It was 1972, and the Indian New Wave was coming along nicely. The government-funded Film Finance Corporation (FFC) was handing out loans to directors who wanted to break away from the escapist and formulaic movies being churned out by the Hindi movie dream factory. Some film-makers were more interested in nightmares, among them M.S. Sathyu, who had earned a name for himself lighting and designing sets and directing plays for the stage. A script submitted by him to the FFC was rejected, so he handed in another one—a story about a Muslim family that chooses to stay back in India after Partition in 1947 but gets uprooted from within in the process.

Balraj Sahni plays Mirza Salim, the family patriarch, in Sathyu’s film
Balraj Sahni plays Mirza Salim, the family patriarch, in Sathyu’s film

The rebirth of Garm Hava is the result of passion, doggedness, and deep pockets. The process was started by Subhash Chheda, a Mumbai-based distributor who runs the DVD label Rudraa. Chheda approached Sathyu a few years ago, asking for permission to produce DVDs from the film’s negative. The negative had aged badly and was damaged in many places. The idea then took root of expanding the scope of the project—to re-release the film in theatres and re-introduce audiences to its sobering pleasures.

“The film was visually corrected in consultation with Sathyu," Chheda says. “We have also upgraded the sound. Dolby digital, 5.1, whichever format is there, the film is now available. People should not feel that they are watching a dated film."

It marked the film debut of theare director M. S. Sathyu, Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
It marked the film debut of theare director M. S. Sathyu, Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

“We are keen on bringing other timeless Indian classics to the surface," Deshpanday says. “The film touches upon a very live subject. If you show Garm Hava today, anybody will think it’s a contemporary film. It has that kind of depth and timelessness."

The attention lavished on Garm Hava is a bit ironic, considering that the film nearly didn’t make it to movie halls. The Mumbai office of the Central Board of Film Certification rejected the film, citing its potential to stir up communal trouble. Sathyu used his contacts to approach the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. She ordered the film to be released without any cuts. But even the all-powerful Gandhi—she was only a year away from imposing Emergency on the nation and revoking the democratic rights of citizens—couldn’t ensure a smooth theatrical release. “N.N. Sippy took up the film’s distribution, but he backed out when we showed the film at a festival ahead of its release," Sathyu says. “I eventually approached a friend in Karnataka who owned a distribution company and a chain of cinemas, and he released the film first in Bangalore." Only then did other distributors step in to ensure that movie goers saw for themselves the tragedy of a Muslim family that opts for India over Pakistan.

A poster of the film
A poster of the film

Shama Zaidi, Sathyu’s wife and the screenplay writer of several Shyam Benegal films, based the script on a conversation she had with Ismat Chughtai, the Urdu novelist who has written extensively on Partition. Chughtai shared with Sathyu and Zaidi accounts of her family members, including an uncle who worked at a railway station and watched Muslim families gradually leave India in hopeful search of a better welcome across the border. The couple showed the script to poet and writer Kaifi Azmi, who wrote the dialogue and added to the screenplay his experiences of working with shoe-manufacturing workers in Kanpur.

The movie was made on a minuscule budget even by 1970s standards—a loan of 2.5 lakh from the FFC and 7.5 lakh borrowed by Sathyu from here and there. Like so many movies produced on the margins of the Hindi film industry, Garm Hava was made possible by the kindness of friends. The film was shot by cinematographer Ishan Arya—also making his debut after working in plays and advertisements—with a second-hand Arriflex camera loaned to the crew by Sathyu’s friend, Homi Sethna. Sathyu’s involvement with the Leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) resulted in parts for many actors from Ipta troupes in Delhi, Mumbai and Agra. The only real star on the set was the venerated Balraj Sahni in the role of Salim Mirza. Sahni, whose immensely dignified performance is one of the movie’s many highlights, was paid 5,000 for his efforts. Shama Zaidi doubled up as the costume and production designer. Ishan Arya co-produced the film apart from creating its memorable images, which include a lovely moment of Amina and her new lover, Shamshad, consummating their relationship on a riverbank opposite the Taj Mahal. “We were all in tune with the kind of film we were making," Sathyu says. “Ideologically, we were all alike and that is important."

