ENTERTAINMENT  :   Bollywood : In Focus

Balraj Sahni: A forgotten gem of Indian cinema

Saturday , 16 January 2016

TGI brings you the final installment of its three-issue retrospective on actor Balraj Sahni…

In our Balraj Sahni retrospective, so far, we’ve looked at two great performances by the versatile actor—as Shambhu Mehto in Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and as Abdur Rehman Khan in Kabuliwala (1961). In our final article, we look at Garm Hawa (1973), in which Sahni plays Salim Mirza, a middle-aged Muslim, who struggles to stick to his decision to remain in post-partition India. Sahni’s performance in this film is often cited as his finest.

The Hindi-Urdu feature marked MS Sathyu’s directorial debut and also launched the late Farooq Sheikh’s film career. The screenplay, based on an unpublished story by Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai, was penned by legendary Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi.

Garm Hawa is one of few films to consider the plight of Muslims who chose to remain in India after partition. The film has come to be regarded as a notable precursor to the Indian New Wave. It was shot on location in Agra on a nominal budget, and faced a series of problems, due to the sensitive subject matter—from funding and protests to Censor Board approval. However, once it was released, it went on to become India’s official Oscar entry and bagged several national awards.

The opening credits of Garm Hawa are played over a montage of striking black-and-white photos that seem to move from pre-partition to post-partition. A narrator speaks over part of the montage. He begins with the couplet: “Takseem hua mulk, toh dil huay tukray” (“As the country got divided, hearts were shattered”) “Har seenay mein toofan, wahan bhee tha, yahan bhee” (“In every chest, there was a storm; there, as well as here”).

The montage is followed by a scene in which Sahni’s character, Salim Mirza, waves goodbye to relatives on a train. Carriage after carriage moves past Sahni, until he’s left alone in the frame, with the Taj Mahal in the distance. After leaving the station, Mirza gets on a tonga (light horse-drawn carriage) and we learn that he’s just seen off his elder sister. He comments, “Kaise hare bhare darakht cut rahe hain is hawa mein” (“Such green trees are being uprooted by this wind”), to which the tongawala (driver) replies, “Badee garm hawa hai, Mia, badee garm; jo ukhra nahee, sookh jawae ga, Mia” (It’s a scorching wind, Sir, very hot; that which doesn’t get uprooted will shrivel up, Sir”). This dialogue serves as dramatic foreshadowing; Salim’s relatives, who one by one, leave for the newly formed Pakistan, represent the uprooted trees, while he, who will fight countless odds to stay on in India, represents those that will shrivel up.

Salim Mirza is part of a Muslim family who live in a haveli (ancestral home) in Agra, where he runs a shoe manufacturing business. The narrative begins shortly after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi; Salim is convinced that Gandhi’s “sacrifice” will quell communal violence. His elder brother, Halim, a politician, who publicly vowed never to leave India, goes back on his word and migrates to Pakistan.

Salim’s three children—daughter Amina, younger son Sikandar and elder son Baqar—have their own worries. Amina is in love with her cousin Kazim, who moves to Pakistan with his father Halim, and doesn’t follow through on a promise to marry her upon his return. After this heartbreak, she gives love another chance, with her cousin Shamshad, only to be cruelly jilted again, in the same manner. Sikandar struggles to find work after graduating. Baqar, who helps Salim in the family business, is angry at his father for not being pragmatic, and decides to leave for Pakistan, with his wife and young son.

The film shows how partition changed lives, overnight. Salim, who had been a respected businessman of high esteem, finds it difficult after partition to get a loan, retain the haveli and rent a house. People are reluctant to lend money or rent homes to Muslims, because many have left for Pakistan without paying their dues. At one point, a frustrated Salim, asks a bank manager, why it is that those who haven’t fled, and have no intention of fleeing, suffer because of those who have? Despite setback-upon-setback, Salim believes God will help his family through these tough times and is adamant about remaining in India. He remains optimistic, until the family faces an unexpected and devastating loss and he faces espionage charges that damage his reputation (despite being fully cleared of the charges by the courts).

