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The filmmakers who stood up to Thackeray, and won!

Source : SIFY
Last Updated: Fri, Nov 23, 2012 11:44 hrs
Garm Hava

Satyen K Bordoloi tells the fascinating story of how a motley gang of first-time filmmaking cast and crew stood their ground against the mighty Bal Thackeray and lived to release their film!

That day in April 1974 was pregnant with septic tension. The manager of Regal Cinema in Colaba, Vijay Merchant, was grovelling.

He was begging everyone - the director, the writer, the producers -and when nothing worked, even the cast and crew of this film. Please, he said, someone be present when the film is screened to this group.

His fears were justified. For the said group was none other than the Shiv Sena whose chief, Bal Thackeray, had threatened to burn any theatre that showed this film. When he came to know that the film was being premiered in Regal, he threatened to burn down its screens.

In a town that was full of different types of 'laws' - on one side the police and on the other the gangsters - Shiv Sena occupied a socially divisive middle ground. They had broken enough bones and shops and had been directly or indirectly responsible for enough deaths in the city till then, for even a tea-seller on the streets to understand that when the Sena came calling, you wagged your tail like a good puppy. 

For, if anything, the Shiv Sena was extremely professional - every time they promised violence, they delivered.

Yet this motley group of debut filmmakers (almost everyone, except a few actors, were first timers), seemed to have guts the size of Jupiter. No matter who Merchant called, everyone refused to oblige. For them, it was not a matter of false bravado or even deliberate rebellion; it was a matter of principle. And didn't someone say, 'pran jaye par 'principle' na jaye'.

The manager begged and begged. But the director made it clear that he might as well burn the prints of the film than accede to the demands of the Sena.

The film's co-writer, who was actually its chief architect, took an equally principled stand against the looming threat.

If you have met and talked to the extremely soft spoken, perennially smiling and gentle director, you'd have been surprised at this seemingly stubborn insistence. The same went for the beautiful and petite writer, who was incidentally the director's wife.

The director was none other than M S Sathyu, the writer Shama Zaidi and the film was the Golden Palm Nominee at the Cannes Film Festival, Garm  Hava: a film that to this day has few parallels in world cinema, of having tackled many near impossibles to depict topics like migration, structural violence, etc., with such sensitive conviction.

If you ask anyone today about 'Partition cinema', the first film that usually comes to their mind is Garm Hava. Yet, neither is there any scene of mass migration, nor - besides an aberration - any physical violence. These are usually the staple diet of films cantered on the Indo-Pak Partition or any other such holocaust in history.

Yet, the great Indian Holocaust of Partition is like a foul smelling air, poisoning the lives of our protagonist and his family. It is the poisonous air that separates siblings, lovers, families, and friends and destroys the most important sentiments of love and friendship.

In such times, a man living in the city of eternal love, Agra, desperately tries to hang on to a semblance of normalcy even as his world crumbles all around him.

His brother leaves for Pakistan, his ancestral haveli is taken away from him, even his son leaves for Pakistan. His daughter's suitors, too, have no option but to abandon her, his factory is burnt down, his friends suddenly leave him, brushing aside decades of friendship under the carpet of suspicion. 

It is the story of a man who simply refuses to give up and leave a country that has been his for generations. How much can a man take before the pain he hides even from himself, burns him down to ashes?

Garm Hava is a powerful film of hope and resilience, love and honour, loss and loneliness, and the wisdom of age. It's a strong indictment of divisive forces. Subtle and powerful, it's a universal document that calls for agitation - to demand what is rightfully yours.

Balraj Sahni, as the strong patriarch who desperately tries to stand his ground even when the world beneath his feet is crumbling, etched himself in the minds of cinema goes with his mature and understated performance. Though he himself couldn't live to see the final cut (he died the day after he finished dubbing for the film), most critics and cineastes call it his best performance.

Sometimes it is the strong humanism of people who imbibe their creation with an infallible strength that gives succour to people who view it. On rare occasions, like in the case of Garm Hava, it is also the other way round, when the creation becomes so powerful that it gives strength to its creators.

Perhaps it was this strength and conviction that made Sathyu, Shama and rest of the cast and crew to refuse to pander to Bal Thackeray and his Sena.

This caused much heartburn for the manager, Merchant. He was in panic. The invite for the premiere had already gone to the who's who of the Bombay film industry, politicians and other powerful people. And here was Bal Thackeray who had threatened to burn down the cinema screen if the film premiered there because he had been told that Garm Hava was 'pro-Muslim' and thus by extension an 'anti-India' film.

However, after much persuasion, Thackeray agreed to see the film so he could make up his own mind. But his condition was that he be shown the film before those at the premiere.

Hastily, a screening was arranged for Thackeray and around 50 of his men on the afternoon on which the film was to premiere. Merchant had wanted someone from the cast and crew to be present to answer any query that Thackeray could have. However, everyone refused, much to the desperation of the manager.

Garm Hava is a film that will invariably move everyone, no matter where his or her religious, political or cultural loyalties lie. And the proof of the pudding perhaps lay in the taste that Bal Thackeray got.

When the film got over, Bal Thackeray asked to see the producers. Merchant was now sweating. To divert the topic, he asked if he had any objections. Thackeray, to the surprise and relief of the manager, said he had none. He said that this is what he wanted the Muslims to be like - one with the mainstream.

It is another matter that the man continued to target Muslims, no matter how mainstream they got and that the deep humanism of the film - besides in that one instance - failed to stick to him.

And so it was that the film not only saw a glittering premiere that evening, attended by the powerful and elite of the city, but also a limited pan-India release. People of all hues and religions came to see it.

And of the dozens of people I talked to while doing research for writing a book on the film titled History's Forgotten Footnote, I didn't find one who saw the film in the theatre and was not moved by it. 

Most of them told me about hearing sobs of grown men in the darkness of the cinema halls.

It is not always that reasonable human beings without muscle power successfully stand up to unreasonable ones with extreme power. But the inexperienced and debutante cast and crew of Garm Hava did just that.

The film, meanwhile, survived to become a classic that refused to fade with time. Indeed, its relevance increases. Perhaps that is another thing that powerful art does, it stabs a stamp of permanence right into the bosom of time itself.

(A  fully  restored  version  of  the  film  will  be  shown  at  the  International  Film  Festival  of  India, Goa,  on  Sunday,  the  25th of  November.  It  will  be  the  first  public,  theatrical  screening  of  this eternal classic, 38 years after it first release.)


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