MS Sathyu on the enduring love for ‘Garm Hava’, political cinema, and lessons from Hitchcock

Also: ‘We don’t make satires in India. We don’t have a sense of humour.’

At 87, MS Sathyu has recently staged his version of the fantasy adventure Gulebakavali, is looking for producers for a musical he wants to direct, and is most likely also going to make a film about martial arts. This apart from travelling across the country for screenings of his films, including the classic Garm Hava (1973).

“I want to make films as long as I can,” Sathyu said. “All I need to figure out is the finance part of it, which you’ll be surprised to know is still hard to find, after all these years.”

Sathyu burst onto the filmmaking scene with Garm Hava, a searing portrayal of a Muslim family of shoemakers that stays back in Agra after the Partition. Garm Hava, immensely popular even today, was followed by Kanneshwara Rama (1977), a political drama about a village outlaw. Then came the hilarious political satire Chitegu Chinte (1978), the marvellously performed Bara (1982), an adaptation of a UR Ananthamurthy novel on the politics of a drought, and Galige (1995) based on the Khalistan movement.

All of Sathyu’s films have been consciously framed and tastefully designed responses to what was happening around him at the time. “I’m not an intellectual, though,” the filmmaker said. “I’m just a technician. The political nature of my work is just a reflection of who I am. I can’t help it.” Excerpts from an interview

‘Garm Hava’ is still being screened over 40 years after its released. Why does the film still appeal to so many people?
There are certain subjects which are universal. Sometimes, things that happen years after a film’s release end up making the film more meaningful. It is not a question of when you made the film. It is about how you made it. There is no formula.

When it was released in 1973, the memory of the Partition was still fresh. Today, how many of us can claim to have witnessed the Partition? But today’s generation still likes to see the film. I think that’s because it is very human. It is a moving story, a tearjerker. People like to cry in the movies – whether it is Garm Hava or Laila Majnu.

Do you read new things in ‘Garm Hava’ today?
No, it is still the film I made back in the day. Also, it is immaterial. One doesn’t keep track of something that one has done. One just moves on to the next project, play or film.

Garm Hava (1973).

Can a film like ‘Garm Hava’ be made today?
I don’t know. The communal divide is becoming stronger and stronger. A person’s religious identity has gotten stronger. Today we are more intolerant than we were, more prejudiced against each other. And there is a kind of a fascist tendency in the ruling party today because it is ruled by a communal party.

That whole idea of a secular fabric, which is what has kept India what it is, is getting eroded. We are losing something very important – the very character of the country.

How is this being reflected in cinema?
It reflects in cinema in many ways. Those who have made other films on the Partition, for example, have made pro-India films. In that process, they’ve made anti-Indian Muslim films. That is the danger. In the name of patriotism, they have taken a prejudiced attitude which may be wrong.

We have been having skirmishes with Pakistan for a long time. That is part of our history now and part of the dangers of Partition. Such a huge Partition has taken place, it will have its after-effects. But the psychology of people is such, we’ll look at everything in a prejudiced manner.

After ‘Garm Hava’, was there pressure on you to shape your career in a certain way?
No. I took whatever opportunity I got. Also, you don’t plan your life like that. That’s not a way to live.

Garm Hava’s writers Shama Zaidi and Kaifi Azmi on the movie’s sets. Courtesy MS Sathyu.
Garm Hava’s writers Shama Zaidi and Kaifi Azmi on the movie’s sets. Courtesy MS Sathyu.

Did the success of ‘Garm Hava’ cushion the journey?
Not really. I made Kanneshwara Rama because I got someone to produce the film. I wasn’t thinking about making another film like Garm Hava.

Garm Hava, in fact, made things more difficult because one tends to be branded as a political filmmaker. And people do not want to invest in such projects. For example, when I made Bara, Shashi Kapoor was the first person to give me the money to make it. What he gave – a sum of Rs 25,000 – I paid to UR Ananthamurthy for the story. However, later on, somehow he realised that I was making something more political than Garm Hava. We knew each other from a long time, so Shashi had said yes initially. He is a man who has built up a certain career in cinema and theatre and he was in the eyes of the government back then. So, finally he said he did not want to make anything against the state.

People always have a choice. I couldn’t return his money though.

Why did you choose UR Ananthamurthy’s ‘Bara’?
I had always liked Ananthamurthy among the young writers those days. He had brought something new to Kannada literature. I was greatly impressed by Samskara, which was also made into one of the pathbreaking films in Kannada. I went to him to ask him if he had anything for me, and he said he had just written some notes after a tour of a dry belt in Karnataka where a lot of politics was at play – a nexus of the administration, the politicians and the police. I read it and found it very interesting.

