Mega gala events, full of glitter and glamour, have begun to mark 2013 as the birth centenary of Indian cinema with the 1913 release of Dadasaheb Phalke’s silent film Raja Harishchandra. However, going relatively unnoticed is the fact that 2013 is also the birth centenary of actor Balraj Sahni who rode like a colossus for at least a quarter of the century not only on the evolution of Hindi cinema but also in the growth of popular people’s culture and theatre.
Over this century, Indian cinema has played an important role in shaping the collective consciousness of the people. Its various avatars ranged from providing crass entertainment designed to make people transcend into a make-believe world and, thus, lull their consciousness from joining the struggle for changing the injustice and sufferings of the real world to provide the vast majority of illiterate people with a philosophical meaning to understand and interpret their lives.
This vast spread of the pendulum has its imprint not only on Hindi cinema but, at times more significantly, on the films produced from West Bengal, south India in four southern languages and the now growing linguistic areas like Bhojpuri, etc. Hence, 2013 is not merely the centenary of the Hindi cinema but it is the centenary of the Indian cinema in all its linguistic and artistic expressions.
Within the range of its vast pendulum, Indian cinema has also played an important role as the country’s collective conscience keeper. Films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen among others in Bengali played an important role in this manner. The Bengali influence soon reflected in Hindi cinema with Bimal Roy’s dealing with socio-economic problems like Do Bigha Zameen (land reforms) or Sujata (untouchability) amongst the host of others who gave a realistic character to the Indian film.
The Americans have given the world an abominable expression — collateral damage — to describe the ghastly death of innocent civilians as a result of US’s military aggressions. We can coin a reverse term — collateral benefit — to express the contribution of the political Left in India in providing to Indian cinema this character of being the country’s conscience keeper. In Hindi cinema, Balraj Sahni played a pivotal role in making such a contribution. It is, indeed, a significant coincidence that he was born on May Day, 1913, for he remained committed to the cause of exploited Indians and their uplift. He also helped establish socialism in India. Born in undivided India’s Rawalpindi, he studied at Government College, Lahore, and decided to devote his life to journalism, which he always maintained was his first love. All those who knew him recollect that he would carry a portable typewriter to the sets and furiously work on a play or a script in the time that was available between the shooting of different scenes.
In his urge to free India from colonial rule and in search of a path that combined western liberalism with Indian nationalism, he spent two years at Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan University teaching Hindi from 1937. From there, he moved to live with Mahatma Gandhi in his ashram at Wardha, Sevagram. He worked with Gandhiji, who established his constructive Nai Talim in 1939. From here, he moved on to London to work as a Hindi radio journalist and scriptwriter for BBC from 1940-44. This was a period when the Second World War was on and the barbarity of Adolf Hitler’s fascism found expression in the frequent bombings of London. After all these experiences, Sahni returned to India to join that political force which would equally fight against fascism and for India’s independence. Having been already associated with the communists in Britain, he joined the then undivided CPI and along with his wife Damayanti gave life and spirit to the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He, thus, strove to achieve his objectives by spreading a political consciousness through art forms, particularly, theatre. The spectacular people’s theatre movement he organised centering on the Bengal famine drew the most famous and well-known artists into its fold of this movement. Prithviraj Kapoor used to collect money for the famine victims after IPTA’s street plays. Literary giants like Mulk Raj Anand, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Ali Zardar Jafri, Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar, Chittaprasod, Shambhu Mitra, SD Barman, Salil Chaudhury and a host of other artists gained eminence in their respective fields.
In a film career spanning over a quarter of a century, Balraj Sahni acted in over 125 films. His performances in Bimal Roy’s Do Bhiga Zameen, Amiyo Chakraborty’s Seema, Rajendra Singh Bedi’s Garam Coat, Heman Gupta’s Kabooliwala or Yash Chopra’s Waqt and his last performance in MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa as an irritable but faithful Muslim who refuses to migrate to Pakistan during the Partition continue to remain etched in the minds of my generation. Balraj Sahni died a day after he finished dubbing for this film.
The centenary celebrations of Indian cinema must also serve as a moment for introspection. Where we are headed today? The influence of big money, fancy lives and the disconnect from reality has increasingly become a disconcerting feature that far removes Indian cinema from its role as being the country’s conscience keeper. In this context, it is redeeming to see the work of today’s youngsters like Tigmanshu Dhulia, Soorjit Sarkar, Ashutosh Gowariker, Sudhir Mishra, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap and others who are creating a new cinematic content and grammar.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal