M.S.Sathyu, to many Hindi moviegoers is the man who made Garam Hava. Period. Perhaps no other director is so identified with one single acclaimed film as he is. Based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai, Garam Hawa depicts the plight of a Muslim family in Agra during partition, and for many remains the definitive film on the aftermath of the partition. Released in 1974, the film won the National Award for Best Film on National Integration, an award initiated the same year. Sathyu went on to win the Padamshree in 1975 and not many know that he has since made seven more feature films in Hindi, Urdu and Kannada; over fifteen documentaries, and around 25 advertising films.
At 71, Sathyu’s latest venture is the play bakri.com, a political satire. Written by Sarvesh Dayal Saxena, Bakri resurfaces at regular (rather, irregular) intervals in new avatars under Sathyu’s direction with references to contemporary political developments. This time, it returns after about 5 years, with -- yes, you guessed it right -- references to the tahelka.com scandal (though that was a last minute addition as the play had been conceived before the tapes got out).
bakri.com is one of the 12 plays staged at Prithvi Theatre in Bombay on May 6 as part pf the annual annual IPTA theatre festival. Rehmat Merchant caught up with him in Bangalore before the 71 year old director left for Bombay to participate in the festival. Excerpts from the interview:
What is the play bakri.com about?
The bakri in the tittle is a myth. Mahatma Gandhi had a pet bakri that got lost after his assassination. Some politically motivated people, thugs actually, catch hold of a bakri and claim that it is Gandhiji’s bakri, which they discovered in a village totally neglected . They want to build an ashram for it and want money for that. They fool the people and collect money. These thugs come to power by exploiting the symbol of the bakri. Ultimately, youngsters and the educated people revolt against this regime.
I have put up over 200 shows of Bakri in Bombay itself. Every time the play is revived we attack the ruling government and the contemporary situation. During Emergency, Indira Gandhi was the target. Now it is the communal policies of the present government. NDA is an eyewash, just opportunists who want to be in power. BJP are the rulers as you can see in the way Jayalalitha and Mamta left. We are attacking the present government’s policy where Ayodhya becomes so important. They don’t want to equate what they did to the Babri masjid with what the Taliban did. Now they blame others: things like congress was in power. Actually Advani made speeches, gave orders, and now is denying it.
We wanted to revive the play and were wondering what to call it. We decided to call it Bakri.com, since in this age IT seems to be the buzzword When we conceived the play the tahelka tapes had not been aired. But now we have included references to the defence scandal. Bakri always has total relevance to what is happening. Every time we parody the present political situation by playing around with the original script.
Considering its topicality what kind of reaction do you expect?
We don’t know what the reaction will be. The music is good, the actors are good. There is the take off on tahelka.com. I was planning to do the play in Kannada in Mangalore. Mangalore is not very familiar to me.I didn’t know that many members of the cast were VHP members. The main character Karmaveer got elected as president of some shakha. Suddenly they were asking why this orange flag? I learnt there were plans to sabotage the play. The main lead wouldn’t turn up for rehearsals. I decided to change the lead. But he had his coterie and nine others were with him. We just cancelled the play. In Bombay the artists are politically with us. There are references to Ayodhya, and we have made fun of George Fernandez, Mamta, and the PM.
Ever make fun of the Left?
Yes, we do. Not in this particular play. But we have done that. A politician is a politician. You should have a sense of humour. Vajpayee has seen the play’s earlier version. Once he had came to see another of my play Motiram ka Satyagrah, a satire by Premchand in Bombay. It was the time of the Lathur earthquake and he was the opposition leader. After the play was over, we went with hats for collecting donations. He didn’t have any money in his pocket, the friend who brought him gave him Rs 50 for the collection. When we met me later he said, "Asp ne kisii ko bhii nahii chhoRaa is play mein" He has the sense of humour to appreciate it, though we had made fun of him in the play.
What would you say is the present sate of Left parties in India? Do you think that the Left can make things right?
Of all the parties, the Left alone can make things work as they are totally secular. There are no corruption charges against them. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi ... and now BJP -- the self-professed clean party -- has gone into the defence arena. The alternative is a Left oriented party, they are cleaner. Though there seems no immediate possibility.
