“Today, in spite of all the historic and political things that have happened, India is still a united, secular country and it is secularism which holds the country together,” says Garm Hava director MS Sathyu. Excerpts from a free-ranging conversation.
Sir, it is a pleasure to be doing this talk with you and congratulations on your 90th birthday. Before we begin talking about Garm Hava, I wanted to ask you about the social and cinematic changes of the period. In the 1960s, we had a flourishing sub-genre called the Muslim social, with films like Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Mere Mehboob and stories about Nawabs and their loves doing so well at the box office. But when we come to the early ’70s, when you were making Garm Hava, there seems to be some cynicism and dis-enchantment in the air.
The Muslims are also a part of a secular India and we had to look at them as mainstream citizens, and this was not done in Hindi cinema. The Muslim population represented in Hindi cinema was decadent and more about the Nawabs and there was seldom a realistic approach.
But it was not a planned effort to make Garm Hava. The finance for another script was not sanctioned by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). But they said they would like to fund something else, and we spoke to Ismat Chughtai. She narrated a story about what happened in her family during the Partition. Shama [Zaidi] made that into a script and the FFC granted us Rs. 2,50,000. We went to Agra. It was difficult to shoot in such a crowded city, and it was important to work out means of making the camera invisible. A lot of candid photography was also done.
Garm Hava became different because it was a touching story. In fact, the sentimental part of it was of greater appeal to the audience because Indian audiences always like tear-jerkers, and Garm Hava was an excellent tear-jerker.
I don’t know if I’d call it a “tear-jerker”. Garm Hava has an exalted position in Indian cinema and calling it a tear-jerker makes it sound more like a populist melodrama.
It was not melodramatic as such. It was showing Muslims as a part of the population. Reservations and minorities didn’t matter to us and we were just looking at Muslims of a particular area. For example, in U.P., a lot of people migrated to Pakistan in the hope of living a heavenly life over there, which did not come true. In fact, most of them were not accepted over there. So these Muslims did not return to India but they went to countries like Canada, United States, the Gulf, and started their lives over there.
A lot that happens in Garm Hava is resonant in today’s times. Especially when the Balraj Sahni character’s elder brother says, “Ab Hindustan mein kisi Musalman ko koi jagah nahi hai!” How was it in the 1970s? Were the strong anti-Muslim sentiments from Partition-time still in the air?
Many people in the Muslim-populated areas in U.P. and Bihar felt that way. So when Pakistan was already formed, they thought that their heaven was made, but the reality was very different. There are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, Bangladesh or any Arab country. I guess the largest Muslim population after Indonesia is in India. If you look at the past, India was ruled by Muslims and only in the South, there were Hindu rulers like the Cholas and the Kadambas. But even there, there were the Sultanates who ruled for a while. It was only after the defeat of the Vijayanagara Empire by the Sultans that things changed.
I personally feel that India as a whole was not partitioned. It was only Punjab and Bengal. To a person like me who comes from Mysore, Partition made no sense at all. For that matter, the Muslims who lived south of the Narmada were not affected by it at all. Today, in spite of all the historic and political things that have happened, India is still a united, secular country and it is secularism which holds the country together. Though Hindus are a majority here, the followers of Hinduism are less in number in the world when compared with Islam, Christianity or Buddhism. Though India is considered home for Hindus, the Hindu community has always looked after other communities. It allowed other religions to grow and that is the uniqueness of India.
I’d read in an interview that you worked with Chetan Anand in Haqeeqat because the Indo-China war had just happened and there was a lot of anti-China feeling in everybody, and this made you want to be a part of that film. Did something similar strike you when you read the screenplay for Garm Hava?
At the time, there were a lot of movies that were anti-Pakistan. But when you make a film about Muslims, it is important to be politically correct. And politically correct films are very rarely made. In the name of patriotism, you make wrong films. As Bernard Shaw said, patriotism is itself a cheap sentiment. It has no relevance at all and most of the films that were made about the Partition and Muslims failed to represent the Muslims. They were also not secular enough.
The credits of Garm Hava appear over a series of black-and-white photographs. At first, the photographs seem celebratory and show India in all her glory, but slowly the images get bleaker and there are guns and ruins, and finally you end with an image of Mahatma Gandhi. On the soundtrack, you hear bullets. How did this opening come about?
When the migration took place between India and Pakistan, it was never documented properly. So we just managed to get a few black-and-white stills which we used for the titles. We used images that were mostly available and there were very few cinematic shots in it. We wanted to show a bit of the reality that had occurred before we went into the life of a Muslim family.
