Big budgets do not always necessarily guarantee high-quality films. More often that not, they focus more on star-power and music rather than the actual script or plot. “Garam Hawa” was shot on a paltry budget of two lakhs (the whole budget was actually eight lakhs only) and yet is a landmark film in Hindi cinema for its intriguing plot, involving characters and great acting.
The story is set during the year 1947 and shows the after-effects of the Partition. Ismat Chugtai was a remarkable Urdu writer who wrote tales that challenged convention and made you think. “Garam Hawa” is based on one of her stories (with a few minor changes made to it), which has never been published. The film examines the plight of the Muslims who chose not to emigrate to the new country of Pakistan and decided to stay behind in India instead. “Garam Hawa” opens with Mirza Salim (Balraj Sahni) standing at a railway platform and bidding goodbye to all his relatives on the train who are all absconding to Pakistan. After that, Salim struggles to make a living in India while having to cope with the prejudices of non-Muslim Indians and the gloating of his Pakistani relatives who urge him to leave his home country.
At the heart of this turmoil, is a moving subplot regarding Salim’s daughter Amina (Gita Siddharth). The post-Partition period plays havoc with her emotions. She never knows whom to trust. She falls in love with her father’s brother’s son, Kazim (Jamal Hashmi) who also claims to love her too. The true test comes when his father decides that he and his family will leave for Pakistan. Kazim has to obey his father’s orders and leaves with the promise that he will return and make Amina a bride. Kazim does eventually try to honor his promise but once he is back in India (illegally), the authorities deport him before he has a chance to marry Amina. A heartbroken Amina never hears from him again.
Her heart heals slowly when her other admirer, Shamshad (Jalal Agha) steps into the picture and relentlessly keeps declaring his love for her until she gives in and responds to his feelings. Sadly, Amina goes through a similar situation all over again as Shamshad’s family runs up a financial debt and decide to escape to Pakistan. This time, Shamshad’s promise to marry Amina seems more earnest as his love for her borders on obsession. Perhaps it was all a façade as news leaks that Shamshad has married someone else in Pakistan. The revealing of this news is done rather cruelly by Shamshad’s mother who returns to India to visit Amina’s family and to buy new clothes for a ‘bride’ leading Amina to believe that the pretty clothes are all for her. She is devastated when the truth dawns on her. Whenever she is about to adorn the bridal veil, it is always snatched away from her. This constant heartbreak leads to a tragic denouement. Her situation could be compared to the state of India herself. Every time India is ready to adorn herself, she is torn away by communal riots, wars and corrupt politicians.
The turmoil within India in the late 1940’s is portrayed in the opening credits. A photo of Gandhi jolts as the sound effect of three gunshots blare. The opening credits is an absorbing montage of black and white photos that showcase people of all religions. “Gita ki na koi sunta na Quran ke sunta… (No one heeds the Gita, no one heeds the Koran)” states a voice-over. He opines that faith has lost all meaning and all people of all religions have turned ignorant and intolerant against each other. The film shows Indian Hindus’ prejudice against Indian Muslims. Since the new state of Pakistan, they feel betrayed and threatened by their fellow Muslims. They feel that a lot of Muslims will escape to Pakistan anyway and turn their backs on India. As head of the family, Salim has to face the full-on effect of this prejudicial attitude. In one telling scene, a tangewala charges him two rupees instead of the regular eight annas. When Salim objects to the dramatic rise, the tangewala tells him to run off to Pakistan where he can ride about for eight annas as long as he wants. But the attack is not just on the hostile attitude of some of the Indian Hindus, it also attacks the hypocrisy of some of Indian Muslims at the time of the Partition. Kazim’s father, Halim Mirza (Dinanath Zutshi) is an important Muslim party leader and declares at a speech rally: “Yahan ke saare Musalmaan chale jaayen to kam se kam ek Musalmaan yahan se kabhi nahin jaayega aur us Musalmaan ka naam hai Halim Mirza (Even if all the Muslims leave India, there will always be one Muslim remaining and his name is Halim Mirza)”. Yet in the following scene, he says to his wife: “Ab main bhi yahan nahin reh sakta… ab Hindustan main kise Musalmaan ke liye koi jagah nahin (Even I cannot stay in India now, there is no space left in India for any Muslim)”!
