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Balraj Sahni: Man of myriad roles

Balraj Sahni is best remembered as a superb actor but his other talents like screenplay writing and teachings weren't untapped either. He was a man of myriad talents.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2003 19:23 IST

Balraj Sahni can easily be referred to as one of the true precursors of parallel cinema movement, so far as acting in Indian cinema is concerned. Probably the only actor of his time to adopt realistic acting techniques (apart from the probable exceptions of Motilal, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar) Sahni is best remembered for outstanding and sensitive portrayals – especially that of Salim Mirza in M S Sathyu’s Garm Hawa. 

Balraj Sahni is perhaps the best-known film actor in India to emerge from the post World War II Left Cultural Movements. Born in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), he studied at the Government College of Lahore, graduating in Literature. Absorbing the then prevalent desire for both Nationalism and Westernisation, he started writing English poetry and got involved with 'realist' theatre.

He went on to teach Hindi and English at Shantiniketan, wrote his first compilation of Hindi fiction – Shahzadon ka Drink in 1936 and also worked as a journalist and later turned a radio announcer for the BBC's Hindi service, finally settling down to set up the Monday Morning Journal in Delhi.

Sahni moved to Bombay in 1947 and became a key figure in Indian Peoples' Theatre Association (IPTA) plays. After a walk-on part in Phani Majumdar's Insaaf  (1946), he starred in K.A. Abbas's first film, Dharti ke Lal (1946), the only film produced by IPTA. The film is set during World War II and the 1943 Bengal famine and a growing 'Nation Building' ideology. It's symbol-laden realism proved extremely influential and set the pattern for many films moving from depictions of deprivation in the country to suffering in the city.

IPTA had also become a political hotbed for communists and in 1951 as part of a Government Campaign against communists Sahni was arrested. He was given special permission to shoot for Hulchul  (1951) and would come to the sets escorted by policemen! However he was released soon after and more than made his presence felt in Zia Sarhadi's Hum Log (1951).

Do Bigha Zameen (1953) directed by Bimal Roy was perhaps Balraj's Sahni's greatest and best known film. The story of the dispossessed peasant and the moneylender/ landlord had been told many times before but with Do Bigha Zameen, Bimal Roy had created a very human with great emotional depth.

Balraj Sahni played the peasant Shambhu who becomes a rickshaw puller in Calcutta in sheer desperation to earn money to save his land back in the village. It is a performance of extraordinary dimensions as Sahni literally becomes Shambhu. In the unforgettable ending to the film, the wretchedness of human defeat is writ large on Shambhu's face as he sees all his efforts come to naught with a factory being builkt on his land despite his best efforts.

Ironically, Roy hadn't been sure of taking Sahni for the film because he was well-educated and westernized – Shambhu's complete antithesis. While sticking to his 'realist' imperatives in films like Garam Coat (1955), Anuradha  (1960) and Kabuliwallah  (1961) (for which he lived with kabuliwallahs in a Bombay suburb for a month to prepare for the role!), Sahni went on to play leading roles in commercial films opposite actresses like Nargis in Lajwanti  (1958), Ghar Sansar (1958)), with Meena Kumari in Satta Bazaar (1959) and Bhabhi ki Chudiyan (1961), with Vyjayantimala in Katputli  1957) and Nutan in Seema  (1955) and Sone ki Chidiya (1958). Even better he proved more than adept bringing much depth, grace and dignity to his characters.

In the 1960s he shifted to character roles and left his mark with strong performances in films like Haqeeqat  (1964), Waqt  (1965), Do Raaste (1969), Ek Phool Do Mali (1969) and Mere Humsafar (1970). Sahni also tried his hand at direction with Lal Batti (1957) – a film set in a train and on a lonely railway platform where passengers are forced to spend a night at the time of India's Independence. But the film bombed and Sahni went back to his original love.

Garam Hawa in 1973 was Balraj Sahni's last major film before his death. The film, directed by M.S. Sathyu, chronicles the plight of the minority Muslims in North India and is set in Agra after the first major partition exodus. Sahni plays the central role of an elderly Muslim shoe manufacturer who must decide whether to continue living in India or to migrate to the newly formed state of Pakistan. He responded with an absolutely brilliant performance, perhaps his greatest ever, Do Bigha Zameen, notwithstanding.

The multi-faceted artist also wrote the story and screenplay for Baazi  (1951) starring Dev Anand and directed by Guru Dutt. He wrote extensively on many issues including novels and an autobiography. He remained a Left Activist all his life and was part of cultural delegates to the Soviet Union and China. His writings and speeches were compiled by Communist Leader P.C. Joshi in the book Balraj Sahni: An Intimate Portrait (1974).