Sunday, May 30, 2010

The scorching winds of change: rediscovering Garm Hava

I’m sitting in my favourite DVD-browsing space – the shady, lizard-ridden attic of the Palika Bazaar shop that sells “original copies” of world-cinema titles at Rs 150 – when the salesman leans across and whispers, “Saab, mere paas ek bahut special film hai. London mein copy banaaya. Poore India mein aapko sirf iss dukaan mein milegi.” (“I have a very special film, copied from a London print – you won’t get it anywhere else in India.”) So saying, he unwraps a DVD of M S Sathyu’s Garm Hava.

It’s a strange little moment, incongruous to the setting; normally, the man would be using this hushed tone to hard-sell a porn film. More bizarrely, just a couple of days earlier I was speaking with an aunt about the puzzling unavailability of Sathyu’s film in the Indian market. (She saw it a couple of times on its initial release in 1973 and has never been able to get it out of her mind – especially the haunting soundtrack with the “Maula Salim Chishti” qawwali. I saw it as a child on TV and was unable to appreciate it then but was keen to see it again.) For a movie that’s considered one of the key works of the “Indian New Wave” of the early 1970s, it seemed to have gone underground, never to resurface.

Naturally, I bought the DVD. The print was poor – faded colour, spots and scratches, a couple of seconds of film missing here and there – but not as bad as I'd feared. (I wouldn’t have minded subtitles because the Urdu spoken in the film gets a little dense at times; but again, given these experiences, maybe not.)

Garm Hava's opening montage of images about the Freedom Movement and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi is followed by a lengthy shot of Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni) photographed from a waist-high angle at the Agra railway station, waving at a departing train. His sister is leaving for Pakistan and he’s seeing her off; they’ve spent their whole lives in close proximity, now they are being parted in their old age.

This isn’t the last time we'll see Salim waving goodbye to a member of his family. “A hot wind is blowing,” a rickshaw-driver tells him as they leave the station, “Those who don’t get uprooted will get burnt.”

The garm hava in question is the cruel aftermath of Partition, and Salim and his family are being forced to make wholesale adjustments in their way of life. Because of legal complications, their ancestral house is slipping out of their hands. Salim’s daughter Ameena (Geeta Siddharth, in a much more central role than her two-minute appearance in Sholay's family massacre sequence) is separated from the man she is betrothed to. Everywhere, there are subtle changes in equations between Hindus and Muslims. “Sab azaadi ka phaayda apne tareeke se uthaa rahe hain,” (“Everyone is using Independence for their own gain”) sighs Salim when a rickshaw-wallah asks him for two rupees instead of the customary eight annas. A potential landlord assures him that he is unconcerned with a tenant’s religion, but then asks for a year’s payment in advance, because “aap hi ke mazhab ke koi saat maheene ka kiraaya chhod ke chale gaye” (“Someone from your community left without paying seven months’ rent”). Through it all, Salim remains stoical – God will see us through all this, he believes – but his family members, including his son Sikandar (played by the young Farooque Shaikh), aren’t so sure.

Some of the acting in Garm Hava is uneven – I thought a couple of the supporting performers were miscast, and the old lady who plays Salim’s mother seems constantly to be looking out for the director’s instructions – but there’s no faulting Balraj Sahni’s immensely dignified performance in the lead role. Sahni invests a great deal in little gestures, speaking volumes with a subtle shift of his eyes, or by cocking his head ever so slightly, or tapping his cane nervously on the floor while speaking to a money-lender. (I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far, but this portrait of a patriarch trying to retain his dignity while the world he once strode proudly through collapses around him reminded me of Burt Lancaster’s wonderful performance as the Prince in Visconti’s Il Gattopardo.)

Equally notable is the film’s anthropomorphising of the Mirzas’ old haveli. The house is given a life and a personality of its own, with the camera freely exploring its interiors, familiarising us with every corner, pointedly framing characters in doors and stairways as if to stress the relationship of these people to their setting; almost suggesting that one is incomplete without the other. We are reminded that ancestral houses become a part of the people who have lived in them for decades (and the haveli can equally be seen as a symbol for the nation), and this is most poignantly realised in the scenes involving Salim’s mother. When the Mirzas have to leave, she resists, clinging to the walls, crying out that she’d rather die than go away. Later, she insists on sleeping on the terrace of their new accommodation, because from here she can see the haveli in the distance. A scene where the dying woman is carried back to the house, in a palki, is shot to suggest her memories of her first trip to the haveli – presumably as a young bride, in a palanquin, decades earlier.

