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50th year of Garm Hawa & 50 years without Balraj Sahni- a homage by O.P. Srivastava

A still from Garm Hawa(1974).

Garm Hawa (1974) is undoubtedly the best Indian film to capture the pain of Partition that swept the Indian subcontinent. Another film that captured the tragedy with equal intensity is Tamas (Darkness), a TV film by Govind Nihalani, released in 1988. While Garm Hawa stars Balraj Sahni as the protagonist, Tamas stars his younger brother, Bhishm Sahni, who wrote the novel that the film is based on. The Sahni brothers were born in Rawalpindi, Punjab, and migrated to India in 1930’s.

Garm Hawa (Hot Winds) is based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai and was jointly scripted by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi. The film documents the life of an aging Muslim businessman from Agra, Salim Mirza(Balraj Sahni), who stoically refuses to leave for Pakistan, even when his family is socially ostracized in the city he has been living in for generations. Sahni’s restrained performance is the highlight of the film. As a man torn between two worlds, Sahni gave the performance of his life. Unfortunately, he passed away in April 1973, before the film was released. Reportedly, the last lines dubbed for the film were ‘Insaan kitne din akela rah sakta hai?’ (How long can a person live alone?).

While the original story centred on a stationmaster stuck in the throes of Partition, Kaifi Azmi incorporated his own experiences as a workers’ union leader at a shoe-manufacturing factory into the film. He not only changed the protagonist’s profession, but also placed him right in the middle of the film’s emotional cauldron, as he watches his livelihood and family disintegrating rapidly, making the trauma of Partition personal. In the original story, the protagonist is a mere observer, watching his friends and family migrate. This re-writing fulfilled the film’s main object: To show the human (rather than social or economic) consequences of Partition.

A still from Garm Hawa(1974).

Garm Hawa makes you feel the heat and dust, pain and agony of one of the biggest tragedies in history. The film has evocatively captured the mental agony and dilemma of the Indian people at a juncture when their emotions, fears, loyalties, relationships, prayers, dreams and hopes were divided in two: One going to Pakistan and the other coming from Pakistan. The film leaves the audience with inerasable images like that of a grandmother being forcibly pulled out of her ancestral haveli and the stoic face of Salim Mirza running around Agra’s shoe market, trying to sell his stock of shoes, while all his kin have left for Pakistan; the image of a young, vivacious and beautiful Amina (Gita Siddharth), shattered by betrayal in marriage, ending her life through suicide; and the image of the chulha (oven/fireplace) being demolished with a kick from Mrs Mirza (Shaukat Kaifi) when they are forced to leave their haveli to shift to a rented house.

The film stars Balraj Sahni, Farooq Shaikh, Dinanath Zutshi, Badar Begum, Geeta Siddharth, Shaukat Kaifi, AK Hangal and Jalal Agha. The classical musician Ustad Bahadur Khan composed the film’s score with lyrics by Kaifi Azmi. It also featured a qawwali composed and performed by Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi and his troupe, Warsi Brothers. The film’s cinematography was done by Ishan Arya (Irshad Ahsan), who made his debut with this film. Ishan, who works largely in Telugu cinema, is a nephew of Shaukat Kaifi and the first cousin of Shabana Azmi. This film launched the career of actor Farooq Shaikh but was Balraj Sahni’s last film.

Balraj Sahni in Garm Hawa91974).

Garm Hawa was India’s official entry to the Best Foreign Film category at the 1974 Academy Awards. It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won a National Film Award (Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration) in the same year. In addition, it won three Filmfare Awards in 1975: Best Dialogue (Kaifi Azmi), Best Screenplay (Shama Zaidi and Kaifi Azmi) and Best Story (Ismat Chugtai and Kaifi Azmi).

In all honesty, the credit for bringing such a heart-rending human story to the big screen must go to the writers, Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi, and the director, MS Sathyu, who meticulously detailed the life and times of citizens during Partition and Mirza’s mental conflict. However, the soul of the film is drawn out through the evocatively restrained portrayal of Mirza by one of Indian cinema’s greatest actors, Balraj Sahni. The pain of Partition is etched on his face line-by-line and wrinkle-by-wrinkle, and the agony pours out through his expressive eyes. The film ends with a poem by Kaifi Azmi:

Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazara, unke liye toofan yahaan bhi hai aur wahaan bhi.

Dhare me jo mil jaoge ban jaoge dhara, ye waqt ka ailaan hai, wahaan bhi yahan bhi, yahan bhi.

(For those who watch a storm pass by from a distance, there is fear here as well as there. But those who join the flow become a part of the mainstream; this is the need of the hour here as well as there).

Films like Garm Hawa are ageless human stories that cut across the limitations of time and space. Such films are a part of our cultural heritage and a true embodiment of ‘the idea of India’. This film, along with Sara Aakash and Bhuvan Shome, is credited with pioneering a new wave of Hindi art cinema. These three films along with Uski Roti laid the foundation of the road called parallel cinema in the landscape of Hindi cinema.

Such powerful films, with such powerful performances, must be preserved for future generations to see and appreciate.

O.P. Srivastava is a Mumbai based former banker, cinephile, writer & filmmaker.

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Apr 24, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent tribute to one of the best films, and actor, by a National Award winner.

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