Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022

Sands of Time | Part 25: Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman — Songs of Exodus

Mumbai, once known as Bombay, has been the throbbing nerve centre of Hindi cinema for long. But the real city never found its way to the screen till the late 1970s. Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman was one of the first films to show Bombay with a level of authenticity. Though it was Farooq Shaikh’s only third Hindi film, what he was able to achieve with his portrayal of a migrant, Ghulam Hassan, was truly spectacular.

Farooq Sheikh
Farooq Sheikh

Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay) has been the throbbing nerve centre of Hindi cinema. Its landmarks have prominently featured in the movies right from the very beginning, but more so from the 1950s onwards. Everyone knew that most of the films were being shot in the city, and all the stars lived in it. Names like Maya Nagari were always being bandied about. Heck, even the moniker Bollywood happens to be a compound of Hollywood and Bombay! And yet, the real city never found its way to the screen till the late 1970s. We did see the tongas and the platforms, yes, but the tenements and soot and grime and the faces on the street were rarely seen in early Hindi films because of its preoccupation with packaging. Even with many early filmmakers being influenced by Italian neorealism and the realist imperative, what we often saw in their films was stage-managed realism. All the parts were played by professional actors, often loaded with make-up, and spoke chaste Hindustani. If you were interested to see how Bombay of the 1950s or 1960s looked like, you won’t find it in films of that period.
But as the curiously-named parallel cinema movement exploded on the scene, things changed. One could finally get a real glimpse of the city and the people who lived in it. The central characters were still played by actors, but the world around them was populated by faces one could run into on the streets. You could see the underbelly — the tenements, the chawls, real signages on shops and on walls (instead of “art-directed” shop signs destined to be destroyed during an action scene). You could see real people huddling in buses and trains, and driving cars. ‘Middle-of-the-road’ filmmakers like Basu Chatterjee paved the way, with the hero of Piya ka Ghar (1972) living in a chawl. But one of the first films to take it all the way and show Bombay with a level of authenticity only expected in documentary films was Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978). And if you want to take a look at Bombay of the 1970s-80s, that’s the film to watch.

Ghulam Hassan (Farooq Sheikh), seeing no way of earning a living in his native village, sets off for Bombay in search of a future. His old friend Lallu Lal Tiwari drives a cab in the city, and on occasional visits to the village, had been singing paeans to life in Bombay. Even if you were to clean your ears, you could land 10 or 15 rupees, he said. Ghulam watches through the window of the train as the view keeps changing. First the green landscapes disappear. As his train approaches the big city, he is greeted by the vision which has been an indicator to millions of migrants that they are back in Bombay: rows and rows of boxy buildings huddled together, leaving no space between them. 

Aaja sawariya
Tohe garwa laga loon
Ras ke bhare tore nain

Ghulam has a rough first day in Bombay when he climbs into a crowded bus with his bundle and his trunk. When he finally finds Lallu, he realises life in the big city isn’t exactly how he thought it will be. Trying to find his feet in the metropolis, loneliness constantly tugs at his sleeve. He misses his mother and his wife Khairu (Smita Patil) who he’s left behind in the village. But even amidst the feeling of isolation, he discovers others like him, drifting souls trying to find their moorings. Most mainstream films dealing with migration have ultimately tried to tell us that cities are cruel, and one should seek refuge in the tranquility of the villages. But Gaman builds a whole parallel universe for Ghulam Hassan where he finds acceptance among others like him, who have left their homes behind and let the metropolis consume them. He meets Ramprasad, an old friend of his father, who’s been driving taxis on the streets of Bombay for over three decades. 

Jhoola jo khali dekha
Rokar Sakina boli
Amma humaare Asghar 
Ab tak na aaye rann se

Back in the village, all Khairun and Amma can do is wait. Ghulam keeps promising to return but somehow can’t muster the money —  or the courage —  to come back. The mother sighs in anguish. The wife pines. Their solitude is punctuated by letters and money orders sent by him. For them to receive the money, the postman seeks their thumb impressions. Amma complies by pressing her withered thumb on the ink and then leaving an impression on paper. But Khairun refuses, and chooses the pen. She is literate, after all. Slowly and meticulously, she mouths letter by letter as she signs her name on the paper. 

Khairun writes back to Ghulam Hassan, beseeching him to return. Last Friday, Amma fell down and broke her hip bone. She can’t handle it alone. To hell with the earnings from Bombay. He must get some money for the treatment and come back. But Ghulam Hassan is now an inmate in this city-sized prison, where entry (Agaman) is possible but exit (Gaman) is unheard of. His rustic sing-song Awadhi tongue is receding, replaced by Bambaiyya swagger. He is getting used to the ways of the city. Or so he thinks. 

Gaman was Farooq Shaikh’s only third Hindi film, and yet what he was able to achieve with his turn as Ghulam Hassan was truly spectacular. His eyes convey volumes, and the abject pain of alienation is wrought on his face. He deftly captured the degeneration from a lazy, but also a happy man, to a person devoid of all hope and vigour. There are levels he goes down. Ramprasad has died in a violent car crash, and Ghulam is affected by it, reflected by the song:

Ajeeb saneha mujh par
Guzar gaya yaaron
Main apne saaye se
Kal raat darr gaya yaaron
Woh kaun thha, kahan ka thha
Kya hua thha usey
Suna hai aaj koi shaqs
Mar gaya yaaron


Farooq Sheikh and Smita Patil
Farooq Sheikh and Smita Patil

Ghulam can’t get it out of his head that Ramprasad spent more than thirty years driving in the city, which eventually devoured him. But it is his friend Lallu’s death that breaks him, and he decides to go back home once and for all. Bombay's life wasn’t for him. He can’t die here, alone, away from Khairun, away from his Amma. But in the final moment, he realises how final his captivity is. In utter helplessness, he stares at the train leaving the station, from behind his cage. He goes back to his taxi, his cell. This breaking down and utter helplessness was expressed by Farooq Sheikh without resorting to loud gesticulations or drenching his face in tears. There’s subtlety in his act, often subtler than the audience who is profoundly affected by Ghulam’s plight.

But Farooq, for all his dexterity and articulation, wasn’t the hero of the film. Gaman had twin heroes: its poetry and its music. It was Shahryar’s wizardry with words that pushed the narrative forward. Jaidev was on a streak —   he had just delivered two superlative albums in Alaap and Gharonda (both 1977), and one would argue that with Gaman, he exceeded everything he had ever done (his filmography includes Hum Dono and Mujhe Jeene Do). 

It would be a cardinal sin not to mention Jalal Agha and, of course, the ethereal Smita Patil. Jalal was flawless as the garrulous and kindhearted Lallu. Smita’s performance as Khairun constituted in the “not doing”. She is the loving wife, who waits patiently, framed in the doorway, refuses to sully her thumb when she can sign her name…there’s a stray shot of her as a bride, staring straight at the camera. It was a look that could melt mountains.