August 14, 1947: The day undivided India’s geographical demarcations blurred in significance, their place taken by political barriers. The day Indian leaders opted for walls when what its people needed were bridges.
A few months later, on January 30, 1948, the satyagrahi who fought a battle against religious animosity in the air was assassinated.
Film Garam Hawa’s narrative begins with those three gunshots that killed Mahatma Gandhi, shots that infuse not cynicism but hope in Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni), the lead protagonist. A Muslim, who wants to stay back in post-Partition North India, firm in his belief that Gandhiji’s death would act as a harbinger for communal harmony.
Non violence as the lodestar guiding him, he treads a lonely path — ekla chalo (to quote Rabindranath Tagore).
Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai and adapted for the screen by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi, M.S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa portrays the turbulence in the family of Mirza, but more importantly, that in Mirza’s own psyche, as he undertakes the journey.
As Kaifi Azmi’s voice narrates couplets as a prelude, people at that end of the border experienced as much emotional trauma (toofan) as people here; the graveyards at the other side of the border were as ‘vibrant’ as those at this side, with lack of life. But more importantly, the very eemaan (religion, faith) that people were fighting for was as astounded there as was here - that the common man was listening to neither Geeta nor Koran (‘Geeta ki koi sunta na Koran ki sunta, hairan sa eemaan vahan bhi tha yahan bhi’)
Garam hawa, the scorching, simmering and debilitating winds blowing were not those of religion but of communalism, political bigotry and intolerance.
Under such circumstances, the movie depicts a small mohalla (locality) in Agra. The winds create a certain froideur - between and within - communities, families and individuals. Humanity is getting eroded, replaced by political prototypes - Congressis (Congressmen) and Leagis (Muslim Leaguers); clerks and cobblers; Hindus and Muslims; Sindhis and Punjabis; even tonga (horse cart) pullers and camel cart pullers.
Sanity and individuality come at a premium and Salim Mirza pays great price to preserve the two. A shoemaker by profession, he suddenly gets a feel of those winds. His neighbourhood bank refuses to give him overdraft citing his faith; neighbourhood seth (moneylender) refuses to lend him money; his wealthy Sindhi customer wants to cancel his order and place it with Salim’s opportunist rival.
Forced to sell his haveli (ancestral house) and rent a home nearby, he faces reluctance even there.
Toward the end, he loses his dignity when accused of espionage. Finally, he loses hope in his country.
But did those scorching winds obey the dictates of political boundaries? And are they likely to do so in the future?
There is a terrifying silence that permeates through the film, as we witness the erosion of humanity itself in individuals. Sounds of moving vehicles form interludes. The clanking of tongas - not the resplendent ghoda chaaps of O P Nayyar’s music; but beats of hostile goodbyes. We have trains departing for Pakistan, not knowing whether the communal winds would allow them to reach their destination.
Even the romance - with a misty vision of Taj Mahal in the background- looks like an aberration rather than the norm. Love at those times comes at an inflated price, as if sold in the black market!
Against this frenzied background, the only individual in Salim Mirza’s family able to preserve her sense of humour is Mirza’s aging mother, in her 80s or 90s.
The priceless joy on her face as she breathes her final moments, when she is reunited with her haveli (ancestral home); the glint in her eyes as she recalls the day when she stepped in as a child bride, the day on which those eyes were opened; and her ability to stay indifferent to the winds, make her easily the most humane character.
Her idealist son, perhaps picking up from her, keeps his faith in the rule of law. So respectful that when his daughter’s suitor comes home in the middle of the night from Pakistan, he wants him to first register his presence at the police station!
What keeps the flames of idealism in him burning? How does he preserve his sanity? Or why can’t he join his brethren at the other end of the border?
Salim is a freedom fighter of a different ilk - one who fights for the freedom of his soul. Towards the end of the film, just as his faith in humanity is getting eroded, he sees a ray of hope. Leaving the country feels like betraying his inner voice.
As he scampers toward a morcha (march), following his optimist son (Farooque Sheikh), we get some answers in Kaifi Azmi’s words acting as an epilogue, perhaps reverberating in Salim Mirza’s mind as he walks.
“Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazaara, unke liye toofan vahaan bhi hai yahan bhi, Dhaare mein jo mil jaaoge, ban jaaoge dhara, Ye vaqt ka elaan vahan bhi hai yahan bhi.”
(A detached observer would realise that the communal winds do not discriminate on the basis of arbitrarily drawn borders; the answer lies in synthesis not segregation.)
Salim Mirza realises that if the conflict is due to those scorched winds, the tranquiliser is also somewhere “blowing in the wind”.
What of his family members who choose to emigrate? What would their situation be, say 50 years later? Watching Shyam Benegal’s Mammo gives one possible answer: There would be a Mammo in Salim Mirza’s family wanting to return home.
The article has been edited to incorporate the following correction:
The second paragraph of the article, “Blowin’ in the wind” (August 19, 2013, some editions), read: A few months later, on August 31, 1948, the satyagrahi [Mahatma Gandhi] who fought a battle against religious animosity in the air was assassinated.” It should have been January 30, 1948.