Sathyu At 90
It is rare, make it unique, for a novice director…
It is rare, make it unique, for a novice director to scorch our conscience with a masterly first film, and also offer a healing touch that is relevant to this day. Garm Hava, released in 1974, is just shy of four years to complete 50 decades. In hindsight, M.S. Sathyu seems the most unlikely director to have bequeathed a classic that is so poignant, tender, and sharp in its understanding of people caught in history’s vortex, and make a family’s intimate tragedy representative of the larger tragedy of Partition and sundered lives. His background of theatre art direction, and experience of being Chetan Anand’s assistant did not prepare us for Garm Hava’s searing power to move us to tears. Except for Ritwik Ghatak’s anguished epics, none of Bombay stalwarts even dared approach the wounds of the Partition. The South did not have first-hand experience of the trauma of mass migrations and tribulations of people uprooted from homes amidst the mistrust and slumbering violence, that could blaze into a conflagration, at the slightest of reasons. Sathyu left the safe isolation of Mysore (the M in his initials stands for Mysore) to experience the liberating spirit of IPA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) and likeminded creative companions — Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azmi, and Shama Zaidi, his wife and collaborator. Zaidi’s consummate touch of scripting and costume design add immeasurable authenticity to his films. Even with a fine script written from an insider’s knowledge, and a superlatively talented cast, it needed intrinsic empathy and also a degree of objectivity to bring the story to life. Salim Mirza’s (Balraj Sahni’s last and finest performance) family is the microcosm of what happened to so many rooted Muslims of north India, in the wake of Independence. Salim Mirza stands firm like a sturdy tree, gentle and courteous of manner and steadfast of principles. The scorching winds that blow across Agra singe his branches, but not uproot his faith that Gandhiji’s martyrdom and Nehru’s assurance of equality for all, will prevail in the long run. This faith is tested again and again.
Amidst all the troubles, his ray of sunshine is Amina (Gita Sidharth), his pampered daughter, who dies by suicide when both ardent suitors betray her, which is the final tragedy. Like Pather Panchali, two deaths strike the narrative like hammer blows — one a gentle tap and the other, cruel smiting of the heart. Old Amma Jaan hides in the store room for wood when the family moves out to a rented house. When she is near death, they bring her to the haveli courtyard, where the shrivelled old lady recalls moments from her life before slipping into easeful death in the presence of her family left behind in India. A loving goodbye, unlike Pishima’s casual, anonymous death in Pather Panchali. In a film where colour is muted (perhaps the restoration of the old film was lacking in skill), lime-washed walls predominate, Fatehpur Sikri and the periphery of Taj (where finally Amina gives in to the persistent Shamshad) are subdued ochre, Amina’s death is dramatic contrast of red and white. The red of her bridal dupatta and red of her blood staining the white sheet, as Salim opens the door and looks at his darling daughter. Sathyu talked of a director’s selfishness and cruelty to his actor when he talked of this scene, a scene that Sahni relived for the camera — the scene of his daughter Shabnam’s suicide. Do we mourn Sahni’s personal tragedy and laud his professionalism? And admire the director’s unerring instinct for this moment of poignant understatement? Everyone knows how the film ends. Salim Mirza, wife Jamila (a superb Shaukat Azmi) and younger son Sikandar (Farooq Shakuntala) are on the last trip to the station. Sikandar, at the end of a futile job hunt, sees his fellow jobless friends marching to demand their rights under a red banner. He gets off from the tonga to join them, and it impels Salim Mirza to get off and join his son. Insaan kab tak akela jee sakta hai? The famous last words of a great, sensitive actor in an equally memorable film.
Kaifi Azmi’s lines — he co-wrote the script with Shama Zaidi based on an unpublished story of Ismat Chughtai — are a fitting finale to the narrative. Jo toofan ka karte hai door se nazara, unke liye toofan wahan bhi hai yahan bhi Dhaare mei jo jaaoge banjaaoge dhaara, ye waqt ka ailan wahan bhi hai yahan bhi. Has anything changed at all for the young Sikanders in today’s India? Garm Hava makes you ask these uncomfortable questions. Therein lies the humanism of the film, and courage of conviction. Garm Hava was made before the Emergency. Post the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s return to power, Sathyu rediscovered his Kannada roots. A totally different terrain and narrative style marks the engaging and visually exciting Kanneshwara Rama (1977), about a legendary bandit in the 1920s who grew into a Robin Hood figure over time. Set in Shimoga, Shama Zaidi’s script opts for a narrative that begins with the end and goes back in time, with a recurring ballad to mark the different acts of the narrative into thematically organic segments. The film traces the rise of Rama (Anant Nag), an ordinary farmer who is jailed for confronting the village Patil. He escapes from jail, only to be betrayed by his wife. His meeting with the laidback cynic Chenira (a scene-stealing Amol Palekar) results in his joining the bandit group led by the old and eccentric Junja (B.V. Karanth, the theatre great, who also composed the film’s music). In the dense jungle, the bandits’ lair, he meets Malli (Shabana Azmi), who oozes seductive arrogance. When old Junja dies, Rama becomes the leader with Chenira an able and trusted second in command. From regular exploits of raids and loot, Sathyu develops another strand of Rama taking on the usurious Matha head, a hypocrite exploiting peasants, with talk of Dharma. In an act that recalls Mother India when Birju destroys the moneylender’s ledgers, Rama tears up the account book that collects ransom money in the name of inherited debts.
