'Garm Hava' Showed the Dilemmas and Choices of Muslims in 1947 and Remains Relevant Even Today

In Sathyu’s film, both the Muslim and Hindu characters are examples of tolerance, kindness and restraint.

Listen to this article:

Garm Hava stands apart among the many films about the Partition (I had written about this five years ago), in that it is set in Uttar Pradesh and also because it shows the impact on an Indian Muslim family the year after independence and the creation of the new state of Pakistan rather than focusing on the violence and forced migrations of 1947 itself.

Although many films were made about the division of Punjab, relatively few were set in other parts of India. Garm Hava looks at the ashrafi Muslims of Agra. This is the area from which the so-called Mohajirs of Karachi migrated, and the film’s protagonists always talk of ‘going to Karachi’, never to Lahore or anywhere else for that matter. The Hindu migrant to Agra shown in the film also came from Karachi.

The Partition impacted the Hindi film industry profoundly, including the migration of filmmakers from Lahore and Calcutta (Kolkata) to Bombay (Mumbai), with many of its key figures coming from Punjab and Bengal, but most of the personnel on Garm Hava are from elsewhere in India. Many are from UP, including the writers, Kaifi Azmi who adapted the story from an unpublished Urdu short story of Ismat Chughtai’s and composed the verses, and Shama Zaidi who wrote the dialogues (and designed the costumes).

The director, M.S. (Mysore Shrinivas) Sathyu, was from Karnataka but had worked in theatre with Habib Tanvir and in Delhi, as well as in film (notably as art director of Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat, 1964) and documentaries.

The story develops in the dense family networks of Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni) who runs a shoe-making business in Agra. The family negotiations and fights are between siblings, notably the matriarch’s three children – Halim Mirza, Salim Mirza and Akhtar Begum – and their children.

Pakistan is present throughout the film as a place that we don’t see but whose attractions entice migrations and make life difficult or impossible for those who choose to stay in UP.

Salim does not want to leave India any more than his mother wants to desert her marital haveli. Salim’s two siblings migrate to Pakistan. Halim, the politician, realises he must move to Pakistan to flourish, taking his son Kazim, whom Amina, Salim’s daughter, hoped to marry. Once his marriage to a politician’s daughter is decided on, Kazim runs away to Agra to meet Amina but is deported for failing to register with the police as he is now viewed as a citizen of a hostile country.

Watch: M.S. Sathyu: ‘Garm Hava’ Was Stuck With the Censors for 11 Months

Amina is courted by another cousin, Shamshad, and even though she despises him, persuades herself to make do with him. After his parents, Akhtar and Fakruddin, take him to Pakistan, they decide to marry him to a wealthy family.  Amina dies by suicide.

The siblings’ migrations to Pakistan cause yet more problems for the family who remain. As Halim was registered as the owner of the haveli, it is declared evacuee property and the family is evicted.

Salim stoically accepts his misfortunes but as his work collapses, he has to deal with living in a country where he is seen as an outsider, while Punjabi and Sindhi refugees flourish. Sikander, Salim’s son, cannot find work and they decide to set off for Pakistan. However, once in the tonga, Sikander decides to pursue a political solution to his troubles, then Salim decides that he too cannot leave.

A poster for ‘Garm Hava’.

The film depicts an India that is shrinking for this Muslim family and where the economic and social forces at play make the migration to Pakistan seem the logical choice. However, they do not want to leave. Sikander believes that the unions and labour organisation will find him a place in this new India while Salim seems to have an emotional attachment to his home.

Which of the two is the loyal citizen of the new India – Sikander who challenges his marginalisation, refusing to accept there are different categories of citizens, or Salim who endures silently the insults of those who question him and even accuse him of being a Pakistani spy?

The film refuses to portray Muslims as victims and does not shy away from a frank depiction of Fakhruddin, a treacherous man who meddles and seeks his self-interest over his family and his loyalties to the community then leaves for Pakistan.

Nor are Hindus seen to be villains. Ajmani, the migrant from Karachi, is a good man who considers the moral implications of taking over the Mirza haveli and lets Salim’s mother come back to die in it as is her last wish.

