| Updated: May 17, 2020,

Filmmaker Muzaffar Ali on his 1978 directorial debut — about a taxi driver from Uttar Pradesh in Bombay — which chronicles the plight of migrants in the big city

I was moved to read Trisha Gupta’s, Tell me how long the train’s been gone, which appeared in Mirror last week. I am happy to see Gaman is still relevant after so many years. Each film is a world in itself. A universe we create out of ideas and emotions that have been a part of our building blocks. It is a pictorial canvas of what we have seen, and would like to show to this world, with the utmost honesty and sincerity.

Many a time we make films that people would like to see with equal sincerity and artistry, yet there is a fine difference between the two, and people can see the difference. It is what you want them to see that lives on.

Gaman is about displacement. In scientific terms, it is the adding of an external element and thereby the replacement of the original organic element. I saw the emergence of a Gaman-like world in Bombay when I moved there in 1971: The influx of people from all over to displace the original character of the city. The making of a metropolis is the unmaking of a place. Spaces are threatened in layers, year after year, and each year changing the aesthetics of an urban cityscape, rendering the earlier out of date. The enormity of this tragedy was rendering people faceless.

In the wake of Gaman

Muzaffar Ali shooting his acclaimed film
‘Kya koi nayi baat nazar aati hai hammeiñ Aeina hameiñ dekh ke hairan sa kyoñ hai’

A question of becoming a stranger to oneself: Bombay, to becoming Mumbai, a strange mirror that reflects our past with a perspective of the future. Bombay was a series of fading mirrors that pulled one, each time one saw oneself in them. Most of these mirrors find their way from sacred spaces to the crowded narrow gullies of places called Chor Bazaar.

Gaman is a journey of changing images in such mirrors. It is the reflection of the dynamics of roadscapes of a city, which never sleeps, in the rearview mirror of a taxi in the eyes of a helpless driver. Spaces that are yours and not yours: A river that can never afford to stop. The protagonist of this ceaseless flow is a throbbing heart, beating, yet lifeless like a stone. Seeking reasons, yet finding none.

‘Dil hai to dharakne ka bahana koi dhoondhe Pathhar ki tarah behiss o bejaan sa kyun hai’

Where music is the melodic refrain for the orchestration of a mechanical world — this was me in Bombay in the 1970s, a city, which I saw from atop the Air India building, where I worked on the 18th floor. From where for hours on end, I watched yellow-roofed taxis crawl like ants. I wondered whether under those yellow metal sheet roofs was a man like me far away from his home. How far was his home; it was anybody’s guess. What he had left behind was beyond anyone’s imagination. The feeling was enough of an answer. Was it worthy of a film, I thought to myself? Was this loneliness our inevitable destiny — a wilderness beyond what meets the eye? On one hand, the ocean, and on the other, an endless sea of humanity…

In the wake of Gaman

Smita Patil in a still from Gaman
‘Tanhai ki ye kaun si manzil hai rafiqo Ta hadde nazar ek biyabaan sa kyun hai…’

But certainly it was an emotion as deep as the Arabian Sea. It was an emotion in which I saw the fathomless tenderness of a thumri. Each time our eyes met in a rearview mirror, a truth transpired. One saw beyond what the eyes could see. I saw the piercing eyes of Khairunnissa wait for Ghulam Hasan. I saw the eyes of Farooque Shaikh and beyond that the piercing helpless gaze of Smita Patil. Was it still worthy of a film?

What was beyond these frozen frames? There were moments of truths and more truths, of humans waiting at traffic lights on metalled roads and zebra crossings, metal bridges across mighty rivers ferrying helpless souls packed in metal cabins. Amidst this human exodus were shattered windows of glass, allowing the last ray of the setting sun play its flute on a windswept face.

‘Aaja sañwariya tohe garwa laga luñ Ras ke bhare tore nayan…’

It was a lonely journey. Can the loneliness of this phenomenon become a collective journey of a film? I had found the words, which described the emotional angst of the migrant. When Krishna leaves, would Radha’s tears drown Braj? In this diabolical answer, I felt, I was near the beginning and the end.

Everything was in the mind of these mindless travellers, at times, bringing the odd tear when emotions aligned themselves to the sound of the changing tracks. But the sharp tearing horn of a railway diesel engine wiped it off in an instant as the morning sun rose in the formidable ghats and one was sucked into an endless tunnel. One wonders which side one is on. The ones in the train or those they are going to displace. I had become a ‘Ghati’ and a ‘Bhaiyya’ in the same breath. For many years I had been in that train not knowing the difference between the beginning and the end of these journeys.

Hence Gaman: A name given by my friend Asghar Wajahat to this feeling. Something I had begun to see with the inner eye. But Gaman was more than I could hold in one glimpse. It had too many metaphors, both vivid and fading. Khairunnissa sniffing and wiping her nose with her chadar as she extinguishes a night fire at dawn. Clothes becoming one’s second skin, fading and becoming sensuous, looking nostalgic and inviting with their faded textures under the smoke filled thatched roof, turning black with soot. The soot and the smoke was not different to the soot and the smoke from the speeding train… one was towards darkness and gloom and the other towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

‘Aap ki yaad aati rahi raat bhar Gham ki lau thartharati rahi raat bhar…’

One was static in a moving environment and the other moving in a static world.

‘Dard ke chaand dil mein utarte rahe Chandni muskurati rahi raat bhar…’

Gaman was yet to be born. And was it worthy of being a film? I didn’t care anymore. I had begun to unearth the city called Bombay.

The medium of Gaman came from Calcutta, inspiration from Aligarh and the soul from the heart of Awadh… and my palette from my paintings, having sketched out each frame. I was fascinated by khaki from the paper of my paintings and was fascinated by the khaki clad taxi driver protagonist of my film. Symbolically as a migrant taxi driver and as a migrant, he had no identity left but to become khaki, the colour of dust.


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