to stay or to go?

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Garam Hawa (1974), directed by M. S. Sathyu, is a poignant film depicting the plight of Muslims in India, post-Partition. Based on a short story by Ismat Chughtai, the firebrand feminist Urdu writer, the screenplay is written by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi (Sathyu’s wife). I remembered this film from a reference in Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994), which i had watched years ago. Another rare, undervalued film, Mammo too explored themes of the plight of Muslims who stayed behind in India after Partition. Garam Hawa features Balraj Sahni in his last performance, and what a swansong of a performance this is.

The film focuses on the Mirza family, living in Agra. Salim Mirza (played by Sahni) is a proud family man, who refuses to leave his country, while slowly his family, disillusioned with their plight in India, leave one-by-one for Pakistan. His elder brother has his own ideas, his sons are young and have a mind of their own. But Salim, a man of integrity and loyalty, refuses to get embroiled in politics, and believes in his moral code and honour. But how long, in the face of such adversity, will his patience last?

The dialogues are trademark Ismat Chughtai. If you have read her works, you will recognise her mocking, satirical tone, her metaphors, indeed the typical flavour of her language, immediately. She herself was a Muslim who stayed back in India after Partition. The film touches on middle-class angst and frustration, and even communal riots, but succeeds in not being provocative, serving the interests of the story.

Balraj Sahni’s calm, stoic, honourable Salim Mirza carries the film bravely on his old, weary shoulders. Watch him as he bids goodbye to his family members as they leave him alone, as he tries time and again to pick himself up, and his positive outlook despite the sheer perversity of his situation. And yet, he is dignified. Always, to the last frame.

Piece of trivia: Seen the Google Reunion ad about two childhood friends meeting again years after they were separated by Partition? Yusuf is played by M. S. Sathyu, Garam Hawa’s director.

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