Most “Partition films” contain moments of strong violence – the movies can’t bring themselves to look away from the horror stories about neighbours killing each other or ghost trains filled with dead bodies, gliding across the fresh borders. And unflinching depictions of this sort can serve a purpose too (although they also carry the danger of trivialisation). But the violence of Garm Hava is subtler: it’s about the uncoiling of the many threads holding together a family, about being uprooted from the only life you knew. This isn’t a flawless film (there’s something a little too convenient, even manipulative, about the way misfortune stalks the Mirzas **) but it’s an important one – a poised, personal, ground-level perspective of a critical time in India’s history – and it’s encouraging to hear that the original print is undergoing restoration. Not a moment too soon, and I hope similar work is done on the under-seen films of other notable Indian directors of that time, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani among them.

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** In an essay in his fine book 50 Indian Film Classics, M G Raghavendra points out that the film tries to distance itself from the melodramatic idiom of mainstream Hindi cinema but succeeds only to an extent, and this compromises its overall tone

21 comments:

  1. I recently saw 'Garam Hawa' on youtube, since I did not get its CD/DVD anywhere else.The two main actors Balraj Sahni and Geeta Siddharth did a good job. And you are right about the old lady who played Salim's mother. Some of her dialogues are really good but they seem unimpressive because of the way they were delivered.
    And in the end scene, I so wanted Salim Mirza to stay back. This movie despite being based on the partition is not that depressing. I really liked it. A good story by Ismat Chughtai.

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  2. I too saw Garam Hawa as a kid and it left a strong impression on me. And you are right about the depiction of violence in the film -while understated, you can feel the menace in the background. In contrast, the violence in Govind Nihalani's Tamas was much more brutal.
    Can't wait to get my hands on the DVD whenever it comes out.

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  3. Lovely post, I say. Haven't watched 'Garam Hawa' because I couldn't find it anywhere, but must head to Paalika Bazaar some day. Balraj Sahni is aces. Your review is too.

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  4. I liked this gritty neorealist film. But like a lot of other "parallel" art films, it appeared to have "Give me awards" written all over it.

    Try contrasting it with a commercial Hollywood film like The Best Years of Our Lives which, like Garam Hawa, portrays the harsh winds of change in the aftermath of War. That film is no less manipulative than Garam Hawa. Yet, it has engaging comic reliefs in between making it easier for us to appreciate the grim portions of the picture. It doesn't forcibly wring the tears out of us.

    Garam Hawa provides no such breathers. It catalogues a series of misfortunes that conveniently afflict a particular minority family. It solicits our empathy in plain terms and offers no positive solution to change the state of affairs.

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  5. unrelated to the topic: how much of a movie's experience is related to what (if any) company you watch it with?

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  6. I have ot been fortunate enough to watch this movie... I have heard a lot about this film but couldn't get hold of a DVD or CD... no source .... Talking about post-partition movies, there has been a lot of films which are sewed with this common thread and one such film is 'Khamosh Paani', which doesnt talk about India but speaks about the similar situation in Pakistan... I liked it .... anyways keep walking!!!

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  7. Many bows to you, Jai. This is one movie which has stirred me non-stop with its theme and music since childhood, possibily because I grew up close to the Jama Masjid area. I have seen about 10 reruns of the movie (from DD to youtube), cried at most watches, and may disagree with you on a few counts. The quawwali as yu mention has been a haunting rendition and so is the suicide scene. Balraj Sahni's sad, tonsilitic voice has a grim effect seen only in a few more movies of his after that, like Seema. one ofen feesl if Sahni had a recurring lump in his throat; but then, who could have felt the pain of Partition more than a refugee himself? The mother's role may have looked unnatural coz she was a local, completely unaware of the camera mechanics and not in an age to learn.
    Recently when I saw Mr Sathyu's name on META jury list, I manipulated a visit to the conference. I met the legend, spoke to him (who corrected me on my knowledge of his works several times) and felt so, so dwarfed by his smile that I could not write the piece that I had intended to (A disaster, for the PR people who had organised the interview) Even at this age, he has a towering physique, and is eager to diasgree, often forcefully (not without a smile though) and you wonder what makes him tick.
    Thanks a lot to write about his work, Jai. It stirred one of your inactive readers to write a comment after such a long time. How you cook up such emotive topics is beyond me but I wish you further prosperity of thoughts. I also wish Mr Sathyu could produce another classic on Hindu-Muslim divide in modern era too.

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  8. Saw Garm Hawa many years back. It is one of those movies that was seminal (apologies for the cliche!) at the time in its exploration of the Indian Muslim communtity but is now kind of forgotten. As Shazia says inspite of the generally depressing events, by the end it's not that depressing.

    Maula Salim Chisti-awesome song.

