M S Sathyu came out with ‘Garam Hawa’ in 1974, and the response to it feels like it was 2019. The Shiv Sena, without watching the film, thought history was misrepresented, and the release was stalled for close to a year.
The film tells the story of Salim Mirza, a Muslim shoe manufacturer of great integrity, who has to pay a dear price for not wanting to leave India after Partition. The role is played by Balraj Sahni in one of Indian cinema’s great performances.
Although ‘Garam Hawa’ is a 45-year-old film made about something that happened 70 years ago, it echoes worries that Muslims in the country have expressed since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was tabled in Parliament.
The situation seems fairly calm at the beginning of the story. Then the distrust begins. Mirza tries to get a loan to finish a tender his factory has got, but the banks are worried he would run away with the money to Pakistan, as they have had many Muslim defaulters already.
(Funnily, the bank is Punjab National Bank, which has been in the news for its diamantaire defaulter who gave the bank a royal kick in the nether regions and ran away to another foreign country.)
A tonga driver asks Mirza Rs 2 for an 8 anna ride with the explanation, “Your time here is over”. Mirza gets off the tonga saying: “Everyone has their own interpretation of what is happening”.
This sentiment, in particular, seems to sound true of worries many Muslims have today: whether or not the government says Indian Muslims are safe, if the sense that the people of the religion are second-class citizens is given out, others may be emboldened to make brash decisions.
The film also traces the lives of other members of the Mirza family, the oddest of which is Salim’s old mother.
Her actions and observations of the workings of the outside world, while never leaving the house, are naive, but unwittingly serve as satire. When a custodian comes to their house saying they have to vacate, she wonders out loud: “I bore only two sons. Who is this third one claiming my house?”
She goes missing when the family is packing up to leave the house, and is found hiding amid logs of wood, simply refusing to move. Mirza’s eldest son has to pick her up and leave.
She is somewhat reminiscent of the man in Saadat Hasan Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ who climbs a tree and declares “I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree.” (The short story from which ‘Garam Hawa’ was adapted was written by Manto’s friend Ismat Chughtai).
They are both people whom others have judged to have not have full possession of their faculties (the man is in an asylum; the old mother is senile), and live by rules more fundamental, such as a sense of home, than those set by governments. The last word she speaks before her death is ‘haveli’.
The widely respected Mirza too has something of his mother in him. Just as the mother is attached to her sense of the ‘haveli’, he is attached to his sense of the ‘mulk’.
Incidentally, the Rishi Kapoor-starring 2018 film ‘Mulk’ owes much more to ‘Garam Hawa’ than it has been given credit. The character played by Kapoor is a poor approximation of Salim Mirza.
The man in ‘Mulk’ seems aware of what speil to give and what markers to produce when he is questioned on being a good Muslim. Mirza’s goodness isn’t defined by whether he may stand up for the national anthem in a theatre or where the country’s borders are that point in history.
‘Vatan’ for him is a macro version of what ‘haveli’ is to his mother. He will leave only when he is mocked and taunted to a point where he can’t stay any more. He is, in other words, a tree that refuses to be uprooted.
This is the metaphor that the title of the film refers to. During a tonga ride Mirza takes in the beginning of the movie, he notices that flowering trees are being uprooted. He asks the tonga driver about this, who replies that the trees would wither in the scorching winds (the eponymous ‘Garam Hawa’) of the times otherwise.
For its deeply tragic content, ‘Garam Hawa’ is not a pessimistic film. So, although the film is too nuanced to pin-point one “message” that it gives out, it may be a note of hope for those watching it today.
There is, in fact, a point where the film breaks its realistic narrative to give some advice to the audience. Towards the end of the film, as Mirza talks to his family, who seem to have had enough of the tribulations, he pulls an old Brechtian trick. Breaking the fourth wall, he suddenly looks into the camera and says, “If we leave now, they will for sure think we have done something wrong.”
Sathyu’s own ambitions in using this trope may have been modest, but watching it now, after the President has signed CAB into an Act, it feels like someone was leaving a message-in-a-bottle for another person from the future to pick up.