Film Review: ‘Garam Hawa’ (1973)

BY: Hamza Waqas

‘Garam Hawa’ (1973) tells the story of a Muslim family living in Agra, struggling to cope with the changes that have come with the partition of India. It is regarded as the first film that addressed the human cost of partition. Said to have been inspired by Ismat Chughtai’s Marxist short stories, it was written by Shama Zaidi (who also wrote the screenplay for the cult classic Sooraj ka Saathvan Ghora) and the renowned Urdu poet Kafi Azmi.


The events that followed partition are known to have been intensely horrific, with communal riots and massacres taking place in several regions, particularly in Punjab. Ismat Chugtai described the failure of the British and the independence movement in the following words; “India was operated upon by such clumsy hands and blunt knives that thousands of arteries were left open. Rivers of blood flowed, and no one had the strength left to stitch the wounds.” Although the film is set immediately after partition, it does not focus on the communal violence that occurred, but the human cost of the breakdown of the social fabric of communities across India; the unstitched wounds that soon festered.


In the film, as Muslim families began to cross over from India into Pakistan, banks and other private lenders refused to give out loans to those that decided to stay, fearing that the people taking these loans will soon leave for Pakistan without paying them back. This understandably created substantial financial distress, especially for Muslim business owners. Discrimination forced the Muslim minority towards the fringes, and soon people who only a few years ago lived comfortably became outcasts in their own neighborhoods.


Saleem, wonderfully portrayed by Balraj Sahni (Do Bigha Zamin 1953, Waqt 1965), is the epitome of innocence, grace and resilience, despite the unforgiving nature of his surroundings. Even after witnessing the Muslim exodus from India, he repeatedly states that Gandhi’s martyrdom shall not be in vain and that in a few days “sub theek ho jae ga” (everything will be fine) and that his fate is in Gods hands.


Garam Hava is a bit like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1980) starring Naseeruddin Shah, with regards to the ‘awakening’ of the protagonist. Its very well grounded in left-wing ideas. The same cannot be said for Deepa Mehtas “Earth”  (an adaptation of Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man/Cracking India, a part of Mehtas elements trilogy)  which is great in its own right, but ends on a fairly mortifying note. Or Train to Pakistan (1998) (based on the book by the same name, written by Kushwant Singh) which, especially towards the end, tends to romanticize the role of individuals,as opposed to advocating for a continued struggled against the systemic forces of indifference and oppression. Garam Hava does that, and does it beautifully.


My favourite part of Garam Hava (1973) was when Saleem Mirza while passing through a protest, turned to his son, as inqalabi slogans roared in the background, and said “Jao Beta … Ab Meh Tumhay Nahi Rokoun Ga. Insaan kab tak akaila je sakta hai?”. His words, addition to being very moving and fairly unexpected, were also a bit amusing to me. It sounded like a Marxist version of the iconic phrase “ Ja Simran, jee lay apni zindagi” from a famous 90’s indian romantic drama, that I’ve often been ridiculed for not having seen (yet).


Unlike other films about partition, Garam Hava (1973)  presents a very realistic narrative and yet ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note, a bit like Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Subh-e-Azadi”. The poem is not restricted to the violence of partition but also addresses the failure of the new state. For Faiz, a Marxist, the new state was simply a new set of oppressors that people got in exchange of the old set of oppressors;  things did not change much for the downtrodden and exploited working class of what was now Pakistan.


“Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazaarah

Un ke liye toofan wahan bhi hai yahan bhi


Dharay main jo mil jao, ban jaaoge dhaara

yeh waqt ka elaan wahan bhi hai yahan bhi”


(Those who view the storm from afar,

they see no difference between here and there

To join in and become a part of it

This it the call of the times here and there)


The film ends with these words, which to my understanding  are a call to all the oppressed, those who were left out of the promise of the new world. For those who seemed to slip through the cracks, the cracks in the very foundation of the two new states. This was a call to action, for the working class and oppressed communities  of India and Pakistan.


(Most of the films mentioned in this article are available on YouTube)

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