Taxi driver Ghulam Hasan (Farooq Shaikh) — the protagonist of Muzaffar Ali-directed Gaman (1978) — gets a letter from his wife Khairun (Smita Patil), asking him to return home. His mother has had an accident, injuring her hipbone, and has been advised by doctors to go to the big hospital in Lucknow. Ghulam is a taxi driver in Bombay (now Mumbai) and his wife and mother are back in his ancestral village near Badaun in Uttar Pradesh. From the midpoint of the film’s narrative, when Ghulam gets the letter, till the end, the only quest the taxi driver has is to get together enough money to make the trip back home.
But life for a migrant worker in the big city is precarious. Ghulam has been forced to go to Bombay as there is no source of income in the village. The local zamindar has taken his father’s land; he does not have the means for a protracted legal battle. Nor is there any job at the local factory, which is letting go of people. Ghulam’s friend Lalulal Tiwari (Jalal Agha), also as a taxi driver in Bombay, invites him to come over. Bombay, however, is not the city of dreams but a machine of exploitation. The taxi driver does not have the charmed life like, say, of the protagonist of 1954 Dev Anand-starrer Taxi Driver.
In scenes shot in documentary style (a Mrinal Sen influence?), Ali shows how taxi drivers are trained, how they spend their days looking for hires, their cloistered homes in slums. The taxi drivers of Bombay are credited in the film. Their hard lives are not unknown to their more fortunate fellow citizens, but the latter are apathetic. In a short sequence, in which Odissi dancer Protima Bedi plays a cameo, Ghulam takes a customer to a party and is kept waiting for hours for petty change, even as the memsahib enjoys herself inside the bungalow where he has dropped her off.
Ali combines the contradiction of the prosaic documentary style and the music of Jaidev to extract all romanticism from his representation of Bombay. This is starkly different from some of the contemporary films set in Bombay, such as Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1976), Gharaonda (1977), and Gol Maal (1979). All these films are about middle-class aspirations, of getting the good job, falling in love, settling down. Even Gharaonda, which is a realistic representation of how the dreams of one’s own house can be smashed against the brutal reality of the real estate market, takes no cognisance of the struggles of the working class. Gaman marks a shift, soon to be followed by films such as Salaam Bombay (1988), Parinda (1989), Dharavi (1993) and Satya (1998).
According to the International Labour Organization, about 90 per cent of India’s workforce is employed in the unorganised sector. How precarious their condition is became painfully evident late last month as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In an article for The Atlantic, Vidya Krishnan, the former health editor of The Hindu and the author of a soon-to-be-published book on tuberculosis, described the government’s response — one of the most stringent in the world — as inadequate and callous: “Modi made his speech at 8:00 p.m. on March 24… By the time he spoke, shops had closed for the day, catching off guard people who had been repeatedly told not to panic-buy.”
As state borders and transport shut down, millions of itinerant workers — like Ghulam in Gaman — were left in the lurch, with no jobs and no way to get back home. “I feel hunger will kill us before the coronavirus,” one told the BBC on March 25. As many of them made a desperate bid to get back to their hometowns and villages, in scenes that reminded people of the Partition, this prediction unfortunately came true. Till March 30, according to news reports, 22 migrant workers had succumbed to fatigue, hunger and mishaps on the road; at least one died after being assaulted by the police, which seems to have taken to enforcing the lockdown with brutal alacrity.
In a bid to alleviate the suffering of the poor, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 27 announced a $22-billion bailout package. However, several experts have pointed out how this is a pittance, amounting to only about 1 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) — a stark contrast to the US and Singapore, which have allocated about 10 per cent of their GDPs. Recent reports highlight that it is suspect how much of this will actually reach those whom it targets. A survey by non-government organisation Jan Sahas shows how 94 per cent of construction workers are ineligible for fund transfer. Quite evidently, the poor of this country are in for a long haul of suffering even if the lockdown ends — and this seems very unlikely — as planned on April 15.
In Gaman, Ghulam’s career as a taxi driver is bookended by two deaths — one of an older taxi driver, who has been in the city for 35 years, and dies suddenly one day in an accident. In a letter home, Ghulam mentions this and wonders at the uncertainty of the lives of taxi drivers: “Will I also die like this one day?” The other one is of his friend Lalulal, who is assaulted and killed by the brother (Nana Patekar in a small role) of his girlfriend, Yashodhara (Gita Siddharth). Yashodhara’s brother wants to send her off to West Asia, possible for a life of prostitution.
The film ends with Ghulam at the Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and the sound of trains arriving and departing. The camera focuses on his face — helpless and vulnerable only the way Farooq Sheikh could do it — as he stares at the desperate migrant workers trying to board the overcrowded compartments. Ghulam knows that he does not have enough money to go home and take care of his mother and sister. The city that was supposed to provide him economic freedom has trapped him, made him its slave. The shot cuts to his wife Khairun opening the door of their village home and looking out — has Ghulam returned? The wait for their reunion is likely to be longer, possibly interminable.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published in February 2020. The idea for this article was suggested to me by my friend, the poet and translator Maaz Bin Bilal