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When Selfhood Meets Nationhood: Subjectivity and the New Nation in ‘Garam Hawa’

By Meher Ali

Hindustan ki azaadi, 1947.” A nameless narrator’s voice booms as photographs of Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah flash across the screen. The opening credits begin, and we are taken through actual snapshots from independence in a newsreel-style sequence. “Directed by M S Sathyu.” We come to a close-up of Gandhi’s face, and suddenly, three loud shots ring out. The photograph jolts each time; we literally see Gandhi’s head roll, and the film, Garam Hawa, begins.

Sathyu’s 1973 classic, based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, tells the story of Salim Mirza, a Muslim businessman in Agra, who struggles, after Partition, to retain his livelihood and way of life. The film moves mostly at a languid pace; the plot points build upon each other unhurriedly, and we are allowed a slow burn rather than an explosive blaze. But there are sudden sparks in the flame – moments, like the sound of the gunshots that killed Gandhi – which startle us out of this rhythm and make us consider other things. Things like: I see what is happening, but how is it being experienced interiorly? Why is it, when I watched the sufferings of the Muslim family at the heart of Garam Hawa that I sometimes felt, more than sympathy or sadness for the characters, a kind of unsettling division within myself?

I don’t think, upon a second and third viewing, that this was a random personal reaction to the film. Sathyu’s technique (from POV to framing and more) points to a purposeful perturbation that could have a multitude of meanings, but for me evoked one question in particular: that of self-identity, and the role of nationhood in its construction. Within the larger question of what constitutes Indian ‘nationhood’ in the first place, there is a more intimate exploration taking place here, one that is particularly suited for the psychoanalytic power of film. As Glen Gabbard put it, “to a large extent, film speaks the language of the unconscious” (Elliott and Prager, 2016). Cinema, with its unique ability to capture emotional truths beyond external realities, can approach questions that are hard to even articulate elsewhere. At one level, Garam Hawa demonstrates the socio-economic marginalization of Indian Muslims after independence. But how does this new ‘nationness’, as expressed through both material realities and as an abstract idea, affect individuals at the psychological level?

As it was put in the September 1948 issue of Film India, Muslims who chose not to migrate to Pakistan were left as “the living dead” in India – “orphans in their own land” (Needham, 2013). The character of Salim Mirza loses, over the course of the film, his house, his business, his reputation, and much of his family (including a daughter to suicide) as a consequence of anti-Muslim discrimination in the wake of Partition. This discrimination takes different forms; in one of the earliest incidents, Salim is denied a bank loan. “Times have changed,” the man says. “But how does that affect us?” asks Salim. “We are just the same.”

This conversation unfolds entirely from the banker’s point of view. We see Salim Mirza approach the door through the window; he enters and greets the camera directly before sitting down across from it. We never see the banker’s face, taking his place instead, and as he (we?) dismiss Salim’s pleas, the head-on sight of his humiliation makes us feel discomforted in turn. Salim fixes the buttons on his shirt, he glances away and back again, nervously tapping his fingers on his cane. In the following scenes, these small gestures of underlying agitation continue to build slowly – the nervous, repetitive motions of Salim’s wife sewing or his daughter cleaning plates – even as the pace of the plot remains steady. The family continues to go through their everyday motions – “we are just the same” – but the doubt is creeping in: times have changed, can they really remain as they were?

The visit to the bank is only the first of a series of encounters in which we, the audience, take the POV of a nameless other. We become, in turn, a landlord, who hesitates to lease Salim a house, a crowd of union workers, who cold-shoulder the Mirza men when they don’t join a rally, and a job interviewer, who rejects Salim’s son for a position without good reason. By keeping these characters faceless, they become more than individuals, but representatives of entire systems. And by putting us, the audience, face-to-face with the characters each time, we don’t just experience their marginalization from afar, we engage with it, even perpetrate it. In many ways, the perspectives taken are symbolic of the new nation-state: institutions like the ‘Punjab National Bank’ are foundational to the economic identity of independent India, and the Shoemakers Association is representative of middle-class efforts to negotiate a place within the new power structure. Either way, there is no room for Muslims – they are to be watched, with a kind of suspicion (accentuated by the camera’s emphatic stare), as outsiders to the new national formation.

