Balraj Sahni 109th birthday: the legendary actor’s encounter with tragedies
Jitni balaayein aayee, sab ko gale lagaaya (I embraced all the works that came my way)
Khuun ho gaya kaleja, shikwa na lab pe aaya (Though my heart bleeds, not a complaint escaped my lips)
Hard dard hamne apna, apne se bhi chhupaya… (I hid every one of my pains, from myself…)
Kaifi Azmi’s qawwali from Balraj Sahni’s film Garm Hava echoes the grief the actor carried within him. Balraj Sahni, influenced by the “emotional memory” theory of Soviet and Russian theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski, draws extensively from the dark recesses of his mind. These repressed emotions may have helped him show the desolation of his characters…
Being a staunch communist, he sympathized with the bullied rickshaw puller Do Bigha Zamin to bare his wounds and his soul…
Like the lament of leaving his homeland, Rawalpindi found resonance in his nostalgic Pathan in Kabulwala…
Just as the distress of the loss of young wife Damyanti found catharsis in a disconcerting scene in Aulad…
Perhaps most excruciating was having to relive the grief of losing his daughter Shabnam, while playing a wronged father in Garm Hava… Truly, Balraj Sahni’s subliminal performances owe a lot to the under – text of his life.
Revisiting the sorrows, which were like signposts in Balraj Sahni’s stay as an actor…
Premature death of his wife
Balraj Sahni was born as Yudhishtir Sahni on May 1, 1913 in Rawalpindi (Pakistan). Holder of a double master’s degree in literature, he married Damyanti (Sahni), daughter of his teacher Jaswant Rai in 1936.
Between 1937 and 1938 they traveled to remote Kashmir and the North West Frontier. Then they joined Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in Bengal as teachers. His Parikshat (Sahni, actor) was conceived there. Their daughter Shabnam was born four years later.
In London, Balraj joined the BBC’s Hindi Service. Fascinated by Russian cinema, they were introduced to Marxism and the ideas of social and economic equality. Returning home in 1943, Balraj and Damyanti soon joined the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA). Damyanti’s performance in the play Deewar made her a star. Balraj resented it at first, something he mentioned in his autobiography (Meri Filmi Aatmakatha). Balraj started his film career in 1946 with films like Insaaf, Dharti Ke Lal, Neecha Nagar and Door Chalein, the last with Damyanti.
A member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Damyanti got into social work. She worked for the slum dwellers and even shared meals with them. Unfortunately, she fell ill with amoebic dysentery. The medicine for the same had an adverse effect on his heart. She was only 26 when she died in 1947. Unable to come to terms with this sudden loss, a devastated Balraj banged his head against the walls and shouted, “Dammo nahi rahee, Dammo chali gayee.” Somehow he blamed himself for being negligent towards his wife. His Parikshat was then only eight years old.
Years later, Balraj relived the harrowing memory, while doing a scene in Aulad (1954). The gunshot forced him to hold the doors of his master’s house and plead for his child. The scene was accepted, everyone cheered and called it a day. But a disgruntled Balraj returned to the studio and asked a reluctant Mohan Segal for a cover. The lights have been reinstalled. Balraj kicked once more. But this time no one clapped. Because they were all crying. The take was so moving. Balraj later told his son Parikshat, “I wanted to feel the blow. I wanted to relive what I felt when your mother died.
Balraj married Santosh Chandhok, a writer, in 1951. Their daughter, Sanober, was so named after the pines of Kashmir, Balraj’s second home, something he always remained sentimental about. In fact, his sister Kalpana Sahni, author of Balraj And Bhisham Sahni: Brothers In Political Theatre, recounted an incident where an elderly gardener at the family home in Srinagar one morning saw Balraj (he had by then become a popular actor) sobbing at threshold of their abandoned house. Why he got there was unclear. Maybe it was just nostalgia for his roots.
Balraj started making films around the age of 42. His commitment to the CPI was strong at the same time, for which he was once imprisoned. The 50s saw him in films like Seema, Sone Ki Chidiya, Lajwanti and Ghar Sansaar. But the most acclaimed was Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) in which Balraj played the farmer turned rickshaw puller. Given his Marxist ideals, he plunges “body and soul” into playing the exploited rickshaw puller. It is now part of cinematic legend that he ran barefoot through the scorching streets and developed blisters on his soles to slip into the shoes of the underdog.
