Someone close to us passed away last week. Barely three months after his mother. Who was closer to us. To Dhanno and me. Death and funeral rites and sorrow notwithstanding, a feud rages on within the family for the small sliver of an apartment that has been home to 10 people in the last 20 years. 200 square feet.

I look at the walls, blistered by seepage. The room crowded with mourners, food, furniture. Sweltering with the heat of bodies crammed against each other. How little this is to fight for. And yet, it’s a roof. Where is one to go away from it? I cannot forget my own fear, years ago, of stepping out of a similar roof. Fear assails you when you have a child. A little child. Where will you go? Where will you spend the night?

The shamelessness of poverty is shameful. Poverty makes you mean, makes you scramble for your own escape, even if it may mean climbing over those who you were meant to love and protect. Poverty leaves you helpless. Though when there is love, warmth, tolerance, that 200 square feet and even less, can also give refuge to one more person, one more child, as it did to Dhanno and me, those many years ago.

This mix of the helplessness and dignity of the poor, and the ruthlessness and tolerance of the big city, is what Muzaffar Ali captures in ‘Gaman’ (1978). Ghulam (Farooq Shaikh) and Khairun (Smita Patil), because of their innocence, their deep unspoken love for each other, the newness of their marriage, and the pain of their separation touch you with their dignity. There are some people whose beauty is not a characteristic, but who are just beautiful, and Smita is one of them. In so many films, she is used so sparingly, including in this one, and yet, even those few frames burn themselves in your mind forever.

There are other relationships too, in the film, holding out hope. Ghulam comes to Bombay, and is wholeheartedly supported by his friend Lallu Tewari (Jalal Agha), who himself has so little. The love between Lallu and his girlfriend Yashodhara (Geeta Siddharth) is palpable, but though they are in the same city, unlike Ghulam and Khairun, they are equally torn apart, unable to afford a home of their own, being able to meet like many other couples, only in public spaces like Juhu beach.

Senior taxi drivers give Ghulam work; help him learn driving, get a license. With extended hands, they help each other get on with the hard business of living in the city, and sending back money to their families in the villages.

The realities of caste and communal divisions are present but subtly, the fact of co-existence across religion and caste lines is real. As is the greed of Yashodhara’s no-good brother Vasu (Nana Patekar) and uncle (Arun Joglekar) who want to send her off on a job to Dubai against an advance salary for 2 years. Or the harshness of Lallu’s senior taxi driver’s friend in an accident, or the pain of Ghulam’s mother (Amir Bano), emotional and physical, or the mourning of Lallu’s mother (Hira Devi Mishra), who makes milk sweets for her absent son, that curdle with not been eaten.

Mixing non-actors with a cast of fine actors gives the film an array of faces that need no acting skills to convey their reality. The villagers of Kotwara, and the taxi drivers of Bombay mix with the likes of Sulbha Deshpande, Arvind Deshpande, Protima Bedi, Satish Shah, Hridaya Lani, to serve up a film that even if it suffers from the malaise of a tiny budget, becomes unforgettable.

The film is shot in documentary style (Cinematography: Nadeem Khan from FTII). Bombay in 1978, in its squalor too is unimaginably cleaner and more picturesque than it is 40 years hence. Local trains, Juhu beach, Carter Road, a slum in Bandra, VT Station, taxi rides, bus rides, offer evidence of a less crowded, more humane city.

Before Ghulam arrives to Bombay, we see Village Kotwara, District Kheri, U.P., in a transition from the first shot of the film, a typewriter, hands typing on it, a close-up revealing the address of the village. The landscape of the village dominated by an old mosque, Ghulam’s house, the lanes in which friends meet, the ruined monuments against which the villagers lead their daily life, lost splendor of bygone ages.

The authenticity of the locations and the details of props, including the dark tea made by Khairun the first time we see her, to serve Ghulam in bed, the corner of a room, with large grain urns looming tall over Ghulam’s cot, the dust in the house and village that clings to everything, the change in Ghulam from smoking beedis in the village to cigarettes in the city, the subtle darkening of his skin, losing the freshness he comes with from the village, the mise-en-scene makes the worlds of village and city come alive.

The observing of Moharram is woven into the narrative from the year when Ghulam is forced to leave home, to the next, when he is in Bombay, away from home for a year. The tumult of his emotions is captured through superb inter-cutting, his taxi stuck in a jam, caused by a throng of Marathi Pandurang devotees, the beating of the lezim, and Moharram in the village, the Muslim devotees beating their chests, a Marathi bridal couple stuck in the back of Ghulam’s taxi, and Khairun, as he remembers her, in her bridal finery. And to add to it all, another procession passes Ghulam’s taxi in Bombay, workers shouting ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, reflecting the dissent of his friends in the village, being laid off from the one factory there, their wages being cut, their subsidized meals being cancelled. Some superb editing by another FTII graduate, Jethu Mundul.