    The -SPOILER-scene with Amina's suicide kind of stuck in my mind re hopelessess(Geeta Siddharth was of course pretty much wasted in later roles). But the ending with Farooque Shaikh - if I am not mistaken - was kind of hopeful. And so refreshing to se Jalal Agha as the fiance in a different role.

    I think in fact Balraj Sahni lost his daughter at around the same time hastening his death (or so the story went).

    Stirred a few memories there!

    PS: Do you know if Vijeta is available, jai. I have never found it.

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  9. Anu: yes, Sahni's daughter had committed suicide too. Sathyu said in an interview that he somewhat cruelly asked Sahni to imagine that it was his own daughter lying there in that scene, to get the best reaction out of him.

    No, I don't recall seeing Vijeta on DVD.

    Pankaj: thanks for those inputs. I half-expected someone to inform me that the old lady was a legendary theatre actress (not that it would have changed my view of her performance, but still!).

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  10. It catalogues a series of misfortunes that conveniently afflict a particular minority family. It solicits our empathy in plain terms and offers no positive solution to change the state of affairs.

    shrikanth: that essay I mentioned by M G Raghavendra makes similar points about the film. Though I wouldn't really agree that it has no "breathers" - the initial goofiness of the Jalal Agha character and the whole Salim Chishti interlude does give the film an airing of sorts.

    how much of a movie's experience is related to what (if any) company you watch it with?

    Anon: oh, it always makes a difference. Most of my film-watching is done alone (though I watched the Garm Hava DVD with my wife) and I generally prefer it that way when I'm watching an old film and taking notes. But watching a film with someone else and observing their reaction can also be very illuminating.

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  11. ah ok.

    I saw this movie with my father - the first time my father took me and just me alone to a movie - he really wanted to watch it, and wanted me to watch it.

    So Garam Hawa for me is always illuminated by that particular light. I did see the movie a couple of years later, alone, and was struck by how I'd missed out on some of the less-than-convincing acting. Of course Balraj Sahni's performance is a classic, as is the quawwali (which is always played late at night when enough drink has filtered itself into my blood stream and me and my flatmates are experiencing nostalgia).

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  12. @ Jaiarjun .. loved reading this, kudos!

    @ Anu - Vijeta is available on Shemaroo disks, you could try ordering online.

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  13. Very cool. I have always wanted to see the film and your post on it makes my wanting even more so :)

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  14. A great post Jabberwock. I want to know how many people read your blog? I think I make a serious effort of marketing it some more :)

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  15. I disagree that this movie is particularly manipulative. The events that transpired were in correspondence with the history of that time and are no more manipulative than that of,say, the Grapes of Wrath.
    Also,I do not see this as a parallel or new wave movie - as the term is recognized in the Hindi movie pantheon.It is distinct from the style of someone like Shyam Benegal, who probably pioneered the template of this type of movie.It seems more like a B.R. Chopra movie, that may have been off mainstream for the time it was made, but it used an idiom of cinema that has been used before.

    To me, this movie is memorable for the characters, almost none of whom are stereotypical.The most I love are the Geeta Siddarth and Jalal Agha characters. They have been written with special love and interest.One rarely sees such composite characters in a mainstream movie.
    My favorite scene is the pigeon scene which precedes the Qawwali.I had seen this movie in my childhood and remembered it vividly.That scene would do credit to a director with as sure a poetic hand as Gulzar.

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  16. @Suparna, thanks. Will check Shemaroo!

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  17. Garam Hawa on Facebook

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=367447941745

    The restored version should be coming out soon (in cinemas and later on DVD by next month)

    for those impatient to view it before that

    http://www.filestube.com/096ddde23338bcbc03ea,g/Garam-Hawa-1973-XviD-MP3-1469MB-AF-KUNAL-001.html

    best,

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  18. Just remembered a trivia.First cousin of Geeta Siddarth is played by Tabu's dad.

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  19. Have heard a lot about this movie. Really dying to see this one. If possible, can you please share the shop name and address.

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  20. Jai - Garam Hawa's print available on torrent is really good. You can try it out. I am assuming that you don't mind downloading from torrent. It was Sahni's last performance and he died without even seeing the final cut. Some scenes are very emotional. The one in which they throw mud on the 'chulha' and I think you can see the flames indicating that just minutes ago they cooked food on it never to do it again. I wonder why Sathyu didnt make another film, or Did he? I don't know...nice post

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  21. re this: "... followed by a lengthy shot of Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni) photographed from a waist-high angle at the Agra railway station, waving at a departing train."

    my recollections is a bit different. the opening shot is from a crane as it descends to 'waist high'...and the most vivid image imprinted on my mind is...as the train leaves the station one can see the minarets in the background...espousing the futility of the migration.

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