There is an interesting transition. The very first scene has the Balraj Sahni character saying goodbye to someone who is going away on a train. This scene slowly turns from black-and-white to colour, and the rest of the film is in colour…
Well, that was a technical thing. There were no colour photographs those days. One couldn’t get news pictures in colour. So that forced us to use black-and-white stills and then dissolve into colour when the film started at the railway station. Many people think Garm Hava was a black-and-white film. It wasn’t. But we used colour in a very different way. We shot most of the film in winter, but we tried to show the different seasons like summer and spring through the clothing. It is impossible to wear a mulmul kurta in December in Agra but we had to do it for the sake of the film.
When Balraj Sahni’s character is evicted from his house, he has to look for a new place to live. As he walks on the street, we hear the voices of the people who’ve rejected him. And when he enters a house to ask if accommodation is available, you don’t see the person he is talking to. The same thing happens when later Farooq Sheikh’s character goes for an interview. We aren’t shown the interviewee, though we hear the man’s voice.
That was a technique I used because there was no need for the other characters to be shown. And they had a negative attitude and made statements like, “You should go to Pakistan without wasting your time here.” I didn’t want to put a face to such villains and give an identity to such people.
Almost till the end, Salim Mirza is somebody who believes, “Sab Allah ki marzi hai.” Was this your way of commenting on people who believe blindly in certain things?
He was a devout Muslim, but he was not communal. When you show a minority community, you need to be very careful. There are people who are negative and then communal. Salim Mirza’s brother was a Muslim leader and although he claimed that India was his country, he was the very first person to run away to Pakistan. He was a negative character. Farooq Sheikh’s character just wanted to know if a Muslim has equal rights in this country. But again, an uncle asks if there are no colleges in Pakistan. All this was carefully thought of while scripting.
You mentioned that Salim Mirza was not a communal man. In one part of the film, when he goes to borrow money from a seth, he says ‘Ram Ram’ as a greeting. Then he says, “Aaj Lakshmi ji ke darshan karwane honge.” It is very rare to find Muslim characters in Indian cinema making references to Hindu gods.
That was deliberately done. Initially, our protagonist was a station master who’d see his friends going to Pakistan, every day. When we went to Kaifi Azmi to write the dialogues, he felt that it wouldn’t be politically correct. He changed many things. He made the character a shoe-factory owner. The shoe trade was mainly in the hands of Muslims and was considered a taboo amongst Hindus. The “untouchables” made the shoes and the factories were owned by Muslims. After Partition, the Hindu refugees who came from Pakistan wanted to establish themselves and there were many vacant factories in Agra and Kanpur. They started buying these factories and the taboo was slowly erased.
Almost everyone who worked on this film was a Leftist. In a way, it was a fusion of people’s ideology and what the film was trying to convey. Today, we don’t find much of politics in cinema. While there are politically inclined filmmakers, their films don’t seem to come from an internal political conviction. Would you like to comment on that?
The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was one of the biggest forces to happen in India. KA Abbas, who was part of this movement, along with many other progressive writers and poets, started this idea of people’s theatre. When I made this film, I chose actors who were members of IPTA. So there was ideological cohesion, which normally doesn’t happen. This helped a lot because there weren’t many contradictions.
You made a lot of television shows later. When Partition-themed shows like Buniyaad and Tamas came along, did you feel like expanding Garm Hava and examining the characters in more detail?
This is not a subject to have many parts like Mission: Impossible. Only the technology has changed today, but the film’s narration is still the same. It still has the same relevance it did back then.
Is it true that you had to approach Bal Thackeray to facilitate the film’s release?
No. It wasn’t like that. When we were processing the film and watching the reels, many technicians were there. They felt that this film would not be passed by the censor and it became a huge issue. Even with the influence that I had back then, it took me 11 months to get the censor certificate. Bal Thackeray wanted to see the film. I invited him to Regal cinema for the premiere. But he insisted on seeing it before the release. So a special screening was arranged and he really liked the film. He felt that the message was well-conveyed and we had no trouble at all.
But is it true that LK Advani said this movie was probably funded by Pakistanis?
LK Advani wrote this in the newspaper published by him. Later when he became Minister for Information, I met him in Madras at a film festival and he apologised. He said that he wrote it without seeing the film. He was very graceful.
Finally, sir, you have an extensive body of work after Garm Hava, but whenever the name MS Sathyu comes up, everybody thinks of Garm Hava.
These are just accidents. It isn’t the question of the number of films but the type of films that you’d want to make.