Har shahar mein shamsan yahan bhi tha wahan bhi /Gita ki koi sunta na Quran ki sunta /Hairaan sa imaan yahan bhi tha wahan bhi//

The film’s story is too well known to bear recounting here. Three aspects need articulating, though.  

A Fitting Finale

One, Balraj Sahni. In what is his swan song, Balraj Sahni, an actor who could give the most atrociously overblown scene in the countless Hindi melodramas a quiet, understated dignity, provides a masterclass in acting. Despite such classics as Do Bigha Zamin and Kabuliwala in his filmography, Garm Hawa is what Balraj Sahni was born for, this is what he will be remembered for as well. He inhabits Salim Mirza like few actors have done a character in the history of cinema.

There are a number of great sequences in the film, including the matriarch’s (played with great feeling by Badar Begum, in a role Sathyu originally wanted Begum Akhtar to play) longing for her lost haveli and her death. However, it is Balraj Sahni who towers above all, with every look, ever turn of the head, every nuanced movement and speech.

Sadly, though, the actor did not live to see his performance. He passed away of a heart attack a day after the film finished dubbing on 12 April 1973. Balraj Sahni was by then a broken man bearing the burden of his daughter’s death by suicide. In a scene eerily echoing this real-life tragedy, his screen daughter in the film, Amina (Gita Siddharth), takes her own life.

As M.S. Sathyu reminisced: ‘There was a scene in Garm Hawa where Amina, daughter of Salim (Balraj Sahni), commits suicide. It was reminiscent of what happened in Balraj Sahni’s real life. Even though he was a Communist Party member, he was in Madhya Pradesh on Indira Gandhi’s request during some elections and suddenly his daughter Shabnam committed suicide in Bombay. I contacted the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and asked for his help to fly Balraj Sahni back to Bombay. I drove to the airport in my car and received him. Balraj got into the car and he did not speak a word. I took him from Santa Cruz to his house in Juhu. He got down from the car, saw a lot of people who had gathered there. Without a word, he went up the flight of steps into the house and saw Shabnam lying there. We had got the post-mortem done and her hair was still wet. Later, I asked him to re-enact the same scene in Garm Hawa by coming up the steps. I wanted no tears but asked him to just look at Amina. Balraj was a very sensitive actor and he understood what I was asking. I am sure he was reminded of his own daughter’s death.’

According to his son Parikshit Sahni, ‘Dad was a great believer in Konstantin Stanislavski, who spoke of emotional memory, revisiting an experience in your life to make the scene appear truthful. It was painful for Dad to remember the death of Shabnam to enact that scene.’

As Sathyu narrates, ‘On April 12th, 1973, he came to my house at Juhu in the morning. He had already completed the dubbing work for the movie but he wanted to change a particular line, one of the last dialogues in the film. I agreed to his request. He said he was shooting at V. Shantaram’s Rajkamal Studios and asked me to come at lunchtime. Mangesh Desai, the sound recordist, was already there and we finished the redubbing in about five minutes and Balraj was happy. Hard to believe but he died the next day.’

Balraj Sahni’s last line in the film, the last line of his cinematic career, one that should count among the greatest closing lines in cinema, is: ‘Insaan kab tak akela jee sakta hai?’ (How long can a human being live alone?)

Censorship Woes

Coming to the second aspect, which seeks to answer the second of the questions I began the essay with. Is a Garm Hawa possible to be made today? Interestingly enough, the film ran into censorship issues even at the time. Sathyu failed to obtain a certificate to show his film in India for over ten months. So that even though the film was completed in April 1973, it released in 1974.

In a report on the controversies surrounding the film’s release, Satyen K. Bordoloi wrote in 2012, ‘That day in April 1974 was pregnant with septic tension. The manager of Regal Cinema in Colaba, Vijay Merchant, was grovelling. He was begging everyone, the director, the writer, the producers, and when nothing worked, even the cast and crew of this film. Please, he said, someone be present when the film is screened to this group. His fears were justified. For the said group was none other than the Shiv Sena who’s chief, Bal Thackeray had threatened to burn any theatre that showed the film. When he came to know that the film was being premiered in Regal, he threatened to burn down its screens.’

Sathyu, however, in an interview to Film Companion, discounted this and said, ‘Thackeray wanted to see the film. I invited him for the premiere at Regal. But he insisted on seeing it before the release. So, a special screening was arranged for him and he really liked the film. He felt that the message was well conveyed.’ L.K. Advani too had written in a newspaper that the film was probably funded by Pakistanis. Later, he admitted to the filmmaker that he had written it without seeing the film.

Sathyu writes about his censorship woes: ‘I was at a loss not knowing what to do. Then I decided to contact Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Information and Broadcasting Minister I.K. Gujral and arrange a special screening for them. Within a couple of days, I got a call from Delhi asking me to bring the film but I had a problem on my hands. At that time, I did not have a completed print nor the money to make one instantly. However, Ramnord Labs (started by Ram Chattopadhyay, son of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay) agreed to make a print for me. The film was screened in Delhi and in the end, Indira Gandhi simply said “Achchi film hai” (it is a good film) and walked out. I was unsure if that would help me. Then I.K. Gujral suggested showing it to other members of the Parliament. This was all fine but at the back of my mind I was thinking that everyone is seeing the film for free. Finally, after some time, it was cleared for a release which was a big relief.’

Whither Salim Mirza?

The final aspect worth mentioning is the note on which the film ends. The question with which I began this feature. Given the left-leaning and IPTA credentials of all the major players involved with the film – Sathyu, his wife and co-scriptwriter Shama Zaidi, Kaifi Azmi (who shares writing credit with Shama Zaidi), Balraj Sahni, A.K. Hangal, Shaukat Azmi and Ismat Chughtai – it isn’t surprising that we have Salim and Sikandar Mirza, defeated and on their way to the station and thereon to Pakistan, come across a ‘red’ march and decide to join it. As Sikandar argues, ‘We have to fight for what is our right and not run away.’

In the light of what has gone before, what the family has endured – having to leave their ancestral haveli and settle in a rented house, the death of the matriarch, the death by suicide of Salim Mirza’s daughter, the ruin of their business and loss of livelihood, the daily humiliation, it is a remarkably upbeat ending, with Kaifi Azmi’s voice a soothing balm for all wounded souls, a voice of a Hindustan now lost forever, as Sikandar and Salim merge with the mass that was India:

Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazara /Un ke liye toofan yahan bhi hai, wahan bhi /Dhaare mein jo mil jaaoge, ban jaaoge dhaara /Hai waqt ka elaan, yahan bhi hai, wahan bhi//

So, would Salim and Sikandar stay on in India in 2024? In 1948, the hope of the left leading an independent India to a better dawn was palpable. By 1974, we were at the doorstep of the Emergency. The dream of an independent nation was under attack. Yet, the left still offered a beacon of hope in a dismal scenario, so that the positive ending looked plausible. And, despite the impending Emergency, Garm Hawa found theatrical release.

Presently, the winds are more scorched than they have ever been in the history of independent India. It is possible that neither Salim and Sikandar nor Garm Hawa would stand a chance in today’s Hindustan.

There was something about 1974 – a year that saw the release of perennial classics like Ankur, 27 Down, Rajnigandha, Sonar Kella, Chorus and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo. Garm Hawa stands right up there with them.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.