It is again a film that still speaks to the present.
Well, both in theatre and cinema, I tend to choose subjects that are political. I may not be a slogan-shouting activist, but I’m sensitive to what is happening.

Bara did well when it was released. It ran for 14 weeks in one of the theatres, which was big at the time. I remember there was an inaugural show in Bangalore which was attended by chief minister Gundu Rao. After seeing the film, he came to me and said, “Sathyu, if you had told me you were making such a film, I’d have given you a lot of information from the inside.”

All these politicians know what they are doing. Now, Garm Hava is being screened across the country but will politicians come to watch it? Even if they come, will any of them acknowledge their complicity in damaging the secular fabric of the country, for instance?

Bara (1982).

The popular opinion is that ‘Garm Hava’ is your best work. Would you agree?
Could be. Could be.

Is there another contender?
I think it was more difficult to make Bara than Garm Hava. To me, Bara is a better film. It is a very dry subject. Garm Hava has a sentimental subject. It was easier to tackle a story like that.

How do you adapt a text onto the screen?
The approach changes with the text and the subject at hand. I tried to make Bara like a news reel. I used a disadvantage as an advantage.

I learnt this technique from Alfred Hitchcock actually. Hitchcock would create a problem for himself and then try to work within the limits of that. For example, take a film like Rear Window. A photojournalist has met with an accident and has a fracture. He cannot move much, but he has this window through which he can see the entire courtyard and all the houses on the other side. Hitchcock intelligently limited the position of his camera, gave it a reason to be within the four walls of a room.

I tried something similar with Bara, where I envisioned the entire film like a news reel, whether it was the street scenes or the police action.

Bara (1982).
Bara (1982).

What prompted the political satire ‘Chitegu Chinte’?
This was before Bara and again, all I wanted to do was make a film. Somebody introduced me to Lakshmipathy, who had made Kaadu. He is actually a builder but he had invested a certain amount of his money in cinema. I wanted to make a lighthearted satire. He didn’t even know what I was making.

We don’t make satires in India. You may find satire in theatre, but not in cinema. We don’t have a sense of humour. And people are very scared to invest in experiments in cinema. But that has not been the case elsewhere. Some of the early British films, Alec Guinness’s films, for example, are incredible funny and socio-politically sensitive at the same time. Guinness made The Man in the White Suit, which was about the economics of the textile industry. When the new fabrics started coming in, cotton was threatened. Who, today thinks of such issues as material for a film?

Our sense of comedy is terribly crude. A conscious effort to laugh at ourselves is not there at all. It is lacking in the overall pattern of our lives. We are getting bogged down and limiting ourselves in terms of our outlook.

What were your references in terms of the vocabulary for such a film? Did you turn to theatre?
I’m basically a theatre person and that influences my work, whether I want it or not. The influences in terms of style were plenty – the scene on the steps in Battleship Potemkin, slapstick from the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis and so on.

So, you took advantage of the producer and made a satire without his knowledge.
One always wants to take advantage of the producer. Just because they give you the money, they don’t take away your freedom. You don’t always have to tell them what you are making.

Chitegu Chinte (1978).
Chitegu Chinte (1978).

Why did the Khalistan movement inspire ‘Galige’?
This time, it was a conscious effort to make a film on the Khalistan movement. I based it on two different stories featuring two different characters, both people I had met.

A friend, a theatre person, had once invited me to her house for dinner. She had also invited the police commissioner. We were having dinner on the first floor but on the floor above, she had housed these Khalistan boys. She was protecting them. So, after the commissioner left, she told me that she had some important people housed upstairs and introduced me to them.

The boy, a watchmaker’s son, had been in the Khalistan movement for sometime. But when he saw that a whole bunch of innocent people were killed because of a bomb he had made, he realised how wrong he had been. It was dangerous for him to stay in Punjab and oppose those who were for the movement. So, he came down south. The girl, I had met separately. That’s how I connected those two stories – that they meet on the train, become friends etc.

The National Film Development Corporation financed it. They never interfered with the subject.

Galige (1995).
Galige (1995).

Does cinema today adequately respond to the times we live in?
I think there are films that do that. A film like Lipstick Under My Burkha is an example. Even the struggle it went through shows how sensitive the authorities today are, how scared they are. They had to change the chairman of the committee. That’s how powerful cinema is.

The censor board had created trouble for ‘Garm Hava’ too. Has the institution changed at all over time?
Just the name has changed, I think. Now, they call it a certification board, but the guidelines still correspond to the idea of censorship. It is an obsolete institution. One that was started by the British because there were films that were anti-empire at that time.

Politicians aren’t censored. The problem is that cinema is a deeply affective medium. That’s why everyone wants to control it.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.