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
writes DINESH RAHEJA.
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
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.
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
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).
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
could not see the completed film to rate his own
performance, as he died just the day after he finished
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
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?
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.
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
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
Is that what makes
art great, the ability to cull from it its most trenchant
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.
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.
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!