Garam Hawa ( Scorching Winds, 1973, Urdu with English Subtitles)

Balraj Sahni as Salim Mirza, his last and finest performance.

Balraj Sahni as Salim Mirza, his last and finest performance. 

Dir.: MS Sathyu

The opening shot of Garam Hawa shows Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni) standing on a railway platform, bidding a family member goodbye. The train is going to Pakistan, carrying Muslims going to Pakistan soon after independence, and in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination. He stands rooted to his place much after the person has disappeared from view, and continues to wave, lost in thought. In a sense it is a symbolic goodbye to an undivided India, an idea that will stay alive forever in the hearts of people like Salim Mirza. As the last compartment of the train exits the screen, the dome of a Mosque comes into view. Salim Mirza does even glance at it. Outside the railway station he hails a horse drawn carriage to go to his shoe factory.  The coachman is very forthright in his interrogation of Salim Mirza and his frank assessment of the situation sets the tone for the film, where Salim’s mulish decision to stay back will be questioned at every step.

Salim Mirza lives with his two brothers , the elder brother who sees himself as a Muslim leader with a future in Pakistan and a younger sibling who is a pragmatic businessman. Garam Hawa chronicles the saga of the Mirza families decline, skilfully depicted in scenes of the family eating together in their ancestral mansion. As the film progresses their number decrease steadily with the exodus of branches of the family to Pakistan. The shrinking of the dinner party is juxtaposed with the  decline of the shoe factory which ultimately moves in to their home with Salim Mirza himself lending a hand to the workers. The economic and emotional downfall of Salim Mirza is the downfall of the entire Muslim community in independent India.

Garam Hawa was made in 1973, exactly 25 years after independence and it was a good time to  take stock of the Muslim condition in India. The writers of the film Kaifi Aazmi and Shama Zaidi never shift the point of view from the Muslim to the Hindu. The Hindu landlords who turn away Muslim tenants do so only for the very practical fear of having unpaid rents by tenants fleeing the country. Not for a moment is any blame laid at the doorstep of a Hindu, systemically speaking.

Ameena (Geeta Siddhartha), Salim Mirza daughter is in love with her cousin. She is effectively betrothed  to him but when he follows his politically ambitious father to Pakistan she continues to nurture the hope that he will come back to marry her. When he enters an alliance of convenience in Pakistan,  Ameena is shattered but soon begins to reciprocate the advances of Shamshad (Jalal Agha). When Shamshad too betrays her and leaves for Pakistan,  Ameena kills herself.  This trope from Indian popular cinema is used in Garam Hawa as a possible metaphor for the betrayal of Indian Muslims by both its community elders and opportunist politicians.

This little snippet of dialogue is key to the film.

This little snippet of dialogue is key to the film.

Balraj Sahani plays the quintessential pacifist, his love of his land and his value system is unshakeable and often his family members accuse him of being “impractical”,  the very same criticism which was regularly levelled at Gandhi. In that respect Balraj Sahni is the stand in for Gandhi in this film, the patriarch who is slowly becoming irrelevant in the same way that Gandhi had been sidelined in his final years. Salim Mirza continues to speak of the supreme sacrifice of Gandhi, who has just been assassinated, and hopes that it will not be in vain.

It is strange that nobody today talks about why Muslims chose to stay back in India, after the creation of Pakistan. This is a question that Garam Hawa attempts to answer in a tangential way. The exact reason why Salim Mirza wants to stay back is never explicitly articulated but in his stubborn refusal to leave, Salim displays a rootedness that cannot be tampered with by politicians.Garam Hawa is consistent in its thesis that the going to Pakistan was, at worst, an act of economic opportunism and at best a very practical move.  Staying back was an act of faith, an emotional decision.  This thesis is of course highly debatable. A single fictitious character cannot embody the predicament and illustrate the decision making process of an entire community, but the emotional state of Salim Mirza is what remains with us.

