A man, an actor, a husband, a friend, a parent, a patriot and a legend with a host of admirers like Amitabh Bachchan and Om Puri, Balraj Sahni led the golden era of Indian cinema.
He was known to be true to his principles, a non-conformist often remembered for his portrayals of the underprivileged. Read his story, written by his son Parikshat Sahni, and celebrate the life, times and impact of a simple man who inspired an entire generation of actors and continues to do so even today.
Here are some moments from Parikshat Sahni’s book that we found memorable:
(Balraj Sahni) had worked with Mahatma Gandhi for a year in Sevagram in 1938. The following year, he was called upon to leave Indian shores and take a ship to England, to broadcast programmes in Hindi for Indian soldiers fighting overseas. He didn’t hesitate for a minute. He was unlike anyone else in the family. Influenced by the Romantic poets, he was a swash-buckling adventurer always looking for and taking on dangerous new challenges. He was a non-conformist and not one to pursue traditional lines of work.
(Balraj Sahni) craved for romance and adventure. He fell madly in love with his first cousin, Santosh Kashyap (Byron was in love with his half-sister) and a great romance developed between them till it was discovered by their elders. They were horrified and afraid it would sully their name in the Arya Samaj fold, particularly as my grandfather was the head of the samaj in Rawalpindi. The family was quick to quash this budding romance before it flourished.
(At a fancy party, Balraj Sahni) piled his plate with a generous helping of rice and dal and half a tandoori chicken. He started eating the chicken with his hands. The woman, who had been witness to Dad’s rustic antics, could not help coming up to him once again with a plate of salad and some steamed vegetables, topped with a piece of chicken. Picking at her food daintily with her fork and depositing it carefully in her mouth, she asked, ‘Don’t you actors have to look after your figures?’ She pointed to the mound of rice, dal and tandoori chicken on Dad’s plate. I could see that by now Dad had had enough of this elderly woman and her persistent efforts to needle and belittle him. ‘No madam, not character actors like me. I like to eat well.’
How did Balraj Sahni become a Marxist? One of the reasons that he went to England, I think, was to take a closer look at the nation that ruled India. It was there that the Marxism bug bit him. He became an admirer of the Soviet state, not by reading the tomes of Lenin or Das Kapital, but by watching Soviet films, which were widely shown, as the British and Russians were allies then. As he mentions in his autobiography, it was a Russian film called Circus that converted him.
During an occasion in Srinagar, Balraj Sahni was, among others, in the company of Mufti Saheb’s daughter, who later, like her father, became the chief minister of Kashmir. She was in her early twenties at the time. If I am not mistaken, she is not a very tall lady and Dad towered over her. She looked up at him adoringly, but he wanted to impress her and the others in the room by appearing even taller. So he balanced himself on a little wooden strip that separated one room from another (as was customary in the wooden houses in Kashmir in those days) and stayed perched.
Those who only saw him on the screen loved him for his realism and projection of his art; those who saw him on the stage loved him for his contribution to their cultural life; those who only read his books loved him for his literary prowess; those who knew him socially loved him for his gentlemanliness and affability; those who knew him politically loved him for the commitment and dedication he brought to whatever cause he espoused and those who knew him personally loved him for his honesty and simplicity. Read the book to get to know Balraj Sahni better!