Before: The film’s restoration cost nearly Rs 1 crore

Despite having a pool of Ipta actors to dip into, Sathyu struggled to find the right woman to play the small but pivotal part of Salim Mirza’s aged mother. He wanted to cast the Hindustani classical singer Begum Akhtar, but she turned down the role. Help came from unexpected quarters. The Mirza mansion, a symbol both of the family’s social standing and their fall from grace, was hired from a Mathur family. “The man who owned the house told me that previous generations of his family had patronized dancing girls," Sathyu says. “I felt that these dancers must still be around in Agra, so I asked Mr Mathur to take me to a brothel."

After the restoration

Garm Hava was a personal milestone but also something of a millstone for Sathyu, who is now 82 and lives in Bangalore. “When you hit a peak with your first film, everything else you do is compared to it," he says. He has made nine feature films in different languages, including Hindi and Kannada, and is trying to cobble together the finances to make a multilingual musical. He continues to work in theatre, and will stage a production of the Ipta classic Moteram Ka Satyagraha in Mumbai on 7 September. “Garm Hava is a sentimental story—it brings tears to people’s eyes, which is what people like," he says self-deprecatingly about his debut.

Apart from showcasing a gem from the treasure trove of Indian cinema, the restoration refocuses attention on Indian New Wave cinema, which produced serious-minded, issue-oriented films against severe odds. The collective approach that made Garm Hava possible, the monetary sacrifices by its cast and crew, and the passion for creating cinema that leads to social change have all but vanished. The creative ferment of the time is nicely captured by Ipta member and actor Masood Akhtar in his feature-length documentary Kahan Kahan Se Guzre, which will be shown in Mumbai in August. Akhtar’s film contains valuable information about Sathyu and the theatre scene of the 1970s and 1980s as well as personal insights into the director (his real name is Sathyanarayan, he is a charming flirt, his daughters call him “Sathyu" rather than “Daddy".) “I consider myself his assistant, and the film is my tribute to him," Akhtar says.

The documentary ends with the dramatic but appropriate Latin words “O tempora! O mores!" Thanks to the restoration of Garm Hava, the times and the customs of a near-forgotten phase of cinema will return, if only briefly.

**************

Separate lives

From Ritwik Ghatak to Yash Chopra, our leading film-makers have variously interpreted Partition

Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Megha Dhaka Tera’

The division of Punjab has featured directly and obliquely in the works of Yash Chopra. Dharmputra (1961) spans the period before and after independence. Shashi Kapoor plays a Hindu fundamentalist who discovers that he is actually a Muslim who was adopted by Hindu parents at birth. In Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2004), Zaara comes to India to immerse the ashes of her Sikh nanny. She falls in love with a Hindu pilot, who later crosses the border to find her. It is said that every Hindi movie about children or siblings separated from their family members is actually about Partition. Could the earthquake that splits the family of Kedarnath in Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965) actually be an indirect reference to Partition?

There is no such coyness in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Anil Sharma’s chest-thumping and eardrum-shattering movie about the romance between a Sikh man and a Muslim woman during the tumult of 1947 . A saner, and altogether quieter movie told from the Pakistani perspective is Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani (2003). Set in the 1970s, the movie recounts the dilemma of a Sikh woman who marries the Muslim man who abducts her, but is forced to confront her past when her son becomes a religious fundamentalist. Pinjar (2003), Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s glossy adaptation of Amrita Pritam’s novel, is also about the experiences of a Punjabi Hindu woman whose family rejects her after she is abducted by a Muslim man.

Literature has given film-makers ample material to work with. Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1998) is based on the Khushwant Singh novel, while Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998) is taken from Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man. Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, a novel about pre-Partition madness in Amritsar, led to Govind Nihalani’s television series of the same name—one of the best ever works on the period.

Photographs courtesy MS Sathyu

Close