“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The movie belongs to Balraj Sahni essaying, with great elan, the character of a principled businessman who holds onto his grace and convictions in face of extenuating circumstances that rip apart his world at a professional and personal level. That the movie ends on a note of a stoic hope is a tribute to the man’s character holding firm ground in trying times.
Balraj Sahni would be more popularly remembered for his classic ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ but he delivers a memorable performance in Garam Hawa as well although the movie is not as well-known as it should be. It was rather unfortunate that he passed away and could not see the movie post its release.
Based on an unpublished story by the famous Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai, the story was adapted by Kaifi Azmi to narrate the trials and tribulations of Balraj Sahni who plays the role of a businessman running a shoe-making unit in the turbulent days of Partition. Faced with betrayals by his professional rivals and relatives who are all trying to ride the wave of change, the movie tests the calm demeanour and strong resolve of Sahni to maintain his identity and integrity. It can be a challenging conundrum to wonder whether while trying to survive, can one compromise enough to suggest that the ends can justify the means for it does seem to be the case that often the survival is not of the fittest but of the ones more willing to adopt to their new environment.
The movie makes a great watch because although Sahni appears to be a doomed character, there is something heroic about the way he conducts himself in the face of adversity and great provocation. He earns the grudging respect of his rivals who realize the base nature of their machinations that seem to achieve ‘Pyrrhic’ victories that do not last the full course.
There is a poignant episode of Sahni’s family being exploited an acquaintance who take his help to solve their issues and then refuse the marriage proposal for Sahni’s daughter that had been implicitly agreed upon but never formalized. It is typical example of provincialism and kitchen politics that make up an element of the popular ‘Saas- Bahu’ sagas of our Hindi serials. The devastated girl commits suicide but Sahni remains phlegmatic as ever.
A further series of reverses finally seems to have broken Sahni’s resolve till he is rescued from despair by his younger son played by debutant Farooque Shaikh. Shaikh is an unemployed graduate who is rejected by many prospective employers and at the end of tether, but he suddenly discovers strength to battle on to find his space and due in the newly independent India.
Balraj Sahni was a great actor who surprisingly never won any award. He was an advocate of syncretic culture and believed in the hindustani tehzeeb – a curious amalgam of Hindi and Urdu languages that had coexisted for long and needed to be nurtured in times of revolutionary change.