Basu has been there for twenty years in Bengal. Then there is Kerala. Even in a parliamentary set up the Left could exist. Internationally, Cuba is still there. The imperialist forces try to kill all Left forces. But the US can do nothing about Cuba that is so close to its shores. It shows that the situation is not all that hopeless. Shortcomings are there in West Bengal. It is not ideal, but much better than other parties. Some industrial policies went wrong, they failed in the Mandal business. But land reform was a success. Education was a success in Kerala. The Left parties have more concern for the people, others are just sloganising: garibi hatao and the Kashmir policy etc. is just mere talk. Kashmir has been a poor state for 54 years and we are still talking about the Shimla Agreement. Nehru adopted Russian policy because it made sense for India. If we have failed in nationailising banks and the public sector is not profitable, let us correct the drawbacks, not disown the policies. Having a Minister for Disinvestment is like having a minister for potholes.
Are you referring to the possible adverse effects of globalization and WTO?
Globalization is happening the world over but we don’t have to give up indigenous knowledge and accept everything en block. We know how a chicken has to be cooked. Let us import technologies in which we are backward. Cheap material from China that is flooding the market will kill our own industry.
Coming to films, what do you feel about this year’s National Award controversy?
Controversies are a part of awards. Lobbying, political pressure, are always there. I don’t see anything wrong in this year’s choice. Lajmi is a good filmmaker she would have picked a woman’s point of view, which would not have suited the BJP. That’s why it could have been dropped earlier. Later it was called back and Raveena got the award so she must have done a good job. Mac being her uncle is nothing new. Charu Hassan was jury member when Kamal Hassan won the national award. He sat outside during the voting for best actor. When I was on the jury Tabu got it though there was a lot of lobbying for Rekha.
What do you have to say about the trend of casting mainstream glamour girls like Raveena and Karishma by parallel filmmakers? Is it true that are you opting for Urmilla in your next film?
I am not opting for Urmilla, the market is opting for Urmilla. The marketability of any project is important. The producers want a name that sells. She has done a deglamourised role of a saree-clad girl doing some social work. In Satya, her name was used, not her image. She was not dancing in minis. Similarly, Karishma’s name was used in Zubaieda. I don’t know how much of her image was used. Market demand is the reason why a Rehman has to do the music. I can work with a lesser-known musician too. But they are not saleable. I myself am not a saleable director. My producers are taking a risk of crores with me.
The market angle doesn’t apply to the hero though. In Zubaeida, art camp favourite Manoj Bajpai plays a prince. It stretches one's imagination a bit too much to swallow him as a dashing prince for whom a pretty girl abandons family, child, and society...
People do say that. He is a good actor. But he doesn’t have the looks. Somebody said that he should have the looks of a Kabir Bedi to look convincing as the husband of Rekha and Karishma. I wanted him to play an auto driver in my film. But he said that he wanted to change his image and run around tress. He feels he has had enough of working class roles. Then after that four of his films flopped. So may be the public is not accepting him in a glamorous image. He tried but obviously it doesn’t work..
What is your proposed film about? What is it called?
The film will be called Neecha Aasmaan. It is the story of a space scientist with ISRO. Circumstances bring her to jail in Bangalore and she gets very close to an auto driver. It’s a real story. The boy is a Dalit, and the girl is from an upper caste. The story juxtaposes a scientific community and its technological advancements with a society where five thousand years old prejudices still exist. The idea of a Dalit auto driver and a Ph.D. girl who is involved with an aerodynamics launch is not acceptabale. The auto driver is a misfit: he comes from a very down to earth background and suddenly lands in such places. He is an odd figure and it is not easy for him even to adjust to such a different set up. But he has certain internal qualities that attract the girl to him. Then there is another male scientist who comes from America and is very anglicised.
What was the response to Garam Hava like when it was released?
Initially it was not well received in Agra by the Muslim population as we have shown affairs between cousins. Also Advani had written in Organizer, one of their publications, that the movie was sponsored by Pakistan. But when he met me he said he had not seen the movie and it was some misunderstanding. You know how politicians are. Some felt that for whatever reason that the movie was pro one country. The couplet in the end was included to counter such sentiments and make our stance clear. They are by Kaifi Azmi and I felt they worked well.
"Jo duur se karte.n hain toofa.n ka nazaara,
unke liye toofan yahan bhi hai, wahan bhi
Mil jaaoge dhara me to bun jaaoge dhara
Yeh waqt ka ailaan wahan bhi hai, yahaan bhi."
What does the couplet mean in this context?