In India, the worlds largest democracy and arguably the most culturally diverse country in the world, vote banks are the real elephants in polling booths. This should logically mean that minorities also enjoy the rewards of being kingmakers but in a Machiavellian move the voters have been systematically ghettoised while a thin sliver among them has siphoned off the benefits of affirmative action policies. In a telling scene, the well qualified son of Salim Mirza,  Sikandar (Farookh Shaikh), is denied a job by a Muslim interviewer because the interviewer does not want to be seen favouring his brethren and thus damage his secular image. This murder of meritocracy in independent India has since been institutionalised and has hollowed the bureaucracy from its very foundations.

In Singapore, where I live, the question of the minorities could have been a big problem but because of its small size this island state has deployed targeted welfare measures. The policy that I admire most is the way communities have been made to live with each other in direct proportion to their numbers. Since over 90% of the population lives in public housing, the implementation of this policy has been very successful and ensured that no race based ghettoes form,  without sacrificing any political inclusiveness. Of course such a policy is not feasible in a mammoth country like India but the damaging effects of identity politics is obvious for all to see.

The Mirza Family, in transition.

The Mirza Family, in transition.

Garam Hawa effectively dramatizes the complex  Muslim question by looking at a beleaguered family as it grapples with the tragedy of partition. It is a classic example of approaching the general through the particular.  Interestingly since Salim Mirza and his family are wealthy businesspeople to start with, they are effectively insulated from the worst, there is no blood spilled in their family, and therefore the fate of the poorest comes into sharp focus with the smallest extrapolation. The creative and acting team was mostly drawn from IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre Association) and the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the group is patently manifest in its ending which suggests that a popular people’s movement is the only solution to the problems of post indolence India, that the freedom movement was but a beginning of the creation of a new equitable social order.

Ultimately the film rides on the shoulders of Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi’s screenplay based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai , embellished with great performances by a caste led by the towering genius of Balraj Sahani and is masterfully directed MS Sathyu. This was not an easy film to shoot on location  in Agra because of it sensitive material and even more difficult to release theatrically as it was labelled anti Hindu and pro Muslim by some sections of the Indian polity.

This film is called the seminal film on the partition of India but that is a gross misnomer. It would be more accurate to describe Garam Hawa as the best dramatised treaties on Muslims in post independence  India. Garam Hawa tests the limited powers of cinema as a tool for political discourse and 40 years later remains searingly relevant, from the strife torn Kashmir valley to the sealed Muslim ghettos of coastal Kerala, where a scorching wind of communalism still blows.

A poster of the film for the theatrical re-release of its restored version. The restoration project was born out of a quest to release a good DVD print.We can hope for a good copy soon.

A poster of the film for the theatrical re-release of its restored version. The restoration project was born out of a quest to release a good DVD print.We can hope for a good copy soon.

Read the story of the films restoration here:

#A watchable copy of the film is available youtube. I met the director MS Sathyu once at a film festival and walked upto him to express my deep admiration for his film. He asked me how did I manage to watch the film and I replied rather meekly -” You Tube”. This really seemed to upset him and he said thats a pirated copy. I did not reply but thought to myself that in the absence of any other legitimate way to watch such an important film I think I did well. When the restored DVD is released I will buy multiple copies to make up and gift them to my friends.

Categories: Cinema

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4 replies

  1. Hey Amit,

    Very well written, makes the movie come to life once again !

    Cheers, keep up the good work


  2. Yes, a good review of an interesting film. My one reservation is over the film’s significance. The ending shows our protagonists joining a popular demonstration led by communists: the people involved seem to be a cross-section of Agra’s working class communities. That would seem to be directed at all-India.
    The IPTA’s values are not any more ideology than that led by Gandhi. And this ending suggests a different route from that espoused by Gandhi and Congress.

    • Yes the ending is what it is, but the ending was the least important part of the film too me. What was important is that Salim Mirza finds an “excuse” to say back. I hardly see him as a budding communist.
      Thanks for reading, commenting, much appreciate.


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