By Utpal Borpujari
Garm Hava was made with a budget of a mere INR 800,000 – even in the early 1970s, when it was produced, this was a tiny amount for a full-length feature film. Further, the actors agreed to accept reduced fees, that too in instalments, sometimes running over a period of years, and the director took more than 15 years to repay the amount. Yet Garm Hava achieved cult status in Indian cinema soon after its low-profile release, in 1973; but before long, it became inaccessible to film lovers and subsequent generations have been deprived. Its print faced physical decay due to lack of proper preservation, and there has never been a release in the home-video market. This year, finally, after an intensive restoration project, Garm Hava is set to be re-released, for viewing both in theatres and at home by a whole new generation.
Directed by Mysore Srinivasa Sathyu, Garm Hava was and remains a landmark in the history of Indian cinema. With its relentlessly realistic portrayal of the Indian Muslim community’s dilemmas post-Partition, the film represented a departure from the usual portrayal of the community in what the film industry idiomatically called ‘Muslim social drama’. Furthermore, the film also used the socio-politics of the shoot location to take the narrative forward, making the city of Agra almost a character in the film. This was achieved not only by the script’s effective use of the city’s mixed Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods to portray the communal suspicions and turmoil of the post-Independence period, but also by placing the protagonist in the leather trade, closely associated with the city.
Sathyu was an intrinsic part of the left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), and made several other films after Garm Hava. But none could match the raw power of the film that saw Balraj Sahni, as the lead actor, give one of his most memorable and sensitive performances – and, as it turned out, his last. Based on an unpublished story titled ‘Wahan’ by Ismat Chughtai, Garm Hava is the story of a Muslim family in Agra immediately after 1947. The screenplay was adapted by the poet Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi, Sathyu’s wife. Sahni plays the protagonist, Salim Mirza, a small-time leather merchant in Agra. Although the film is set in extremely tense times, the violence is almost never physical; rather, it is typically psychological. This is especially true for Salim, who finds that religion has suddenly become the basis for deciding a person’s patriotic loyalties in a newly independent India. Sahni’s depiction of Salim’s quiet solitude makes this violence even more poignant, with his character facing repeated agonies as he is refused loans by long-standing allies, abandoned by his long-time friends and deserted by his son, as Partition unfolds. His trauma deepens with his daughter Amina’s suicide after she loses two successive suitors in the violence. Similarly, Salim’s mother undergoes emotional turmoil when she is forcibly evicted from her home.
Garm Hava was India’s entry to the US Academy Awards in 1974. Though it did not win, merely being officially entered for the competition was an indication of the film’s high cinematic standards. In fact, the story behind the making of Garm Hava is almost as interesting as the film itself. To begin with, Sathyu ran out of funds halfway through filming, as his financiers had withdrawn their investments due to the politically charged theme. The project would have remained unfinished if the state-owned Film Finance Corporation had not stepped in with financial support. Most of the actors agreed to work for a pittance, and as noted even this was only paid to them several years after the film was completed. The subject matter also meant that the filming, in Agra, was beset by protests. To avoid demonstrators, Sathyu set up a fake filming unit, which would go to various places near the city while he got down to work in Agra. The city also gave him Badar Begum, a non-professional actor who plays the protagonist’s mother, and is one of the most poignant characters in the film.
The problems did not end with post-production, with the film initially unable to get clearance from the Censor Board. Indeed, it was only released after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi intervened on the film’s behalf. Thereafter, the picture was released solely in South India, in order to gauge the public reaction without setting off a possible conflagration; sections within the government continued to argue that the film could stoke communal fires. The fears proved incorrect, however, and the film went on to win both critical acclaim and success at the box office. A book chronicling the film and its making is currently being prepared for release, along with the restored version’s return to the public domain.
Modern case study
The man who has taken up the onerous task of bringing the film back to life is Mumbai-based Subhash Chheda, whose Indikino Entertainment will not only release the film in theatres but will also screen it in educational institutions throughout India. Chheda, whose company recently also bought the home-video rights of Shyam Benegal’s biopic Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The forgotten hero (2005), has treated the revival of Garm Hava almost as a mission. Chheda says his passion for the restoration is driven by ‘the subject’s timelessness and its relevance to current times … Taken at face value, it is a simple story of a proud, stoic man who refuses to give up his roots and identity, even as the hot winds of communalism and religiosity threaten to uproot his family.’ Chheda continues: ‘You wonder how a film set in 1948, shot in 1973 and seen in 2010 will be relevant. However, this deceptively simple film has more going into it than meets the eye. In these times of globalisation and the changing dynamics across the world, when individuals and families are facing different kinds of trauma because of violence and displacement, the story of Garm Hava remains a case study.’
Chheda says he has tried to ensure the best-possible image and sound restoration for the film, staying true to the look and feel of the original. This has proved to be a long process. For the images, the damaged picture negative was cleaned to remove physical blemishes, following which every frame – the film has over 197,000 – underwent a high-resolution scanning to give the restorers the best-possible raw material for the restoration work. An army of technicians subsequently worked to remove flicker, dirt and dust injuries as well as scratches and tears. Frames with faded colour were re-colourised, while missing frames were recreated by comparing them with adjacent frames. A similarly intensive process was used for the sound restoration, with every sound wave being enhanced and split into different tracks in order to be fully utilised by the new technologies in today’s theatres. Special effects came in the form of the latest image-stabilisation techniques, used to reduce camera shakes.
‘Nothing has been added, nothing deleted,’ Chheda says. ‘Everything has merely been enhanced to give a complete theatrical experience to the modern viewer.’ The cost, effort, time and expertise required for the restoration, he claims, make Garm Hava one among only a handful of films worldwide to undergo such an elaborate process. ‘When seen in theatres, it will be as if it has been made recently, and not in another era,’ Chheda says. ‘The effort is to make this classic live for at least another 100 years.’ To keep up with current trends, the film will also have a comprehensive website, alongside the book in preparation by a group of writers headed by Satyen Bordoloi, with English, Hindi and Urdu versions. Web pages dedicated to the film are already up and running on social-networking sites such as Facebook, to bring it to the attention of the latest generation.
It is the debate about one’s identity in the face of religion-based politics that makes Garm Hava relevant even today, when religion continues to inspire fanaticism. Within India, the idea of what a ‘real’ Indian should look like continues to be restrictive and exclusionary for many. Garm Hava subtly captured all this with minimal sentimentality, nearly four decades ago. Sathyu made the film even more relevant by including scenes of protest marches, thus successfully bringing in issues that were significant even during the 1970s, though the story is set in 1947. Garm Hava’s re-release is taking place at a time when these issues are not only relevant, but continuing to smoulder.
(Published in Himal Magazine, Nepal, http://www.himalmag.com, April 2011 issue)