Garam Hawa

What does it mean to be challenged about the very identity you live by? How does a person’s experience of life change when he is judged, not by his deeds, but by the deeds of others who share his religion? M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1974) is an exploration of these aspects of the human condition. It is a journey into the experience of the minority – an experience increasingly common all over the world in these times of porous boundaries.

Set in the years immediately following the Partition of India into two countries, Garam Hawa explores the trauma of Partition not through the killings of a million people that took place in its wake, but through the many deep, structural difficulties that faced those Muslims who chose to stay in the country that they thought was theirs. “This is my country. I have lived my whole life here. The culture, the people, the places – they are the centres around which my life has revolved. I will not leave” – this is the faith that Salim Mirza, the film’s lead character lives by while the rest of his family oscillates in doubt. It is also the faith that I have seen several Muslims in real life live by. But what becomes of this faith when a strong group of opponents tells you that there is a problem with your way of life and unless you change it, you don’t deserve to be treated as a real part of the very culture, people and places that you think are yours? When every day, when you go to work, or when you walk down the street in which your house is, you see people being anxious about your presence because of your religion? When those who have had a bitter experience at the hands of others who followed your religion begin to turn away from you?  

Salim Mirza’s idealism and his belief in humanity’s essential goodness keeps him in the country of his birth, rather than taking him to Pakistan. However, this choice leads him to a journey beset with difficulties. Friends and relatives are lost, money becomes difficult to come by, and much else takes place over the year or two that the film traces in the life of Mirza and his family. And yet, the spirit does not break.


Juxtaposing North Indian Muslim culture with both a deep Gandhian idealism and with the reality of communal hatred in this country, Garam Hawa creates a complex but deeply felt narrative of India’s largest religious minority. A remarkable humaneness runs through the film, which is evident in the empathy with which it depicts the intricacies of every character, without slipping into stereotypes and yet maintaining a very authentic sense of the cultural milieu it portrays. Made by a crew comprised of some of the most gifted members of the Leftist organisation, the Indian People’s Theatre Movement, the film is an example of social realism at its inspiring best. It culminates in a strong message that in today’s world, to isolate oneself from the sorrows of the world is to cut off a part of one’s humanity. To live authentically means to take a stand and participate in the struggle for justice.

At several places in the film, and especially towards the end, I felt a deep resonance with the issues the film highlights and the moral challenges it throws light on. Often, I felt proud to be a descendant of those who put their faith in India and her culture, even when questions about their security stared them in the face. Today, when Hindu nationalism is stronger than it ever has been in our history, these matters hold a very certain relevance. How will this country treat its minorities? As a backward, dangerous and strange people who need to be streamlined, or as an essential – even if conflicted – part of our uniquely rich culture, a culture which has often taught us not merely to tolerate, but to celebrate diversity? As many have said, a battle for the soul of India rages more intensely than ever today. What was once a fundamentalist fringe is today the most dominant political entity. And for that reason, this masterpiece is even more relevant today than when it was made 40 years ago. 

A last word – the film also features the most anguished and soul-stirring qawwali in any film. Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi and group singing for Khwaja Saleem Chishti.  The qawwali talks of pain and longing for redemption, a theme that plays through the lives of several characters in this film as they walk through the alleys of Agra, hoping to find work, love and a sense of community. 


~ by tdcatss on August 14, 2014.

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