Another landmark film is Kabulwala (1961), remembered for Pathan’s poignant longing for Balraj’s homeland. It allegorizes Balraj’s own longing for his birthplace Rawalpindi in Pakistan. In a parallel world, Balraj and his writer brother Bhisham Sahni, after losing their sister Vedvati, embraced her young children. Beyond family ties, Balraj, a hard-line humanist, would rush with equal fervor to rescue wherever there was communal discord, whether in Bhiwandi or Bangladesh. The CPI condemned his support of Indira Gandhi in the Pakistani war to liberate East Pakistan in 1971. A resolution to expel him was passed which left him disillusioned with the party he almost idolized.
CONFLICT WITH THE SON
Balraj’s turbulent relationship with his son and actor Parikshat Sahni has been well documented. As a child, Parikshat spent his growing years away from his father. Her childhood was spent with her grandparents and uncle and later in boarding schools. “As a teenager, you happen to be a rebel…I was sent to boarding school and blamed him for it for many years. But he wanted me to educate myself before I joined the film industry,” Parikshat said in an interview (outlook.com).
A remorseful Balraj urged Parikshat to treat him as a friend. “But I held it against him. I never reciprocated,” penitent Parikshat, author of the book The Non-Conformist: Memories Of My Father Balraj Sahni, revealed in a bid to “settle” his “stormy” relationship with his father. “In the last two years of his life, Dad and I grew closer…I have a lot of regrets. I was not a good son. Dad has done his best all his life to develop a father-son relationship. But there was always a chasm between us. Today, I understand that he loved me deeply. The debt can never be repaid,” Parikshat told Filmfare. On another occasion, he said, “Being part of the film industry often makes it a bit difficult. We had a difficult family life. Fame has a price. (indianexpress.com)
Loss of daughter Shabnam
In the early 1970s, his daughter Shabnam, who had suffered a bad marriage, returned to live with Balraj. Mentally vulnerable, she felt “unwanted” and had a nervous breakdown. Subsequently, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 1972. “She was around 26-27, the age at which my mother died. She was the carbon copy of my mother Damyanti. Dad was a broken man and has not recovered from his grief,” Parikshat said in an interview, adding, “I was in a terrible state myself. She was dead in my arms. I started drinking heavily and taking tranquilizers.
Near this, Balraj was filming for MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974). Balraj as Salim Mirza personified the angst of the marginalized Muslim. For this, he tapped into the sense of alienation he felt as a “refugee” in India, having left Pakistan after independence. The film also highlighted Mirza’s grief when her daughter (Geeta Kak) commits suicide. “It was painful for Dad to remember Shabnam’s death while playing that scene,” Parikshat claimed.
“The character shared a visceral sadness with him. Back when Garm Hava was being made, Balrajji lost a child under tragic circumstances. The loss of his daughter by Salim Mirza in the film reflected a new tragedy in my uncle’s life. A tragedy from which he never recovered. While many see an actor deliver a masterful performance…the thought of him having to relive his loss is painful,” wrote niece Harshi Anand (indianexpress.com)
Ironically, Balraj died of cardiac arrest on April 13, 1973, a day after he finished dubbing Garm Hava. The famous last line, “Insaan kab tak akela jee sakta hai!” in the film was contributed by the actor himself. “Those were the last words he dubbed,” Parikshat says. Balraj never got to see Garm Hava, considered by many to be his best performance.
Towards the end, Balraj had reduced his acting assignments, so that he could devote more time to writing. He had even bought a small cottage in Punjab. Indeed, on April 13, a month before his sixtieth birthday, he was to leave for Punjab. But this dream also remained unfulfilled.
“Besides friends, relatives and a few dignitaries, there was a crowd of fishermen, hoteliers… street urchins… The fishermen watched over his body all night, like the hoteliers…helped financially by Balraj during their long strike against the direction,” writes acclaimed brother and writer Bhisham Sahni in his book Balraj, My Brother.
In accordance with Balraj’s wishes, no flowers were placed on his body, nor pandits called or shlokas recited. Being a Marxist, he just wanted a red flag held over his mortal remains. For someone who had carried emotional burdens all his life, all he wanted to take away was his belief.
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