Balraj Sahni, An Activist Writer-Actor, believed a Good Actor is a Good Person

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Two films, Do Bigha Zamin and Garam Hawa, are enough to showcase the acting range of this versatile actor, Balraj Sahni. The pathos of the farmer entrapped in the zamindari system, and the dilemma of a Muslim, caught in the chaotic trauma of the partition of his country, struggling to prove his patriotism, is so real that it touches and pierces the viewer’s heart and one are nothing but mesmerised by this legendary actor. Here’s a profile of the activist writer-poet-actor, by Smriti, on the occasion of his birthday on May Day (International Workers’ Day in India) on May 1, exclusively in Different Truths,

A handsome actor crooning “Aye meri zohra zabeen…” to his coy and blushing wife, so beautifully epitomizes the romance of yesteryears of   Hindi cinema. The song was from the movie Waqt (1965) and the actor was Balraj Sahni. The song still seems as fresh, and, loved both by old and young alike.

Born on May 1, 1913, Yudhishthir Sahni acquired the name Balraj when he decided to act in movies. He was born in Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, and possessed a Bachelor’s degree in Hindi, followed by a Master’s degree in English from Punjab University. Balraj also worked for some time in Tagore’s Visvabharti University at Shantiniketan. He also had the opportunity to work with Mahatma Gandhi for a year, till he joined BBC Hindi services as a radio announcer and went to London. He returned to India, in 1943.

Balraj’s literary and artistic inclinations motivated him to move to Bombay along with his wife Damayanti (his first wife) and son Ajay. Once in Bombay Balraj got associated with IPTA and started his acting career. Balraj’s wife, Damayanti was also into dramatics, associated with IPTA and, was a well-known stage artist much before Balraj could make a name for himself in Hindi films.

Balraj started his career with the movie Insaaf, in 1946, followed by a few others, such as Dharti Ke Lal, Door Chalein, but the movie which established him as an actor, and provided a platform to show his acting prowess was Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, in 1953.The film was a trendsetter for parallel cinema in India and also asserts the actor’s belief in Neo-Realist Cinema.

Balraj plays the character of a farmer, who being indebted to the zamindar, moves to Calcutta, to earn money for repaying the debt. To achieve his purpose he pulls a rickshaw. The film portrays his struggle to repay the debt. Balraj with ease merges into the character in the film and established his strength as an actor. Such was his skill to get into the skin of the character that while he was pulling the rickshaw on the street, fellow rickshaw pullers believed him to be one amongst them.

The film was the first to win Filmfare Best Movie Awards, and, also the first to win an international award at the Cannes Film Festival. This performance of Balraj was followed by another mesmerizing one in his next film,Kabuliwala. The song “Ae mere pyare watan…” from the same movie has been immortalised by the actor’s expressive eyes, the audience could feel the longing and pain of a lonely soul.

Balraj, was, undoubtedly one of the finest actors of the Hindi cinema. His last film, Garam Hawa, which had him portraying the role of an angry, stoic Muslim, refusing to go to Pakistan during partition, is said to be his best performance. Directed by MS Sathyu, written by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi, the film is one of the most moving movie made on India’s partition. Balraj plays the main protagonist, Salim Mirza, dealing with the predicament of whether he should move to Pakistan or stay back. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), also known as the Censor Board, held the film’s release for eight months, fearing that the release would instigate communal riots. Even BAL Thackeray of Shiv Sena protested against the film, calling it “pro-Muslim” and “anti-India”. Somehow Thackeray was persuaded to attend a special screening of the film, after which, he permitted the film to be screened. Ironically, the film was awarded Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, at the 1974 National Film Awards. But unfortunately, Balraj died before the release of the film, just after he completed the dubbing and thus could not enjoy the acclaim for his role.

Just these two films, Do Bigha Zamin and Garam Hawa, are enough to showcase the acting range of this versatile actor. The pathos of the farmer entrapped in the zamindari system, and the dilemma of a Muslim, caught in the chaotic trauma of the partition of his country, struggling to prove his patriotism, is so real that it touches and pierces the viewer’s heart and one are nothing but mesmerised by this legendary actor.

