Restored and re-released recently, Garm Hava is a poignant story of a Muslim family who stayed on in India after Partition. Screenplay writer Shama Zaidi recounts the making of the film and its relevance today.
After relocating to Bombay, one of the first projects I took up was the dramatisation of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s novella Ek Chadar Maili Si. Bedi saheb set aside a few hours over many days to work on the script of the play. Naturally, as he was a great raconteur, we talked of many things besides the play. One day, he said that a film should be made on the plight of Muslims who didn’t go to Pakistan. I suggested that he should write the screenplay, but he insisted that it should be written by me and directed by my husband MS Sathyu. And, perhaps, we could get some ideas from Ismat Chugtai. After the play had been staged, he reminded us of the post-Partition “migration” film. He also told us not to ask Ismat to write the screenplay, as her ideas of cinema were conditioned by the commercial “bambayya fillum”.
So Sathyu and I had a few sessions with Ismat apa, whom we both loved dearly. She put together a treatment which included ideas from a number of her short stories, and also the incident of her own mother who, rather than migrate to Pakistan, spent the last years of her life with a Hindu neighbour in Aligarh. When we went to take the script treatment from her, she couldn’t find it anywhere in her flat. So she wrote another treatment which was not quite the same. Many months later, when her flat was being painted, she discovered the first treatment in a pile of clothes.
The screenplay proceeded apace using material from both of Chugtai’s drafts and the title then was Vahaan, because most of the characters were headed “vahaan”, that is Pakistan. In that version, Salim Mirza is a railway officer from Lucknow, who sells off his house and repatriates the money through a relative going to Pakistan. The family shifts into what used to be the servant quarters of their house. But when they send instructions to the relative about the money, the latter feigns ignorance about any such sum in his possession. The story of the daughter’s marriage and son’s job were similar to the final script. While this story was reflective of a certain reality, it appeared rather bleak and didn’t seem to hold out any hope. And as Prof (Saiyid) Nurul Hasan, then a minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet and an old family friend, said, “Bibi, the story is all right, but the politics is all wrong!” Later, my father proffered a similar opinion, and we realised that the script needed to be reworked.
When we told Kaifi Azmi about our problem, he suggested that we leave the script with him, and he would “fix” it. Firstly, he said that Mirza should not be a railway employee, but a businessman. And since Kaifi had worked with the leather industry unions in Kanpur as a young man, he decided to use that as Mirza’s profession. Also, he thought that since Chugtai was from Aligarh, and the women in the Mirza family were pretty feisty, unlike the meek submissive women from Awadh, we should set the story in Agra, a hub of the hand-made shoe trade. Being a poet, he was keen on including some songs, but we only wanted a qawwali, and that too as a background song which would reflect Amina’s state of mind. He wrote an original qawwali, which is now presented by some qawwals as a “very old traditional piece”.
Kaifi’s version, which was a drastic re-write of Vahaan, needed a new name. Sathyu and I decided on Garm Hava from a line in Kaifi’s famous poem Makan: aaj ki raat bahut garm hava chalti hai. However, the screenplay was much too long and would have taken up more than three-and-a-half-hour of screen time. I then reworked Kaifi’s material to a reasonable length, which would make the film about two and a quarter hours.
We had already submitted a script to the Film Finance Corporation (as NFDC was then called) which was later made as Kahan Kahan se Guzar Gaya, but it was rejected. But this time, we were more successful and BK Karanjia, the chairman of FFC, seemed to really like the Garm Hava script. Sathyu then started to cast the characters and chose mostly actors from the stage in Delhi, Mumbai and Agra. Balraj Sahni assembled all the actors on the location and made them read the screenplay aloud more than once. So that by the time the shooting began, everyone knew their lines from memory. He also discussed the political significance of the play with the actors. There was not really that much to discuss as most of the actors were from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), and were aware of the socio-political aspects of the film. The workers from one of the shoe factories we included in the film were so impressed with Balrajji that after the shoot was over they went on strike demanding better wages!
We had a camera with a one-zoom lens and six lights which were loaned to Sathyu by his friend Homi Sethna, and a very tight budget. So there was not much chance of many retakes. In a little over 40 days, the film was canned and we all went home. The only problem was that the camera was so noisy that the film was edited silent and then dubbed without a soundtrack to guide us. After the last day of dubbing, Balrajji breathed his last, as if he wanted to complete his work in the film before moving on.
The real problems with the film began after it was completed. Mrs Gandhi (Indira) was a friend of Sathyu’s from the 50s when they used to meet every evening for adda-bazi in Delhi. He took the film to show it to her and Inder Kumar Gujral, the I&B minister, and they seemed impressed. But the Censor Board banned the film from public screening. After much wrangling for almost a year, the film was finally given a censor certificate. Without seeing the film, LK Advani wrote an article in The Organiser (the RSS mouthpiece) that the film had been financed by Pakistan. On the other hand, certain Muslim leaders wanted it not to be released unless the red flags in the final scene were replaced by Congress flags. And a senior ex-Muslim League member, now a Congress minister, insisted that the character of Salim Mirza’s brother-in-law had been created to malign him. Kaifi had to put in a line at the beginning and end of the film, stating that the trauma of Partition affected both India and Pakistan. Ultimately, the film was released amidst heavy police bandobast in many places, but there were no protests.
Now that the film has been released in a restored version, people have asked whether the film is still “relevant”. The film is a historical document at a small micro-level of a joint family, falling apart due to a unique historical situation. As for its relevance today, there is still alienation and marginalisation, as increasingly Muslims do not get houses on rent, or jobs very easily. But it is also a fact that after the creation of Bangladesh, the idea of a “Muslim” homeland seems rather ridiculous. And if Mirza’s relatives had to migrate today, it would be to Canada or Dubai!
Shama Zaidi is a screenplay writer, documentary filmmaker and theatre person. Her works include Garm Hava, Shatranj ke Khiladi, Umrao Jaan and Sooraj ka Satvan Ghoda