Balraj Sahni: The Gentleman Actor
By Dr Asif Javed
Back in the 40’s, BalrajSahni (BS) was struggling to make his mark in the film world when he was given a good role by Zia Sarhadi who was directing HumLog. BS had a mighty struggle playing that role.
One day, he got really frustrated, walked up to Zia and asked to be replaced by someone who could do justice to the role. Balraj, said Zia, “we will sink or swim together”. Hum Log was a success and launched BS’s film career.
Success came to BS late. He was well in his forties when Humlog was released. He was in poor health, and way past the age for a typical hero by the time his career took off. In his early days, he had an intense fear of camera too, and would spend hours watching Dalip Kumar and MeenaKumari, trying to learn their craft. After Humlog, he worked in many movies. But the movie that really made him a star was Bimal Roy’s Do BehgaZameen. In this movie, BS played the role of a rickshaw puller in Calcutta. He put his heart and soul in this role. His brother and biographer BhishamSahni notes that BS actually spent time with a rickshaw puller to study him. That was a tour de force performance. Do BighaZameen has become a cult classic, along with Guru Dutt’sPyasa. To his last day, BS remained proud of his performance in that movie.
BS was a misfit in the film world. There were many reasons for that: He was highly educated (a master’s in English literature from Govt. College, Lahore where he had been influenced by Prof. Sondhi and PitrasBokhari, both of whom were involved in the GC Dramatic Club.) Also, he was an idealist. Early on, he had tried his hand in journalism in Lahore. Having failed, he had a teaching stint in Tagore’s Santiniketan. He then went up to Wardha where he worked with Ghandhi. Those who knew him then saw a certain restlessness about him. He then proceeded to England, where he worked as a broadcaster at BBC for four years. Now, this was not the profile of a typical actor in Bombay back then. No wonder, he was a misfit.
In personal life, he faced many setbacks: his first wife, an actress, died young. BS remarried, this time a first cousin, against Hindu custom. One of his daughters went through years of marital difficulties, developed depression and attempted suicide. Having survived that, she died of stroke that was misdiagnosed. Through all that adversity, a heart-broken BS kept himself busy to distract himself. And then, along came GaramHawa, a movie about the plight of Indian Muslims after 1947. BS was given the role of a Muslim shopkeeper of Agra, who suffers numerous difficulties post-partition. There is a scene in GaramHawa when BS opens the door of his daughter’s bedroom and finds her dead body after her suicide. BS’s portrayal of a visibly shocked and then grieving father looks so real that it brings tears to one’s eyes. Not many realized that BS was not merely acting the scene. Having gone through the tragedy in real life, just a few months before, he was simply reliving the trauma. Unbeknown to him, GaramHawa turned out to be his swan song. It was released to critical acclaim after his death.
Despite his professional success, BS was unhappy in Bombay. A sensitive man with strong moral values and political convictions, he had decided to retire to his beloved Punjab to Prem Nagar, a town near Amritsar, that used to attract writers and poets. That was not to be. Just weeks before his planned to move to Prem Nagar, he died.
BS felt very nostalgic about Punjab. He was born in Rawalpindi but his ancestral town was Bhera, the ancient sleepy town near Sargodha that has also given Neelo, Shireen and Allah Baksh (MeenaKumari’s father) to the film world. In 1962, BS visited Pakistan. Among the places he visited was Heer’s mausoleum in Jhang. In Rawalpindi, he went to see his old house. As he approached his ancestral house, a marriage party (barat) was being received by the then occupants of the house, who were also refugees from East Punjab. Unperturbed, BS quietly introduced himself to the host family and joined them in serving food to the guests. Most of the guests remained unaware of his identity. Such was his humility.
BS was a writer too. The books that he wrote -- all in Punjabi -- include two travelogues, two books of reminiscences, an unfinished novel, one full length play, two pamphlets and many articles. This is considerable output for a full time actor who worked in 135 movies. After Do BighaZameen, BS was seen by many as someone who represented the downtrodden. He was once approached by a postal worker at Delhi Railway Station. The postal worker, who had obviously seen this movie, looked at BS and asked, “When will you make a movie about us?”
There is yet another aspect of BS’s multi-talented personality: He had developed Marxist tendencies and was an active member of Indian People’s Theatre Association. In association with like-minded people like K.A. Abbas, he participated in plays and movies that represented the poor. Dharteeke Lal was one such movie, directed by K.A. Abbas. IPTA also staged plays like Gogol’s Inspector general and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
A modest man by nature, BS shunned publicity: He was offered membership of Rajia Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament, that he politely declined. He was being considered for the post of Principal of Poona Film Institute when he died. However, one invitation that he gladly accepted was to be the chief guest at the convocation of Jawahar Lal Nehru University. Many were surprised. There was some resentment too that an actor had been invited to a prestigious university convocation. But those who heard his speech realized that the speaker was not just an actor; he was a sensitive, educated man who really cared for the society that he lived in.
BS died in April 1973. As he was being rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, he dictated a note to the doctor in the elevator: “I have lived a good life. I have no regrets.” This scribe was then a student at Govt. College, Lahore. I read the news of his death and, in my youthful ignorance, did not pay much attention. Decades later, I visited my alma mater, only to discover BS’s name on the college wall. Just look at the other names on that wall: Iqbal, N M Rashid, Abdus Salam, PitrasBokhari, Faiz, BanoQudsia, Khurshid Anwar, Khushwant Singh, Sir Ganga Ram, LalaLajpat Rai, Sir Zafarullah Khan and the like. BS, I thought, is in elite—and well-deserved—company for he was a lot more than just an actor.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at email@example.com)