Hot on the trail

Watching Garm Hava unravels the freshness of Partition and its colossal implications even 40 years after its first release

Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata 

Garm Hava was shown in theatres this month, over 40 years after its release and 65 years after the events depicted in the film transpired. Yet, such is the inherent power of the movie that it does not lose an iota of its potent storytelling, as we witness the effects of Partition on the household of Salim Mirza, a genteel Muslim businessman of Agra.

The film begins at the train station as yet another member of Mirza’s family leaves for Pakistan. This is not the first or last member of his family going to Pakistan. However, Mirza (Balraj Sahni) has decided to stay back in his home and country. This choice will have life-changing consequences for him and his family. It is not that Mirza is impervious to the winds of change that the birth of a new nation has wrought; rather, Mirza is a sincere idealist tangled up in a time of mistrust and opportunism. A prelude is offered when Kaifi Azmi’s baritone warns us in the credits: “These are the days when no one heeds the Gita or the Koran, when faith has lost all
its meaning.”

The cleaving of a nation has not only created new borders but also reduced the Mirza family, from being Indians, to representatives of a community — Muslims. What does it feel to be an outsider in your own home? How does it feel to have a family divided by borders? How does it feel to uproot your memories and start anew? Through Mirza’s story, the film narrates a tale of identity that is told with warmth, insight and honesty.

Partition has always been a delicate topic with filmmakers, and Partition from the eyes of a Muslim family even rarer. Because of this intimate portrayal, rather than using a political lens, MS Sathyu translates Ismat Chugtai’s unpublished story of Partition to a shared feeling between the family and the audience. The film scores well in the small moments, like a miniaturist’s detail in a painting, which makes the Mirza family seem real, their circumstances felt, and their small humiliations and bigger betrayals believable. The film employs impeccable use of Urdu and Hindi, and the script has the right balance of nuance, humour and truth. The ensemble cast breathes life into every character, whether it is the grandmother who can’t leave her house or her memories, or the hypocritical elder brother who will profess loyalty for one country but leave for another. However, the film truly belongs to Sahni, and Geeta Siddharth as his daughter. In his final role (Sahni died before the film was released), he makes Mirza a man who will handle every trial and tribulation with grace and dignity, who will make you believe in hope, where none remains, and a man who you’ll find hard to forget each time you see his ramrod straight silhouette in his neat sherwani walking the lanes of Agra. Geeta’s Amina is a well-layered role and her quiet desperation at desertion is portrayed more through her body language than dialogue.

The film marked the debut of Sathyu as a director, and comprised a cast of relative unknowns (both Farooque Shaikh and AK Hangal had debut roles in the film). The film was shot by cinematographer Ishan Arya in real locations with a second-hand Arriflex camera loaned to the crew by the director’s friend, Homi Sethna. The director, the crew, and the cast might have been new but the treatment of the film was reassuring.Sathyu’s narrative makes you feel every agonising moment through excellent techniques and economy of purpose. The camera moves with the family as one, so that you almost feel a welcome guest in their home, the city of Agra lingers more in your consciousness because you have watched two lovers playfully crisscross the gardens at the Taj Mahal and sometimes the camera lingers only on the actor and not on the faceless interviewer, or bank manager, making them the disembodied everyman of the prejudiced majority.

The film may look dated in parts today, but the theme and the treatment remain fresh. It has the raw energy of a first film, with a few minor flaws associated with every first film, but these get superseded by the very human and humane narrative at its core. Garm Hava has that kind of depth and timelessness that only great performances and great films have.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2014