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The immense talent of Balraj Sahni

 Coastweek -- Balraj Sahni was an actor in a league of his own. For the well-educated Sahni, evolving as a performer and human being was more important than cultivating an image or wooing stardom, writes DINESH RAHEJA.

Aesthetic satisfaction rather than monetary emoluments motivated him.

This rare quality backed by prodiguous talent made him an icon, notwithstanding the fact that he never really fit into the idiom of the regular hero.

Yudhisthir Sahni, rechristened Balraj Sahni for the screen, was born in Rawalpindi May 1, 1913. With a Masters degree in English literature and a Bachelors degree in Hindi, Sahni had an independent bent of mind that goes with high creativity.

He taught English and Hindi at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan.

He also went to work with Mahatma Gandhi for a year in 1938. The next year, Sahni, with Gandhi’s blessings, went to war-torn England to join the BBC-London’s Hindi service as a radio announcer where he developed a love for Russian cinema and befriended the likes of Harold Laski, TS Eliot and John Gielgud.

Sahni’s tryst with Neo-Realistic cinema began in London. “A cinema hall on Tottenham Court Road had started showing Russian films,” Balraj-ji wrote about those electrifying days.

“It was, in fact, a Russian film which I happened to see in that picture-house that restored my confidence in films, indeed in life itself. I still recollect every detail of that memorable film.

 

Coastweek -- Balraj Sahni in Do Bigha Zamin.

“It was called The Circus. The film had a profound effect on my mind - so much so that when I came out of the picture-house, I was in a world of my own, totally unmindful of the splinters of glass and stone flying about me, obviously the result of a bomb which had exploded in the neighbourhood!”

He returned to India in 1943.

But the creative fires raged within the man who had an aptitude for the performing arts. Consequently, Balraj Sahni was one of the pioneers of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association).

Incidentally, his wife Damayanti became well known as an IPTA actress much before Sahni made a name for himself in films.

Amongst the many plays, his work in the Abbas-penned Zubeida, and The Inspector General are notable.

Later, even after he became a star in the 1960s, Sahni initiated the Art Theatre Group.

Sahni was launched as a film actor in K Abbas’s offbeat Dharti Ke Lal (1946).

The film gave vent to the feelings of dispossessed peasants. Sahni’s wife Damyanti also worked with him in the film but she, unfortunately, did not live to see Sahni’s subsequent success. She passed away in 1947.

After two years, Sahni married his cousin, Santosh - later known as an author and television writer.

Very few people know about Sahni’s love for books; In the 1950s he was the first to inaugurate the Library and study centre for the underprivileged class in Delhi.

In 1951, Sahni worked with major stars like Dilip Kumar and Nargis for the first time in K Asif’s Hulchul. During the making of the film, Sahni was arrested for his leftist leanings and K Asif had to take special permission from the court for Balraj Sahni to shoot, albeit under police escort.

In the same year, Sahni, who considered himself a writer first, wrote the story and dialogue of Guru Dutt’s Dev Anand-Geeta Bali starrer, Baazi.

The crime-musical was a smash hit. But Sahni’s refusal to kowtow to box-office parameters and his uncompromising nature as a writer - he made Guru Dutt wait for six months before he delivered the leather-bound script of Baazi - ensured that he was largely offered work as an actor.

Especially after Zia Sarhadi’s Hum Log (1951), where his courtroom speech in the climax became one of the major draws of the film.

While Hum Log gave him the patina of an actor, Sahni got the star-actor sheen with Bimal Roy’s ground-breaking epic, Do Bigha Zameen (1953).

 

Coastweek -- Anpadh (1962): Balraj Sahni played a negative role in the film. He played Chaudhary Shambhunath, who considers the accumulation of wealth to be more important than education.

To get into the skin of his character of a farmer-turned-rickshaw driver, Sahni bought a gamcha to wrap around his head and plied a rickshaw on the streets of Kolkata for two weeks with his son Parikshit and daughter Shabnam sitting on it.

In  was in thie 1953 classic that his true strength as an actor was first recognised. The film won the international prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

This willingness to immerse himself into the role stayed with him even in latter years: he lived with the Kabuliwalas to prepare for the title role of Kabuliwala (1961).

The cherished scene from Kabuliwala, in which Balraj portrayed the  yearning for his motherland with such palpable ardour - it arose from his own yearning for the land he’d loved and lost: his birthplace in Pakistan.

Sahni’s ability to communicate his characters’ hapless despair in Do Bigha Zameen has remained forever in many cinegoers’ psyches.

Veteran actor Ashok Kumar too was totally bowled over by Sahni’s interpretation of the role of Shambhu, a peasant who leaves no stone unturned to save his land from the cold clutches of industrialisation.

A scene in Do Bigha Zamin, in which Balraj, playing the skeletal, gaunt-faced farmer-turned-rickshaw-puller, almost kills himself to fulfill a whimsical woman’s demand for speed... the young actor rehearsed that scene almost to the point of exhaustion.

At 40, Sahni finally become one of the foremost talents in Hindi films.

One of the earliest and staunchest subscribers of neo-realistic cinema, Sahni subsequently worked in films like Garam Coat (1955), an offbeat story of a postal clerk who hankers after a decent winter coat.

While working in films like Do Roti and Heera Moti (based on a story by Munshi Premchand), Sahni made his bow as a director with Lal Batti (1957), an experimental suspense thriller. Commercially, the film went out like a light during a power failure.