Thematically, the story is about the alienation that Muslims in India experienced, post-Partition.There was a sense of insecurity; the Muslim community was targeted against. Historical perceptions and prejudices can’t be wiped out easily. But basically Indians are secular. My film is about assimilation, not division. The film is rooting for Mirza to stay back. He has to stay behind and fight. Going away never solves anything. Unemployment was not only his son’s state but of all the boys sitting at the tea shop. In the last scene, he lets his son join the morcha and he too joins the morcha. When Muslims in India went to Pakistan they found that they were not treated as Muslims but Biharis, or from UP. Even Sindhis were looked down upon. The South Indians who went there came back or went off to Dubai or somewhere. So wherever you go you could be at some kind of disadvantage. Mirza belongs here: in the city of his ancestors.
Would you say that race is a more unifying factor than religion?
Religion is not a unifying factor ever; race could be said to be a more unifying factor.
From being a factory owner, Mirza is later seen making shoes and extolling the virtues of labour. From abstaining to join the shoemakers association strike we see him joining the protest morcha. As the movie progresses his capitalistic trappings decrease and not fully owing to situations. Doesn’t that have strong Marxist overtones?
A lot of people have pointed that the morcha scene with its red flags, the color red that is there throughout the movie etc. are Marxist signs. But I don’t think that the film promotes Marxism. I feel the film was more of a social statement than political propaganda. Of course, we do show agitations like the shoe makers strike, and the student movement. The student movement itself was a Marxist movement. Wider struggles and human concerns are always associated with Marxism. So the undercurrent is there throughout the film. But we are also saying that you can’t live alone. It is about belonging. Mirza is never meant to leave the country, he is an Indian. The Taj Mahal, the Agra leather business, that is all a part of his life.
How was it like directing Balraj Sahani in Garam Hava?
No actor has equalled his prowess, he was a consummate performer. The role of Salim Mirza was special to him. There was a tragedy in his life that had affected him when we were shooting. Balraj, like Mirza of the film, was very close to his daughter who he had lost. In the movie, Mirza’s daughter also dies. I shot the father-daughter sequences in the manner of Baljraj’s relationship with his own daughter. Very dirty of me. But that makes the relationship very touching in the film.
What do you think of the films that followed Garam Hava more recently ... like Naseem and Mammo, and Earth, 1947 and Tamas ... on the communal situation in the country?
There used to be films on Muslims known as Muslim socials. But Muslims were not shown realistically. They were mostly about nawabs, not a normal person in everyday life. We tried to do that in Garam Hava. It was the story of a people, not only just a community. Except for one scene you will not see any character offering namaz. It was a conscious effort. Naseem and Mammo are off shoots. They are good films but they were not as emotionally charged as Garam Hava. It is an emotionally charged film, quite sentimental. The family ties are close: between father-daughter, mother-daughter, brother-sister. Intellectual filmmakers may call it crap because it brings tears to the eyes. I am not worried.
Tamas is a well-made film, more documentary style, very long though. But it has been treated as docu-drama. Earth, 1947 is a pseudo and superficial film.
How active is IPTA now?
We are having our annual IPTA theatre festival at Prithvi Theatre, Bombay in May. There will be 12 plays performed, bakri.com is one of them. In Bombay theatre-going set is active. Calcutta, Poona, in Maharashtra, state theatre is still doing well. In Delhi, this is not the case.
IPTA has been around for almost 60 years now. We have had our ups and downs, our troubled days. When the communist movement split in India it affected us too. After all our members are politically involved and had to take sides. Naya Theatre was started by Dina Pathak, and a number of theatre groups came up. The ultras thought in a different way. But the idea of a people’s theatre is more important, than the name by which it is called. As long as people get to see good theatre the cause lives.
The final question: why were you not able to make another Garam Hava?
Can’t reason it out, maybe sometimes you achieve your peak early. By attempting to consciously make something good you can’t make it. Its difficult to say why Garam Hava has that kind of appeal. Though personally I found making Sookha more difficult and challenging. The film is about the nexus between politicians, the administration, and the police and how they exploit the drought situation for their own end, and forget about the people. It was made in Kannada as Bara and is based on a story by U.R. Anathmurthy.
It is difficult to say what made Garam Hava work. There were so many factors that gelled: The actors and technicians were mainly from IPTA in Bombay and Delhi, even the students of Agra college in the film were IPTA members. A lot of the actors like A. K Hangal, Farookh Sheikh, Shaukat Azmi, and Yunus Pervez, made their debut with this film. Not many know that Tabu’s father Jamal Hashmi is also there in the film. It was a bunch of first timers with passion.