Sahni portrays Mirza as a stoic man of great dignity. He is soft-spoken, restrained and reflective, and there’s a sense of weariness about him, as though he’s seen much of life. With thinning, grey hair and a moustache, Mirza is, invariably, impeccably dressed, usually in a sherwani and a sombre taqiyah (hat). With outsiders, he is polite, unless tested; in which case, frustration and annoyance seep through his otherwise gentle voice. Sahni also draws us further into the inner world of the quiet, struggling Mirza, through intensely expressive eyes. He creates the overall impression of a man, who is proud and unbending, but encumbered by age and frailty.

Balraj Sahni must have dug into his own memories of partition for the role of Salim Mirza. As partition loomed, Sahni’s family made the difficult decision to leave their hometown of Rawalpindi for India. His father lost all his lands and property; his brother witnessed atrocities, first-hand; and Balraj Sahni, himself, observed, what he called, a “reign of terror” (from his autobiography, Meri Filmi Aatmakatha).

Although most scenes in Garm Hawa portray hardship, there are moments of levity. Of particular note, is the father-daughter relationship, between Salim and Amina. At one juncture, Salim is angry, after an argument with Baqar, and skips dinner. He’s unreasonably stubborn, oscillating between grumpiness and a childlike tantrum. Amina comes to his room, and he dismisses her, at first, saying he wants to be left alone and doesn’t want to eat. When she reveals she’s snuck in some food for him, he immediately wants to know what it is. Then, he tells her to shut the door, so that no one will catch him eating. She does this, and as he happily munches away, she laughs and teases him, saying, “Bhook lagee thee, na?” (“You were hungry, weren’t you?”).

There is so much one can say about Garm Hawa; it’s just the sort of film that keeps you thinking. Perhaps, the way in which it rains down numerous misfortunes, in quick succession, on the Mirza family, is a little too convenient. But each misfortune makes us think—really think—about what life was like during a period in our countries’ histories that we rarely dwell on.

The film’s pacing, which might be agonisingly slow for some, seems to be deliberately so. The pace mirrors the slow unravelling of the Mirzas’ personal and professional lives. It also forces us to pay closer attention to every detail and action, and draws us deeper into the Mirzas’ world.

The gritty surroundings of aging Agra havelis and neighbourhoods add a sense of realism. Sathyu also deploys a variety of experimental techniques. He lets the camera represent faceless characters, and has his principal characters engage with them, thereby, breaking the fourth wall and drawing us closer to the main characters. Sathyu also frequently frames scenes through windows and doorways, creating a sense of claustrophobia and forging strong bonds between his characters and the places they live and work in. The narrative is careful not to oversimplify—it shows good and bad people of both Muslim and Hindu faith.

And then there’s Sahni’s performance, which creates a character that lingers in your mind, long after you’ve finished the movie. Salim Mirza—this gentle, quiet man, who’s forced to struggle, at such a late stage in life—elicits enormous sympathy.


It would be remiss to review Garm Hawa and not to look at its ending. In the closing scenes, Salim, his wife Jamila and son Sikandar are in a tonga, on their way to the station to catch a train to Pakistan. Traffic is held up by a protest, which Sikandar was supposed to attend. After his friends call out to him, Sikandar looks to his father for permission to join the protest. Salim grants this. Then, as Salim watches the crowd demanding better opportunities and rights, he tells his wife that he, too, is tired of fighting alone. He asks her to return to their rented house, gets off the tonga, and joins the demonstrating crowds.

The narrator then says, over images of marching protesters, “Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazaara, un ke liye, toofan wahan bhee hai, yahan bhee; dharey mein jo mill jao ge, bun jao ge dhaara, yeh waqt ka elan, wahan bhee hai, yahan bhee” (“Those who watch the storm from afar, know that the storm wreaks havoc both here, and there; if you go with the flow, you’ll become a part of it; this, is the call of the times, both here, and there”). Garm Hawa, thus, after portraying great suffering and despair, ends on a note of hope.