Millennials Review Classics: ‘Garm Hava’, History Retold
I watched Garm Hava for the first time and it is a masterpiece!
After fidgeting with several bad prints of Garm Hava online, and watching the first 10 minutes almost 10 times, I gave Netflix one last shot. Netflix should house a classic like Garm Hava, I thought to myself. However, after yet another failed attempt, I settled on the first of the many mountains on my browser and started on the film again; but this time, I did not bat an eyelid and watched MS Sathyu’s masterpiece till the very end.
Garm Hava or hot air, is a term that made so much sense to me, thanks to Delhi’s scorching heat. The film begins with the motif of journey – the protagonist, Salim Mirza, played effortlessly by Balraj Sahni, is bidding goodbye to his sister and her family who is moving to Karachi, Pakistan. We are in the 1948, post-Independence era where India is a fresh democracy, Pakistan is newly established and Gandhi has been assassinated.
The Mirzas are the wealthy business class of Agra. Their leather shoe factory is among the best in the country, they have a many-rooms-hall house in the bylanes of the town. The Agra that has not been struck by industrialisation yet. The women of the house either stay veiled or indoors or both.
The men, on the other hand, are breadwinners. It is a typical patriarchal setup, which mirrors the post-Independence society well; perhaps it’s even obliquely representative of India today. Society still prefers women to stay indoors, or come out wearing ‘cow’ masks, no?
Salim Mirza’s elder brother, Halim Mirza, who is a prominent leader of the All India Muslim League, is a messiah of Indian Muslims. He urges his fellow brothers and sisters to not leave India as it is their ‘homeland’ too. Unfortunately, like all lofty promises made by every public figure ever, he too deserts his people and flees to Pakistan.
The separation hits Salim Mirza twice as hard: his brother is no longer his cushion in a country that they were raised in, and, his future son-in-law, Halim’s son, Kazim Mirza, is also sent across the border. To add insult to injury, Salim realises that the house that they have always lived in is legally owned by Halim, so, he doesn’t even have ownership rights to his house.
Salim is left with an ailing mother, Badar Begum, a hotblooded son, Baqar, played by Abu Siwani, daughter Amina, played by Gita Sidharth, whose love is unrequited, a youngest son Sikandar, played by Farooq Sheikh, and a wife Jameela, played by Shaukat Azmi, who is constantly nagging him to cross the border.
From here on, the plot thickens into a beautiful commentary on how physical changes on a map alters familial bonds and friendships almost instantly. Friendships especially are tested in such situations and unfortunately for the Mirzas, their friends too lie in the grey.
What’s Home and What is The World?
Mirzas become symbolic of partition: it hits them in the heart. Fissures are drawn between brothers and lovers. Yet, Salim Mirza, the architect of the family, also emblematic of the architect of new India, strives to keep the family together. He is hopeful, just as many Indians were, at that point, of a peaceful India.
Since the Mirzas did not ‘directly’ own the house that they are living in, they are served a notice to vacate it, as it is an ‘evacuee’s property’.
The sequence in which the family is leaving their ancestral house and moving to a rented accommodation is literally partition depicted in a nutshell. When Salim’s wife Jameela, ferrets out her stuff from the cupboard, you know soon it will be empty. Yet you watch hypnotised. Badar Begum refuses to leave; she hides herself in an obscure store room, under a cemented slab; preferring to die than to lease the premises where she had arrived as a bride.
So much history is told to the viewer in that scene: what’s the home and what is the world? At what point does your personal become political? One continues to see the plight of those rejected by their own. Roti, kapda aur makaan is sacrosanct for Indians, but, we don’t take a minute to destroy their existence with the minutest incitement of violence.
Kaifi Azmi’s poetry conveys a feeling of displacement and dejection perfectly:
Taqseem hua mulk toh dil ho gaye tukde
Har seene mein toofaan yahan bhi tha wahan bhi
Har ghar mein chitaah jalti thi lehratey thhey sholay
Har sheher mein shamshaan wahan bhi tha yahan bhi
Gita ki koi sunta na Quran ki sunta
Hairan tha imaan wahan bhi aur yahan bhi
And Then They Came For…
Mirzas’ factory is also suffering at the hands of shrewd Hindu retailors. Both Salim and his son Baqar go from pillar to post in search of loans. The scenes in which he is asking for loans brought me to tears: the fourth wall is broken here. Salim Mirza is shown talking directly to the audience. Asking me, the audience, for loans. A voice, on my behalf answers him. The answer is obviously in the negative, yet, Salim does not lose hope.
Had sectarian violence not sent shivers down the country, the Mirzas and many like them would have been builders of a new India.
But, that didn’t happen and its reverberations are felt even today. With time, Baqar also leaves Salim, he too moves to Pakistan with his wife and son. The Mirzas are thus brought down to the bare minimum with little hope for the future.
The portrayal of women is emblematic of the times. They are unwoke of their rights, uninspired and uninspiring on many levels, and looking for a marriage prospect is their only source of upward social mobility. The peripheral family too does not have any expectations from them: mothers are busy stitching their wedding gowns, while their prospective husbands wish that they never lose weight.
Yet, the three women - the grandmother, Jameela and Amina quietly portray the angst of the three generations of women of post-partitioned India. The grandmother’s refusal to understand the sudden change in her nationality, Jameela’s practical understanding of the situation and Amina’s understanding of partition through her failed love-trysts with men who move to Pakistan.
Since the movie has been out there for 39 years, I’m going to put a few spoilers out there. Amina falls in love with Shamshad, her sister-in-law’s brother, who also deserts her and flees to Pakistan. With no familial or social support, a broken and distraught Amina is forced to commit suicide.
Again, the personal becomes political and the political draws blood.
The ‘adda’ culture in Garm Hava depicts the ‘bro’ youth culture interestingly. We understand how unemployment is rampant, for men from every caste/religion. The owner of the adda, a chaiwala is apparently a freedom fighter himself. His condition is the answer to all those who wonder what a semi-popular freedom fighter’s life became after independence. Did we forget to pay attention to the lesser popular, but equally important members of the freedom struggle? It is a question that we must ask ourselves.
Does Time Always Heal?
Amina’s death is literally the last nail in the family’s coffin. The remaining Mirzas finally decide to move to Pakistan. Sikandar, however, is not amused. He retains the fighter streak from his father, and has a hankering for home. Home for him, like his father and grandmother, is an irreplaceable entity. Before taking a final look at their ancestral home, the Mirzas are caught in a mob demanding basic rights. Sikandar is aching to join them as his friends are in it too. Mirza, acquiesces and allows Sikandar to go and also joins the march himself.
The film begins with some archival footage of the partition. It also has the photograph of a woman, talking to Nehru in a mob-like situation, outside his ambassador.
This brought back flashes of a painful partition story that my grandfather had once told me about . His mother was separated from her family during partition. She reached Srinagar on a wintery morning without food and all alone. She saw the PM’s entourage passing by and she threw herself in front of Nehru’s Ambassador car.
Nehru obviously, stopped the car and conversed with her. She wailed her heart out and begged the PM to search for her family. The PM did all that he could and at last, the family met.
I was left with myriad thoughts after watching the movie, the most potent one being - distance does not necessarily diminish emotion. Nor does time always help in healing. Yesterday’s wounds are a scratch away from festering all over again.
The old lady hangs on to the past, the middle aged one is more practical but deeply wounded by the turn of events. And the youngest of them all pays the ultimate price for a nation’s division.
Nobody goes to the cinema for lessons in history. This film provides a glorious exception. Here the past hurts, it bruises. It deserves to be watched.
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