Garm Hawa (Hot winds) is undoubtedly one of the best movies ever made on the Partition. Director M S Sathyu’s best work till date, it was based on a gripping short story by the immensely talented Ismat Chugtai. As eminent filmmaker Satyajit Ray observed in his review, the poignant theme of the film itself placed it on a pedestal but Sathyu, with playwrights Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi, spared no effort to make the adaptation stand tall on its cinematic merit.And of course, with the luxury of an exceptional star cast, they had every reason to be reassured. Balraj Sahani, Shaukat Azmi, Farooque Sheikh, Jalal Agha, Gita Siddharth..…. The names give an idea of the caliber.
The film revolves around the life of Mirza Salim (Balraj Sahni), a middle-aged shoe manufacturer from Agra. His leather business has flourished over generations and his personal life has been quite fulfilling. But the Partition turns his life upside down as one by one; disaster strikes his household in a chain of tragic events. A Sindhi refugee claims their ancestral dwelling soon after Salim’s elder brother leaves for Pakistan and the house is declared evacuee property. Immediately after shifting to a smaller rented place, his aging mother breathes her last in the ancestral Haveli, her wish fulfilled through the magnanimous gesture of the new owner. Salim Mirza is helpless before the new realities but retains his stoic calm in bidding goodbye to the growing procession of Muslims heading towards Pakistan- his relatives, neighbours and friends among others. His stance rests on the firm belief that things would soon be normal again. But the string of misfortune is longer than he expects. Prime among the tragedies is his daughter’s (Gita Siddharth) suicide, devastated by the tragic end of her love story – not once but twice in her short life.
Finally with a heavy heart, Salim Mirza sets out bag and baggage as the others have. The film ends on a note of leftist hope when his son Sikander (Farooque Sheikh) joins a procession of student activists demanding fair play from the government. The father, after a momentary reckoning, decides to follow suit.
It’s interesting to note the multi-pronged attack the film invited before and after its much-laboured release in 1973. The now controversial BJP luminary L K Advani was then the editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organizer. It is believed he condemned the film by labeling it a Pakistan sponsored initiative. As a result, the producers had a torrid time to get things back on track – what with few distributors backing out besides delay in securing the censor certificate. Even among the people who liked the film, some thought it painted a bleak picture of the Pakistan immigrants showing them as an unpatriotic and immoral lot.
To me, the film beautifully highlighted the agony of the commoners against the backdrop of the socio-economic transformation following the partition. It is as much a story of a wrecked nation and dubious political stratagem as it is of personal trauma and crumbling individual lives, the torture equally vicious on either side of the border. Some accused the director of employing a deliberate leftist twist to Chugtai’s original story of an ordinary stationmaster protagonist, going by Kaifi Azmi’s known communist leanings.
Yes, such twist the tale definitely carried, but did not Azmi enhance the theme, astutely exploiting his stint as an ex-union leader of a shoe factory in the portrayal of a personal trauma of national significance.
The towering presence of Balraj Sahni, his last major appearance on celluloid, is the film's most enduring feature. With his exception, most of the players came from the experimental reservoir of IPTA but the entire cast contributed to the film’s cause in equal measure, so did Shama Zaidi’s authentic Agra settings and Ustad Bahadur Khan’s soulful music.
To this day, people find it hard to believe Sathyu hails from Karnataka. To them, such authentic reproduction of surroundings could only come about with first hand experience rooted in lineage. Such was the effect it had on the insightful audience- very much in minority akin to the subject matter of the film.
The film is replete with memorable scenes depicting pathos of a different league. In one such profound scene, Salim Mirza’s Tonga accidentally upsets a fruit seller’s cart and a near-riot ensues in the Moholla. Advising his Tonga puller to check his mounting emotion, Salim Mirza remarks in his characteristic seasoned voice
“Nayi Nayi Aazadi mili hai, log apna apna matlab nikaal rahe hai” (With a brand new freedom at hand, people are hoisting their own versions.) Such times! Such films!