A protest in JNU
If you want to pay eight annas, go to Pakistan,” says a smug tongawallah to Salim Mirza when he expresses surprise over the suddenly exorbitant fare following Partition in Garm Hava (1973). From the tongawallah to a prospective employer who advises Mirza’s son — a young Sikandar played by Farooque Shaikh in his cinematic debut — to move to Pakistan for better opportunities, “Go to Pakistan” becomes a constant chant, sometimes a word of advice, often a rebuke. Seventy-two years after Partition, the rebuke has become a constant refrain, a taunt used liberally by politicians and self-proclaimed nationalists over any strand of difference or at the slightest hint of criticism.
Two decades after Garm Hava, in Saeed Mirza’s Naseem (1995), a film located in 1992, a year which changed India forever, a son, bewildered by a belligerent Hindutva, asks his father, played by Kaifi Azmi: “Why didn’t you go to Pakistan?” Azmi meanders through a reply. “Do you remember that tree outside our house in Agra? Your mother and I were very fond of that tree,” he says.
The reply stumps everybody, especially his young granddaughter Naseem, who asks, “Was it just for the love of a tree that you stayed on in India?” The bedridden patriarch merely nods his reply, but the moment encapsulates the predicament Indian Muslims have faced since Partition. In that one moment, Garm Hava’s Salim Mirza and Naseem’s grandfather merge into one, watching helplessly as society, their cities — Agra and Bombay — and by extension, their country, get increasingly divided along communal lines, even as they refuse to leave their homes.
So, what defines citizenship? Is it merely a leaf of paper or is it the roots of a beloved tree which crisscross inextricably with one’s own? Is it tied to our yesterdays or does it float freely into our tomorrows? Is home a brick-and-mortar structure whose walls spell shelter and familiarity or is it a new land of promise?
Balraj Sahni in Garm Hava
With the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, some of the old anxieties of a newly independent India captured so lucidly by Garm Hava and, later, Naseem, both films that poignantly tell the story of Muslim families, one in immediate post-Partition Agra, and the other on the cusp of irrevocable social change during the Babri Masjid demolition, have resurfaced.
MS Sathyu, director of Garm Hava, believes his film is all the more relevant today, over 45 years after its making. “Although it only deals with a family of Muslims, it’s telling upon the entire current situation in India,” says the 89-year-old. “The government at the Centre has a definite programme to bring in some kind of Hindutva, but people all over the country have revolted against it. It’s a very rare phenomenon which has taken place in India. People are not prepared for the communal programme of this government. That’s how today, Garm Hava becomes very relevant,” he explains.
Based on a short story by Ismat Chughtai, Garm Hava captures the changing contours of citizenship in the immediate aftermath of Partition as a community is cleaved into two — one set that leaves for a new homeland while the other stays back home. As Salim Mirza, a man of immense grace and hope, played beautifully by Balraj Sahni, makes one tonga ride after another to the railway station to see off relatives taking the train to Pakistan, he clings on to his slice of the past while navigating the new house rules.
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Garm Hava chronicles the great churn, the communal tensions that weren’t stemmed even by Gandhi’s shahadat (martyrdom), the mix of politics and religion, issues which were taken further in Naseem, mapping India’s descent into communal strife. To many then, the CAA is a logical progression. “Why is everyone like Alice in Wonderland?” asks Saeed Mirza, Naseem’s director. “I could see the writing on the wall. The many communal riots since 1947 were attacks on the Constitution and no one was held accountable...The point is: no more delusions,” he says.
A still from Naseem
“Naseem was the epitaph for my country. I said then that the poetry is over, now face this reality and we are facing it today. Right now, young people are fighting that reality. It’s wonderful. They are trying to regain the poetry that was lost,” he says.
“Othering the Muslims is a part of this whole thing. But it’s affecting everybody else too...Muslims are not the only people revolting. The young are revolting because they don’t want to be ordered about. The CAA has become a peg for much bigger resentment. You don’t want to go back to some imagined Vedic Age,” says Shama Zaidi, who wrote the screenplay for Garm Hava along with Azmi. The circumstances today, she says, are different from the period Garm Hava was set in.
The two films chart the anxieties that came with being made to feel a second-class citizen, to encounter perpetual suspicion, but both end on a note of hope. In Garm Hava, as Salim Mirza finally decides to move with his family to Pakistan, their tonga is stuck in a crowd waving banners and red flags demanding employment. As Sikandar jumps into the crowd, chanting Inquilab Zindabad, the tonga turns back home with his mother. More crucially, his father, who weathered every setback with a helpless shrug and admirable dignity, walks into the crowd, at home with it and one with it. “Insaan kab tak akela jee sakta hai? (How long can a man live alone?),” he says. It is a moment of yet another realisation of worth and the self.
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The scene could well be from today, where protests, often led by the young, have taken into their embrace people of all faiths. The film ends with these lines from a poem by Azmi: “Jo door se toofan ka kartein hain nazara/ Unke liye toofan wahan bhi hai/ yahan bhi/ Dhaare mein jo mil jaoge ban jaoge dhaara/ Yeh waqt ka ailan wahan bhi hai yahan bhi. (Those who view the storm from afar/They can see there is a storm on both sides/To join in and become part of the wave/That is the call of the times, on both sides).”
It is no surprise that Azmi is the symbolic catalyst — and emotional connect — in both films. A sworn Marxist, and a shining light of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Azmi had worked with the leather workers’ union in Kanpur. Much of the depiction in Garm Hava of the shoe industry in Agra borrowed from his experiences in Kanpur. Fittingly, Salim Mirza is played by Sahni, who wore his leftist credentials with pride.
Mirza’s Naseem ends with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the death of the patriarch, the end of an era but with a smile on Naseem’s lips as she remembers a conversation with her grandfather. “Why is the sky blue?” she asks. “Because I don’t like yellow,” he replies. “You are so unscientific, dada jaan,” she says. “At least, it made you smile,” he says.
“There is that smile, so of course, there is hope,” says Saeed Mirza, who is also probably smiling at the other end of the phone line. “And now, too. I am so happy to see all kinds of people (coming forward) led by students. To me, that’s incredible. It’s happening. It’s about time. Ho gaya yaar,” he says.