Balraj, who was known for his powerful acting, his essaying of characters with a marked, down-to-earth simplicity, and capability of adding just the right amount of sophistication, worked with many top heroines of his time. Actresses such as Meena Kumari, Padmini, Nutan, Nargis, Vyjayantimala starred opposite him in many milestone movies, like, Seema, Sone Ki Chidiya, Bhabhi ki Choodiyan, etc. He was also lauded and appreciated for his character roles in many movies, prominent among them were Ek Phool Do Maali, Neelkamal and Do Raaste. He also acted in the Punjabi classic film, Nanak Dukhiya Sab Sansaar and the critically acclaimed, Sutlej Ke Dande.

Balraj did not restrict his creativity to just acting, but, took to writing also. Initially, he wrote in English, but later on started writing in Punjabi and earned a repute for his writings. His book, Mera Rusi Safarnama, which he wrote after his tour of Soviet Union, in 1969, won him the Soviet Land Nehru Award. He penned many poems and short stories for magazines and even his autobiography, Meri Filmi Aatma Katha.

This multitalented, versatile person also tried his hand in script writing. He wrote the script for Baazi, starring Dev Anand, directed by Guru Dutt. He also contributed his writings to the Punjabi magazine Preet Lari. He inaugurated a library and study center for the underprivileged class in Delhi too.

Like any other proficient actor, acting came naturally to Balraj. He never had to make conscientious efforts to cast himself in any particular mould. He strictly believed in the famous saying “A good actor is a good person,” and thus never let mercenary factor interfere with his work. This humanitarian and compassionate trait of his personality is well depicted in his performances. His simplicity reaches out to the audience and touches their hearts.

Balraj was a very well-read person, and, unlike his contemporaries, was aware of various social and political issues. Along with P K Vasudevan Nair and firebrand communist Comrade Guru Radha Kishan, he organised the first conference of All India Youth Federation in Delhi and was elected the first president of AIYF, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India. This organisation was a huge success and noticed by a prominent political group. His association with the Communist Party was a long one, even before he joined the film industry. He was actively involved in their rallies and even was jailed once while participating in one of the parades. Due to these activities and being in jail, he was in a financial crisis, to combat this, his son Ajay (later known as Parikshit), who was too young then, worked in a film starring Dilip Kumar and Nargis. Balraj Sahni also had a role in the film, and he used to come from jail to shoot for the film. Ironically, he was playing an inspector in the film, and every day he used to come in the prisoner’s clothes, change into the police uniform, complete the shoot and go back to prison after donning his prisoner’s clothes. He had a hard and testing journey in the industry, with doubts about him making as an actor with his middle age and very ordinary looks. But he won against all odds and established himself as one of the finest actor, who also remained a good human throughout his life. He founded the Punjabi Kala Kender, in 1974, which gives away the Balraj Sahni Awards every year and also formed the All India Artist’s Association. He was conferred with the Padmashree, in 1969, and the India Post released a postage stamp with his face on it, on 3rd May 2013.

In his personal life, Balraj had his shares of happiness and misfortunes too. His first wife Damayanti died at a very young age and he later married his first cousin Santosh Chandok. He had a son from his first wife, Parikshit, who also is an actor. His daughter Sanovar, from his second wife, is well-known for her work with prisoners. He also had to bear the loss of his younger daughter Shabnam, which pushed him into depression. He breathed his last on 13th April 1973, of a massive cardiac arrest, less than a month before his 60th birthday, but is immortalised in our hearts forever by his iconic performances.

©Smriti Maheshwari

Photos from the internet.

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Smriti Maheshwari loves cooking, reading, mostly fiction and thrillers. She enjoys mythological stories too. She also loves meeting people and making friends, socialising, and is a big movie buff. A homemaker and a dreamer, she stays in Allahabad with her husband.