india’s partition in film

last night i saw “garam hawa” (scorching winds) again. this film, based on an ismat chughtai short story, was released in 1973. it depicts the aftermath of india’s partition by focusing on the emotional and physical displacement of families. balraj sahni plays the lead role. he is an actor of immense stature. he was born in rawalpindi (now pakistan) and studied english literature at government college, lahore (just like both my parents, who graduated in 1964). government college lahore is the oldest college/university in pakistan. it was established in 1864 by the british and was affiliated with calcutta university. gottlieb wilhelm leitner (professor of arabic and mohammedan law at king’s college, london) was the college’s first principal.

sahni was unusually brilliant. he was an actor of great talent, an award-winning writer, a politically engaged man who believed in equality for all. in garam hawa he portrays an everyday muslim. salim mirza is a small shoe manufacturer living in his ancestral haveli (large mansion) along with his extended family. the time is post-partition, the place agra, india. one by one his family members leave for pakistan in the face of increasing discrimination and dwindling opportunities. salim sticks to his guns and refuses to get uprooted. however, things soon start to fall apart. he is evicted from the haveli, he is unable to obtain business credit, he is accused of being a spy, he is harrassed. the final straw is the suicide of his daughter, after she is abandoned by two successive suitors who move to pakistan. sahni imbues salim with much dignity. he is upright, honest to a fault and has the patience of a saint. his calm devotion to old-world principles, when that very world is disintegrating around him, is powerful and moving.

the film, made on a tiny budget, is shot cinéma vérité style. as bollywood films go, it is way ahead of its time. shot handheld for the most part, on location in a small neighborhood in agra and starring a slew of unknown actors (except for sahni of course), the film strives to be as realistic and authentic as possible. the script by kaifi azmi anchors that effort. surprisingly enough, garam hawa became a big commercial success. rather than take sides, it illuminates the hardship and pain of people being wrenched from their past, from their lives. it works at a very intimate level and is therefore much more effective in bringing people together by talking about their humanity.

the partition of india is an important and tragic chapter in human history. in india and pakistan, it triggered an explosion of literary and artistic works that tried to capture some of its anguish and trauma. more about that in my next post.

balraj sahni

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