There are other masterly transitions, a straight cut from Ghulam’s fight with the henchmen of Amarsingh Thakur (Nitin Sethi), who wants to gobble up Ghulam’s rightful share of land and harvest, to him straight in the train to Bombay, with only the voice of Khairun pleading, where will he be the next day this time, when will he come back? A passenger in the train asks him to eat some food; he refuses politely, and remembers his mother coaxing him to eat food when he was angry. The window near his face has shattered glass, as he enters Bombay, he lifts it and feels the sun and wind on his face.

The sound by A.M. Padmanabhan, a FTII stalwart, someone who contributed a great deal to the sound scape of art and parallel cinema through the years, creates an extended narrative through the use of off-screen dialogue in buses, in the chawl, in the taxi rides, a Parsi man lamenting the breaking down of the old houses and the building of new pigeonholes, a man looking for a woman in the red-light area, a woman buying expensive gifts for her husband’s superiors to wangle a promotion for him, a well-off woman without change, the jostling of passengers in crowded buses, neighbors in the slum fighting over liquor, cards, bemoaning the pending demolition by the municipality of their houses. These off-screen conversations lend a deeper understanding of the city and its dynamics. As do the letters between Ghulam and Khairun and the ghazals.

While ‘Seene mein jalan, aankho mein tufaan sa kyun hain, iss shaher mein har shaksh pareshaan sa kyun hain?’ (Singer: Suresh Wadkar) haunted me since I watched the film first, when I was 13, this time, it is ‘Aa ja sawariya, tohe garwa lagaa loon, ras ke bhare tore nain’, (Singer: Hira Devi Mishra) and Smita’s dark eyes that rend my soul. Music director Jaidev won the National Award for Best Music Direction in 1979 for the film, and singer Chhaya Ganguli for Best Female Playback for the song ‘Aap ki yaad aati rahi, raat bhar’. Another superb shot and piece of editing is over this song, specially in the lines ‘Yaad ke chaand utarte rahe, dil mein, raat bhar’ over a row of road lights in Bombay, as Ghulam drives his taxi, lost in thought, worried about Khairun and his mother (Amir Bano) back home, the lights shining like so many moons. (Lyrics: Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Shahryar)

The city is not stereotypically bad, not filled with thugs or mafia, but in itself it is inexorable, and Ghulam is defeated by the weight of his circumstances. He is trapped not by the city, but by the helplessness of his poverty, by the reality that his village has no livelihood for him and his family.

After his friend Lallu’s murder, Ghulam decides to go back home, but he waits behind a shutter, standing there for the longest time, looking longingly at the train leaving. He cannot leave, because the fact is he just does not have enough money.

This story of the separation of families, because of lack of livelihood in the villages, is what provoked me to make my children’s film ‘Kaphal’. The story of Makar, Kamru and their father, Kailash. But because I told it from the point of view of the children, I could offer hope, magic, and a solution. Even though I know fully well in my heart that mostly, Ghulam and people like him, have no option but look at the train going home, without being able to afford boarding it.

As Lallu says sadly, taking a short break from his usual good cheer, to his girlfriend Yashodhara, “Poverty swallows everything, even trust.”

‘Gaman’ with all the flaws that ensue from miniscule budgets, moves you with its empathy and its kindness towards its characters.

The credits on ‘Gaman’ also reminded me of the making of my own films ‘Lilkee’ and ‘Kaphal’. Working with miniscule budgets, these films are always made with so much camaraderie, so much support, as is evident from the cast, from the names of the associates working on the film, my seniors from FTII, Ketan Mehta, Dilip Dhawan, Rajan Kothari. People double up to perform many tasks. Subhashini Ali is credited with Story Development (with Asghar Wajahat) and Costumes. Amir Bano plays Ghulam’s mother and does the Costumes. Hira Devi Mishra plays Lallu’s mother and sings. Nana Patekar acts and does the graphics. Hriday Lani writes the dialogue and acts. As in the film, co-existence leads to a rich texture.

I watched it at the Cinemas Of India website, a NFDC initiative, a steal at Rs.599/- per year, to dip into their treasure trove of films, specially those from the parallel cinema movement of the 70s.