Ismat Chughtai’s name will go down in history as a luminary in Urdu literature, specially as a prolific short-story writer, for which she was awarded a Padma Shri by the Government of India. What is less known, and even less discussed, is her contribution to the Indian cinema. From Ziddiin 1948 to Mehfilin 1981, she was involved in various roles in no less than 17 Indian films, together with her fellow Aligarian husband and producer-director Shahid Latif. In Ziddi, the couple is responsible for providing Dev Anand his debut as a male lead and Kishore Kumar as a playback singer with his first film song “Marne ki duwaein kyun mangoon, Jeene ki tamanna kaun kare”.
Apart from being a prolific screenwriter, Ismat Chughtai has penned dialogues, written screenplays and has even produced and directed several films of the top stars throughout her illustrious career. This article focuses on two of her films, which are also connected with each other through some gentle poetic strokes. Sone Ki Chidiya(1958), which she wrote and also co-produced with her husband is one of them. Starring Nutan, singer/actor Talat Mahmood and Balraj Sahni in lead roles, it was a social drama which told the story of a child actor, who was abused and exploited over the course of her career. The film was well received by audiences and the success of the film translated directly into the further enhancing of Ismat Chughtai’s popularity. Sone Ki Chidiyahas been described as a significant production for reflecting on prime as well as grime time in Indian cinema, the scenes behind the glamour of the film industry. Nutan, who received superlative accolades for her work in the film, has herself described it as one of her favorite screen performances. The lyrics were penned by Sahir Ludhianvi which were set to music by the very best in the business – composer OP Nayyar. Although Sahir had written the songs, there was a poem of Kaifi Azmi, quite distinct, which was picturized in the film on a poet, played by Balraj Sahni. What makes it fascinating is that there was no music involved and the voice-over was not provided by any singer or the actor, but by the poet Kaifi himself. Yet it was Balraj Sahni, who stole the show.
Aaj ki raat bohat garam hava chalti hai, Aaj ki raat na footpath pe neend ayegi
As the wheels of time moved on, none of the people involved knew what was to follow 15 years later. So, fast forward from the year 1958 to 1973, in order to connect with the film Garam Hava.
Garam Havaalludes to the scorching wind of communal violence political bigotry and intolerance, which blew away humanity and conscience from across North-India in the years after the partition of India in 1947, especially after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, to which the film opens. In its prologue, Kaifi Azmi narrates a couplet summing up the theme, “Geeta ki koi sunta na Quran ki sunta, hairan sa eemaan vahan bhi tha yahan bhi”
(Translation: Nobody listens to Geeta or Quran, the conscience was shocked there as it is here.)
The film Garam Hava (The Scorching Wind) was based on an unpublished short story of Ismat Chughtai and later adapted for the film by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi. Chughtai narrated the story to M.S. Sathyu and his talented wife – screenplay writer, costume designer, art director, theatre artist and documentary film maker – Shama Zaidi, deriving from the struggles of some of her own relatives, who were migrating to Pakistan. To that Kaifi Azmi added his own experience of Agra and the local leather industry, while developing the screenplay and also penned the songs accordingly, besides the dialogues. The musical score was provided by Ustad Bahadur Khan, the renowned sarod player.
The location shooting of the film took place in the city of Agra as well as in Fatehpur Sikri. Due to continued protests by some local elements owing to the controversial theme of the film, a fake second unit with unloaded cameras was sent to various locations to divert attention from the film’s actual locations. As the film’s commercial producers had earlier already backed out, fearing public and governmental backlash, the “Film Finance Corporation” (FFC), now NFDC, stepped in with a funding of IRs 250,000. Sathyu borrowed the remaining IRs 750,000 of the budget from friends and relatives. The film was co-produced and shot by Ishan Arya, who after making ad films made his feature film debut, using an Artiflex camera, lent by Homi Sethna, Sathyu’s friend. As Sathyu couldn’t afford recording equipment, the film was actually shot silent, and the location sounds and voices were dubbed in post-production. Shama Zaidi also lent her skills of a costume and production designer in the scheme of things.
Sathyu (almost 90 now, but still active) had long been associated with the leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), so not surprisingly most of the roles in the film were played by prominent stage actors from IPTA troupes in Delhi, Mumbai and Agra. The role of family patriarch, Salim Mirza was played by Balraj Sahni, also known to Sathyu through IPTA. The disappointed, but stoic Muslim man refuses to migrate to Pakistan. Just like his ageing mother is reluctant to leave the ancestral haveli where she came as a young bride, her son Salim Mirza, too is holding on to his faith in new India. Despite the fact that his shoe manufacturing business is suffering in the new communally charged environment and the family has to sell off their haveli to move into a rented house, yet he struggles to keep his faith alive in secularism and idealism.
The role of his wife was played by Shaukat Azmi, wife of Kaifi Azmi and mother of Shabana Azmi. Farooq Shaikh, a law student in Mumbai, who until then had played only minor roles in IPTA plays, made his film debut with the role of Sikandar. The locale of the Mirza mansion was an old haveli of R. S. Lal Mathur, who assisted the whole unit throughout the shooting. Mathur also helped Sathyu find Badar Begum in a city brothel, for the role of Balraj Sahni’s mother. This intricate role was initially offered to noted ghazal singer Begum Akhtar, but she had declined. Badar Begum was then in her 70s and almost blind due to cataract. She had worked as an extra for many years in films in Mumbai and had returned to Agra, ending up in the red-light area of the city, and established a brothel, which had a long line of patrons. This role was cut out for her!
Prior to its release, the film was held by the Censor Board of India, for eight months, fearing communal unrest. However, director Sathyu persevered and showed it to government officials, leaders and journalists many times, convincing them that there was nothing questionable in content. The film was released eventually in late 1973 to both critical and commercial success, receiving numerous international and local awards, including Filmfare awards for Best Dialogue- Kaifi Azmi, Best Screenplay- Kaifi Azmi-Shama Zaidi and Best Story Award- Ismat Chughtai.
Kaifi Azmi’s poem Garam Havahad traveled a long and eventful journey. What started from a short recital in Sone ki Chidiya,the Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chughtai and Balraj Sahni connection had ended 15 years later with Garam Hava– a film, which turned out to be their last one together. The scorching wind stopped to blow abruptly, as Balraj Sahni died the very next day after he had finished the dubbing work for the film and, according to film critics, brought the curtain down with the finest performance of his long and illustrious career. That fateful day was April 13, 1973.
The last line he recorded for this film was also the last recording of his life. “Insaan Kab Tak Akela Jee Sakta Hai?” Translated into English: “How long can a person live alone?”
The question remains unanswered.