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By Zeeshan Hussain, Edited by Adam Rizvi, The India Observer, TIO: Lush green fields; men clad in shawls and sweaters, basking themselves by the campfire; chimes of bells attached to the necks of goats and buffaloes; peasants in tattered clothes leaving for their farms with ploughs on their shoulders; mud walls and thatched roofs; children in skull caps assembled in a veranda for elementary education. It is a cold foggy day and a cloak of poverty covers the villagers. This is the first shot of the film Gaman (meaning departure).
This opening shot presents the village of Kotwara in Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, where lives the protagonist Ghulam Hasan (Faroque Shaikh) along with his serene wife Khairun (Smita Patil) and his affectionate mother. They are poverty-stricken; plus Ghulam Hasan is unemployed. Gaman is the story of the struggle of Ghulam Hasan as he is forced to leave his cozy village, Kotwara, for livelihood. It is a story of migration from rural UP to Bombay (present Mumbai) in the 1970s. Apart from a few professional actors, all the cast are the local people from Kotwara and Bombay. Muzzafar Ali portrays the everyday life of Kotwara and Bombay of the 1970s.
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Rural Awadh and Urban Bombay: Between caste and class
I would like to draw attention to three vital aspects of the film. First and foremost is the vivid description of rural UP and Bombay city. Kotwara village has Dalits, Muslims and Hindus. The film shows many important aspects to build a solid background. One gets to know that the majority of the Dalits and Muslims are poor and work in the farms and mills owned by Hindus. The Thakur landlord of Kotwara has musclemen to implement his dictates against agricultural labourers who are mainly Dalits and Muslims. Peasants get one-fourth of the total produce while landowner gets three-fourths. Land remains an important source of income and status.
In the nearby village, a Brahmin landlord has burnt down some houses of Dalits as they were asking for due wages. A Thakur landlord grabs the land of Ghulam Hasan which his father got from the Raja of Kotwara. Thakur sa’ab threatens Ghulam Hasan with dire consequences when Hasan claims his legitimate ownership. Out of humiliation, Ghulam Hasan leaves Kotwara for Bombay where his childhood friend Lallulal Tiwari (Jalal Agha) lives.
Bombay is almost opposite to Kotwara– dialect, slangs, dress code, demeanor, and people at large; everything is different. In Kotwara, life was led at languid ease while in Bombay life was full of rush and bustle. Local train journeys are a signature of Bombay life. All relations are impersonal: vo kaun tha? kahan ka tha? kya hua tha use? It took a while for Ghulam Hasan to accept this part of his life as an impoverished taxi-driver. He gradually picks up ‘Bambaiyya’ dialect. In this strange city all men appear similar; all taxis look similar. This is a place where people dream and die. Like his taxi, now his life has also taken a U-turn. He earns money but not satisfaction. He misses his wife and mother terribly.
Muslim subjectivity: Between culture and deprivation
The second most noteworthy thing that the film depicts is Muslim subjectivity. One sees Ghulam Hasan donning loose pajama and greeting aadaab to his mother. His frail mother has a paandaan (betel box) and wears gharara. She is seen offering namaz and bowing her head on sajde-gaah. Tasbih (rosary) is seen in her hand. She knows only Awadhi language unlike her bahu Khairun (Smita Patil) who can chit chat in both Awadhi and Urdu.
The month of Muharram is very important for Muslims. Khairun and her mother-in-law are wearing black salwars. There is a small description of the history and importance of the month of Muharram. The battle of Karbala signifies ethics and justice. We see people performing maatam and carrying glittering taaziya. We hear clip-clop of zuljanah and clank of zanjeer ka maatam. Every year the Muharram juloos is organised by the Raja of Kotwara. All these were observed by both Hindus and Dalits as they stood adjacent to the Muharram juloos, observing their Muslim brethren in black kurta, a colour that signifies loss and suffering. Kotwara Muslims use the lunar calendar for their daily lives (chellum and saatvi moharram). The noha (dirge) sung by Chhaya Ganguly‐ ro ro kar kehti thi is beyond words.
Struggle of women: Between poverty and patriarchy
Finally, the film talks about the pain and suffering of women from low-income groups. In Kotwara, Khairun and her mother-in-law are seen struggling without Ghulam. Households without male heads have to face tremendous difficulties, more so in rural areas. Khairun is shown meeting her responsibilities from dawn to dusk with single-minded devotion. She longs for her husband; her mother‐in‐law yearns for her son. Their world is dull and gloomy. Both want money but also Ghulam Hasan’s presence. Aapki yaad aati rahi raat bhar, chashm-e-nam muskurati rahi raat bhar by poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin is heart-wrenching. Khairun is depicted as dynamic while her background is static; Ghulam Hasan is portrayed as static while his background is shown dynamic. It shows the contradiction of the individual with his/her environment.
In Mumbai, Lallulal Tiwari’s girlfriend Yashodhara (Gita Siddharth) is struggling to make her two ends meet as her entire family depends on her income. Gita cannot escape her abusive brother as her beau Tiwari is too poor to buy a house. Her father is mentally unstable and mother takes care of the house. She is hopeless about her future. Here also, women are depicted as suffering from double marginalization– poverty and patriarchy. They all are gentle yet brave despite leading a tough life. And towards the end, something terrible, something unexpected happens to Lallulal Tiwari. Narrative comes to a standstill. Ghulam Hasan is shattered and plunges into an abyss of remorse. There was a weird bond of affection between Hasan and Tiwari, that bond is snapped forever.
Gaman succeeds in revealing the pain and suffering of mankind. It shows all the relevant concomitants and consequences of the migration forcibility undertaken by the poor and destitute. Songs are discreet and jaded well in the fabric of the narrative. Seene me jalan, akhon me tufaan and ajeeb saneeha mujh par are two soulful songs penned by poet Shaharyar. This directorial debut by Muzaffar Ali is a splendid example of neo-realist artwork. Its freshness and fragrance, regality and romance and detailing and depth make it an invariably classic much ahead of its times. I found in its spirit and substance a romantic pensiveness and gentle melancholy. It received a chorus of admiration then and it still enthralls viewers now. Gaman will remain a teardrop on the cheek of time.
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Curated and Compiled by Humra Kidwai
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