When a film takes the POV of an out-of-frame character, the unfamiliarity of the angle tends to make the viewer aware of their identification with the camera. As Christian Metz described it in his seminal text, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (1982): “In all sequences of this kind…the identification is twice relayed.” The spectator’s look, instead of hovering over the entire scene, must “go through – as one goes through a town on a journey, or a mountain pass – “the look of the out-of-frame character”. The switch from all-seeing perceiver to a particular set of eyes – this sudden awareness of subjectivity – elicits, I think, a moment of doubt from the viewer. Even if it is not conscious, there is a flicker of uncertainty as we quickly readjust our perspective to fit the screen. Am I a passive, transcendental spectator, or am I the moneylender, denying this man a loan? The shift is not difficult, but it is unsettling – and it relates, in tiny bursts, to the identity crisis taking place within Salim Mirza himself. Sathyu’s camera becomes, in these scenes, the nation at large – imposing itself on Salim in very concrete ways; it also becomes a prod – pushing the viewer to feel the confusion of knowing who you are when, without warning, things around you change.

How do we perceive and understand ourselves? If identity is the relation between an entity and itself, then it could be explained, in psychoanalytic terms, as “the gap between presence and non-presence, between the One and the other” (De Carneri, 1998). In this way, identity necessitates, right at its origin, a split; the self as starting point, and the self as point of arrival. We forge, from the messy and fragmented nature of experience, a sense of unity within ourselves through identification with different representations, what Lacan called mirror images (Vanheule and Verhaeghe, 2009). In Garam Hawa, these signifiers sometimes appear as literal physical images: take, for example, the photographs that open the film. In one scene, Salim’s brother, Halim Mirza, brags about his position in the Muslim community, saying “Ever since Liaquat Ali Khan left, the Uttar Pradesh Muslims regard me as their leader.” The scene opens with the camera panning over portraits of Muslim political figures (including Jinnah and Khan) in Halim’s house, to the sound of raucous applause. A little later, in an argument with his wife, Halim leans back imperiously, with his hands behind his head: “You have only your son to worry about, but I have the whole nation’s burden on me!” The jarring applause returns; we are reminded of the portraits, and it is clear that Halim identifies with those great leaders hanging on his walls. Historical moments, captured by such photographs, often become a part of collective memory and play an important role in national identity formation. Halim Mirza, when faced with the realities of post-Partition life, tries to refashion himself as a community leader, looking to certain political figures as his references. His bold proclamations are soon exposed as hypocrisies, however; he leaves for Pakistan – where his personal identity and his national identity won’t be at odds with one another.

Towards the end of the film, Salim’s son sits with his friends at the tea stall they frequent. They order samosas, and someone jokes: “Were the samosas made before or after independence?” Can the sense of selfhood you held before an event like the Partition withstand such a total reconfiguration of nationhood? From a psychoanalytic point of view, the process by which we continuously construct identity only obfuscates, or defends against, the fundamentally divided nature of subjectivity. I would say, then, that what makes Garam Hawa so uniquely potent is how it imposes this split upon the senses in stark, often unsettling, ways. Sathyu uses sound and image to create harsh contrasts (think of the gunshots or applause over photographs and close-ups), just as he uses shifting points of view to destabilize our comfortable role as passive viewers. As a result, he exposes the cracks within self we all contain, and that, at some level, we already know.


Works Cited
De Carneri, M. 1998. ‘Identity/Identification, Editorial’. UMBR (a) 1: 1-3.

Elliott, A and J Prager. 2016. The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities. New York, NY: Routledge.

Metz, C. 1982. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Needham, A D. 2013. New Indian Cinema in Post-independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal’s Films. London: Routledge.

Vanheule, S and P. Verhaeghe. 2009. ‘Identity Through a Psychoanalytic Looking Glass’. Theory & Psychology 19 (3): 391-411. doi:10.1177/0959354309104160.


Meher Ali
recently graduated from Brown University, where she studied history. She is also interested in South Asian politics, culture, and film, and is currently conducting research in India as a US Fulbright scholar.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. After reading this intriguing essay, I was motivated to watch this oft-mentioned classic myself. It is indeed a stunningly well made and well acted film, I found myself unsettled not just by the difficult questions it raises, but by how such stories and their telling has been effaced from more contemporary Hindi cinema.

    To add to the author’s commentary, I would say that there is conflict in the movie, not just between selfhood and nationhood, but also between selfhood and ‘community’. Salim Mirza’s interactions with his community (extended family, political leaders) leave him as despondent as those with the newly forming state.

    I feel that at the end of the movie, he chooses to resolve both his conflicts, by ending the isolation imposed on him by both the state and his community. The words ‘Insaan kab tak akela ji sakta hain’ and the potent imagery of political protest slogans written in both Hindustani scripts are indications. They tell us that selfhood in a democratic republic is defined by participating in the political process, as a citizen, rather than abstaining from it, and remaining a Muslim (or a Hindu) away from the public sphere or in another country.

    Thank you for this interesting essay.

    December 14, 2016

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