An important thread of the narrative is the marching freedom fighters carrying the Congress flag and preaching non-violence. Initially scoffing at their ‘Sardar’, who has no guns, and only words of sacrifice and selfassertion, you can see Rama’s attitude change. The local police superintendent (Tom Alter) is determined to catch Rama at any cost, and emotionally blackmails Malli into betraying her lover. The final battle on the verdant hills of Malnad gives the classic Western climax — death of a friend leading to voluntary laying down of arms — a touch of folk grandeur. Sathyu’s trust in theatre device to colour a textured narrative is vindicated by the film’s engaging quality. Kanneshwar Rama is a much underrated film, and deserves a higher place in Sathyu’s oeuvre for its vigour and innovation. Chitegu Chinthe (1978) is a crazy spoof on action films, timid directors and prima donna producers, stars like MGR and his imitators, its logic defying plot twists. Kannada thespian C.R.Simha swaggers through his role as Gajasimha, PM of an imaginary Gajadweepa, while he reads comics at meetings with foreign potentates, and is totally dependent on his pretty secretary to carry on the work of the state. The good guy is a karate champion who is framed for shooting a bullet at the hero in an action scene, and is jailed for seven years. He escapes, seeking vengeance, and the spoofing goes out of control with an American secret agent — a pretty, young woman — entering the scene. The satire is unrelenting, and the narrative lets go of logic in the spirit of a political set up. Bara (Kannada), (Sookha was its Hindi version), is a blistering indictment of devious politics and the ineffectual intervention of an idealistic District Commissioner to alleviate the suffering of drought victims. This nationally known film, made in 1982, reflects total disillusionment with the power games played by politicians who will not declare draught in a chronically-arid district of Karnataka. It is a tussle for power between a CM (we only see his hands on an impressively official table and hear his voice), and a rival minister who wants to displace him.
Caught in this situation where his hands are tied, is Satish (Anant Nag), who is newly posted here. He is idealistic, a product of JNU, as is his wife. Satish, for all his good intentions to stay neutral, has to intervene between two local leaders — Bhimoji, leader of small farmers and the municipal workers union, and a Cow Protection Association, arguing for animal rights while the real agenda is Right Wing Hindu ideology. Sathyu adapted the novella of the renowned Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy, who never ceased questioning the establishment and its compromised ideology. Ananthamurthy has the rare gift of seeing many sides of issues, and the complexity of conflicting ideologies. He has an ethical viewpoint, but is not judgemental about his characters. This ambiguity is rich and layered. Sathyu’s film can’t convey all these ambiguities, and Satish’s own self-awareness of his nawabi style of living (a given for his status) and revolutionary impulses. Bara makes cut-anddried statements rather than convey the implicit levels of ambiguity and self-reflection. A tough task, given the evolving plot where a communal riot is created, so that a political rival is undercut, and the local ramifications of resolving a situation getting out of hand. It is an extremely watchable film and makes an important point about the nature of realpolitik, where a well-meaning bureaucrat can’t voice his “revolutionary” impulses. Satish goes back to academia, where armchair revolutions are convenient outlets to vent frustration.
Sathyu’s last film, Galige (Moments), has an interesting premise, but obviously it is a vehicle for preaching to the converted. An orphan who grows up into an independent young woman Nithya, working in Bengaluru’s famous watch factory, is suddenly faced with an old couple from northern Karnataka, claiming to be her grandparents. She houses them, but doesn’t observe their orthodox ways. Nithya then meets a young man from Punjab, who is revealed to be an ex-Khalistani. They fall in love and start living together, to the consternation of the old couple, who decide to leave. Popping up to give his cynical two bits is the parasitical layabout Narahari, who pronounces that instead of a masjid or mandir at the Babri Masjid site — you can guess the film’s time frame — they should build a jail, where the inmates can count the bars for a day or years. For all its good intentions and using the iconic songs of the legendary poet G.P. Rajaratnam, Galige is stilted. And preachy. Sometimes, you wonder if an iconic first film is a burden on a film-maker. Even if the other films do not measure up to our unrealistic expectations, it is enough that Sathyu made Garm Hava that will always be counted among the best of Indian cinema. Of how many filmmakers can you say that?