“Garam Hawa” is often described as having one of Balraj Sahni’s best, if not the best, performances. And that is essentially true. His is a towering performance and he plays the role of a man who is trying desperately hard to solve desperate circumstances with dignity and hope with aplomb. Salim’s character’s eldest son shouts at him for not facing up to the fact that all his relatives will permanently be staying in Pakistan. “Aap na jaane kis zamane ki baatein karte hain, kis duniya main rehte hain! (I don’t know how you think or what planet you live on!)” After that comment, Sahni gives a knowing look and a nod as if to affirm this point of view quietly. His is a character who wishes so much that life would go just like how it used to be in the past. Another outstanding performance is by Gita Siddharth. She is an intense actress who emotes the scarring pain of her character. I wish her potential had been tapped into more but unfortunately she has only appeared in a handful of films after this. Incidentally, most of the actors were new at the time and were discovered at Indian People’s Theatre Association. All the actors hold their own and Farouque Sheikh (who plays Sikandar, Salim’s youngest son) and Jalal Agha as well as others have all gone onto do parts in big films.
Among the inexperienced cast, the lady (name unknown) who plays Dadi Maa turns in a winning performance. She was discovered during the shooting. It is heartrending the way her character hides in a woodshed just as the whole family is about to leave the ancestral home. Her death afterwards leaves an impact because it says so much about the Partition. It destroyed so many souls and so many hearts. Kaifi Azmi adapted the story and wrote the dialogues and lyrics. He shines in all his avatars. Azmi was an excellent choice because he had an expert knowledge of the Urdu language and the Muslim culture. He is one of the main reasons why the portrayal of a Muslim family caught up in a severe crisis is so authentic and realistic.
“Garam Hawa” is not a conventional musical saga so there are no songs. However, there is one qawalli by Ustad Bahadur Khan. M.S. Sathyu, the director, deftly makes use of it for climactic effect. It comes at the moment when it is revealed that Amina has fallen for Shamshad. This is no typical declaration of love scene as Amina’s voice echoes when she interrupts Shamshad in the middle of his story-telling. While the picturization of the qawalli is simple, it is awe-inspiring because it takes you into the heart of the Tomb of Chishti, one of India’s most famous spots. Ishan Arya’s sharp and rich cinematography gives us a crisp glimpse of the world-famous landmark. To say that Sathyu’s direction is grand is an understatement. A true test is when a director has to cope with a minimal budget. It relies on their imagination to make sure that the film still entertains and gets its message across. Sathyu manages to do that with huge success. In the plot, Salim has to ask for a loan at the bank and enquire about possible houses to rent. In these scenes, Sahni talks straight to the camera and the visual appearance of the other person (a bank manager and a landlord) is never revealed. It is quite an effective gesture by Sathyu because it drives home the impersonal faceless-ness of Indian Hindus who have begun to distrust an honest man like Salim. If there is one minor criticism about the plot, it would be that many of the Muslim characters who have moved to Pakistan are portrayed as being fickle, cold-hearted or selfish. But this slight bias does not really register as the film does not make any outlandish judgements but merely sees the Pakistanis from the Indians’ point of view. The ending of the film is uplifting as it shows Muslims standing up for themselves and demanding their rights to better treatment from their non-Muslim Indian brothers.
M.S. Sathyu’s directorial debut won a National award and there were Filmfare awards for Kaifi Azmi for best screenplay, (along with Shama Zaidi who also contributed to the screenplay), best story (naturally sharing the award with Ismat Chugtai) and best dialogues.