Simultaneously, Sahni also worked in more mainstraeam fare. His pairing with Nutan in sensitive films like Seema (1955) and Sone Ki Chidiya (1958) was well liked. After Seema, Sahni was showered with accolades for his serene turn as reformist while he played a radical poet with admirable restraint in Sone Ki Chidiya. Sahni now worked opposite A-list heroines like Nargis (Lajwanti), Meena Kumari (Chaand) and Vyjayanthimala (Kathputli).

Even as Sahni became busy as an actor, he continued to carry his typewriter to his sets, and contributed regularly to Nai Kahani, a Hindi magazine edited by his brother Bhishm Sahni.

 

Coastweek -- Haqeeqat (1965) : The movie, which was based on the 1962 Sino-Indian War, had Balraj Sahini as the patriotic Major.

Sahni was a gifted writer; his early writings were in English, though later in life he switched to Punjabi, and became a writer of repute in Punjabi literature.

In 1960, after a visit to Pakistan, he wrote Mera Pakistani Safar.

His book Mera Rusi Safarnama, which he had written after a tour of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1969, earned him the “Soviet Land Nehru Award”.

He contributed many poems and short stories in magazines and also penned his autobiography; Meri Filmi Aatmakatha. Sahni was an extremely well-read and politically conscious person.

Sahni’s success story in cinema continued into the 1960s with films like Kabuliwala and Haqeequat. In Haqeequat (1964) which was set in Ladakh against the backdrop of the Indo-China 1962 war, Sahni gave a stirring performance as an officer who inspires his batallion.

Sahni now seamlessly moved onto character roles. However, his contribution continued to be vital - whether it was Lala Kedarnath, the earthquake victim of Waqt (1965), the childless husband of Ek Phool Do Mali (1969) or Dilip Kumar’s foe in Sangharsh.

However, he is perhaps best remembered by the current generation for his picturisation of the legendary song “Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen” from the movie Waqt.

He also starred in the classic Punjabi film Nanak Dukhiya Sub Sansar (1970) as well as the critically acclaimed Satluj De Kande.

One of Sahni’s last films, Garam Hawa, was another testimony to the immense stature of the versatile actor, who was accorded the Padmashri a few years before his untimely death.

In this M S Sathyu film, Sahni played a respectable Muslim shoemaker Salim Mirza, who considers forsaking his ancestral business and home in the wake of the partition of India.

But in a last minute show of spirit, Mirza, prompted by his son, decides to stay back. The performance won Sahni several encomiums.

Balraj, however, could not see the completed film to rate his own performance, as he died just the day after he finished dubbing work.

The last line he recorded for the film, and hence his last recorded line is Hindustani: “Insaan Kab Tak Akela Jee Sakta Hai?” which can be translated in English as: “How long can a man live alone?”

And can you ever, erase from your mind that heartbreaking scene from Garam Hawa in which he opens the bedroom door to his young daughter’s suicide scene?

 

Coastweek -- Producer Director Devendra Goel, Balraj Sahni, Sadhana and Sanjay Khan on the set of Ek Phool Do Mali. The 1969 Bollywood film was at the third top spot at the box office in 1969. For his portrayal the humble widower, Balraj Sahni earned a Filmfare nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

In this M S Sathyu film, Sahni played a respectable Muslim shoemaker Salim Mirza, who considers forsaking his ancestral business and home in the wake of the partition of India.

But in a last minute show of spirit, Mirza, prompted by his son, decides to stay back. The performance won Sahni several encomiums.

Balraj, however, could not see the completed film to rate his own performance, as he died just the day after he finished dubbing work.

The last line he recorded for the film, and hence his last recorded line is Hindustani: “Insaan Kab Tak Akela Jee Sakta Hai?” which can be translated in English as: “How long can a man live alone?”

And can you ever, erase from your mind that heartbreaking scene from Garam Hawa in which he opens the bedroom door to his young daughter’s suicide scene?

It came from the deep well of sadness in his life - he had lost his beloved daughter, Shabnam, only a year before.

Could it be that the flawless and memorable roles he played on screen had been honed from the stalk and root of his own life?

Is that why his performances achieved the resonance and universality that they are known for?

Could it be that his art was so enriched because he had lived so close to life’s marrow?

Is that what makes art great, the ability to cull from it its most trenchant truths?

Sahni would have notched many more milestones in his career but the death of his young daughter Shabnam left him hearbroken.

At the age of 60, Sahni himself succumbed to a heart attack April 13, 1973.

Sahni was undoubtedly one of the greatest actors ever to come on the Indian screen: a highly natural actor who reminded the audience of the actors like Motilal because of his simple persona and a sophisticated style of acting.

He was looked up to as a role model as he was never involved in any scandal.

His acting in Do Bigha Zameen and Garam Hawa were the highlights of his career. He believed in what is known as Neo-Realistic cinema.

For all his success, Balraj was a misfit in filmdom.

His formative years were charged with idealism. He grew up in an Arya Samaj household, where his father talked intensely of the necessity for social reforms.

The subsequent years were filled with nationalist urges and the spirit of dedication. He had lived in close proximity to the two great idealists of our time, Gandhi and Tagore.

And subsequently, when he became a Marxist, his mind was again fired by a sense of commitment to the cause of suffering humanity.

“Such a person cannot easily reconcile himself to the sordid reality of a sphere where art is at a discount and money values prevail.” wrote Bhisham. “To grow rich and famous as part of this machine gave little personal satisfaction or any sense of fulfillment.”

A man at ease with princes and paupers, who aspired to life’s highest values and ideals and who threw himself into its vortex with passion - that was Balraj Sahni!

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