Salim and Ajmani offer tolerance, kindness and restraint, perhaps ahimsa, as the way of managing inter communal relations.  The two actors who play these roles are not only greatly talented – Balraj Sahni was perhaps one of India’s greatest actors – but they bring something of themselves to the roles: Sahni whose last role is the one of Salim Mirza in this film and A.K. Hangal who played Ajmani and acted in many films in the latter part of his life.

Balraj (Yudhishthir) Sahni (1913-1973) and A.K. (Avtar Kishan) Hangal (1914-2012) both migrated from what became Pakistan. The Sahnis, from Rawalpindi, settled in Lahore. Baljraj’s brother, Bisham Sahni, was a famous Hindi writer whose works include the Partition novel, Tamas. Balraj studied English and Hindi in Lahore and taught at Visva-Bharati university before working with the BBC in London. He continued to write alongside his acting.

Hangal was a Kashmiri Pandit, born in Sialkot. A tailor, he joined the freedom struggle in the 1920s and moved to Karachi. After spending three years in a Karachi prison for his beliefs, he migrated to India in 1949, launching his prolific career in cinema only in his 50s and continuing to do so until his death at 98, including roles in many major films such as Sholay (1975) and Lagaan (2001).

These two very different men were both members of IPTA and both kept a lifelong interest in politics. They speak to each other in this film both as fine actors in their roles but also beyond them as representing a leftist heritage which sought to mould the new India.  

Garm Hava is not a mainstream Muslim social/Islamicate film but shares many elements with the genre, such as the Urdu poetry and language through the celebrated poet and lyricist, Kaifi Azmi, as well as that of Shama Zaidi. The latter also chose the costumes which help shape the characters – so Mirza wears the formal garb of the UP Muslim of the time, while Sikander dresses as a modern Indian. Clothes can mark political as well as religious leanings and some change them to suit themselves, so adopting Congress khadi to present their new allegiances.

Buildings bear a significance beyond the merely decorative. The haveli shows the family’s status as once grand but now falling into disrepair as their fortunes fade.  The great monuments of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri embody the family’s connections to the place, and as Salim Mirza is framed against the Taj Mahal, his refusal to leave his own and his community’s history is clear. Yet the train – which seems to be a train to Pakistan – is seen and heard whistling in front of the monuments, the modern pulling them away.

The great song of the film, the qawwali ‘Maula Salim Chishti‘ is by Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi. The Warsi brothers, descended from Mughal qawwals, are based in Hyderabad where they were court performers for the Nizam, again connecting Indian Muslims to the history of the country. The qawwali shows Amina and Shamshad as devotees of Salim Chishti but it seems that the forces that divide the community take Shamshad away.

As in mainstream melodramas, the family stands in for the nation and it makes us react emotionally. Yet Garm Hava is a work of the parallel or middle cinema, a realist form of cinema which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s in India.

This form is typified by the work of Shyam Benegal, who made his now classic film, Ankur, the same year, showing a commitment to realism and an awareness of pushing at the boundaries of cinema itself.

The film’s music is by Bahadur Khan, a Bengali from East Bengal/Bangladesh, who composed the music for many of Ritwik Ghatak’s films.

Also read: The Pain of Partition, as Seen in the Literature of Many Languages

Garm Hava also shows features of a more avant-garde film, notably in interviews including that of Salim and the bank manager and Sikander’s job interview where we don’t see the interviewer so it seems that the character is addressing the audience directly. In both interviews, Salim and Sikander realise that their economic future is uncertain in the new India. These two scenes made me recall Mrinal Sen’s The Interview (1971).

Garm Hava remains relevant today. The aesthetics of India’s Muslims (at least the elite) may be admired – language, poetry, dress, music and an elegant lifestyle – but they are frozen in the past as we see in the famous frame of Salim Mirza mentioned above. Images of Muslims in Hindi films now are often more politicised, perhaps in the context of Kashmir or the post 9/11 world presented as images of a new modernity. However, it is not just the Indian Muslim who has changed, but the Indian state and its self-image and the idea of Indian secularism. Sikander’s political solutions are only shaping up at the end of the film.

In the years since Partition and indeed since the making of Garm Hava, India and Pakistan have moved further apart. Choices made then have implications which last until today.

Rachel Dwyer is professor emerita of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.