Balraj Sahni, one of the finest actors to have graced the Hindi film screen, was born Yudhisthir Sahni on 1 May 1913 in Rawalpindi (now part of Pakistan) to a Punjabi family. He died on 13 April 1973.
As a youngster he studied Hindi and English literature in university, and worked as a teacher at Shantiniketan (Bengal) and for the BBC radio’s Hindi service in Britain. One of the pioneering members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, he acted in plays like Zubeida and The Inspector General. Though Sahni is best remembered as a film actor, his colleagues in theatre had fond memories of the time he spent with them.
In his memoirs, Habib Tanvir, one of the leading names in Indian theatre after Independence, wrote: “[F]or all his work in films, cinema wasted his (Sahni’s) talent. He was such a brilliant comedian, he was so effective in Jadu ki Kursi that his performance was unforgettable. I have seen many of his films too; he always acted with great control and subtlety but he was never given a comic role.”
A new medium
Sahni’s debut Hindi film was Insaaf. This was followed by films like Dharti Ke Lal (based on the 1943 Bengal famine) and Door Chalein. In 1951, he worked with actors Dilip Kumar and Nargis in Hulchul. In between the film’s shooting, Sahni was arrested for being a communist sympathiser, and the film director K. Asif took special court permission to allow Sahni to shoot.
Sahni wrote the story and dialogues for Baazi. In an article on Sahni, the renowned film critic Dinesh Raheja wrote in rediff.com: “The crime-musical (Baazi) was a smash hit. But Sahni’s refusal to kowtow to box-office parameters and his uncompromising nature as a writer—he made Guru Dutt wait for six months before he delivered the leather-bound script of Baazi—ensured that he was largely offered work as an actor.”
It was, however, in 1953 that Sahni’s acting prowess was widely recognised after the release of Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, which won a prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France. In it he played the role of Shambhu, a farmer trying to save his small plot of land from an unscrupulous landlord. Unable to pay a loan, he goes to Calcutta where he pulls a rickshaw to earn a meagre income.
In an article in the DNA in April 2013, the writer and critic Jai Arjun Singh noted: “An undervalued aspect of Do Bigha Zameen is the depiction in its early scenes of the love between Shambhu and his wife, the playfulness of their banter. . . . Sahni grounds the edifice by playing Shambhu as a well-rounded individual rather than just a victim or a symbol. Much of the story’s power comes from seeing his artless smile being gradually erased over time.”
Actor, writer, artiste
Another famous film of Sahni was Kabuliwala (1961), based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore. Sahni effectively portrayed the character of a dry-fruit seller who comes from Afghanistan to sell his goods in Calcutta.
His other films include Lajwanti, Kathputli, Seema, Pavitra Paapi and—more famously—Garm Hava, Haqeeqat and Waqt. In Haqeeqat, one of India’s best war films (based on the disastrous 1962 war with China), Sahni played the role of an Indian army officer.
Garam Hawa, directed by M.S. Sathyu, was a story about Partition and its effects on individuals. Sahni depicts the inner turmoil of a Muslim businessman from Agra who refuses to leave everything behind and go to the newly created Pakistan.
Fluent in English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu and with wide-ranging interests—from poetry to theatre and writing—Sahni was intellectually leagues above the typical Bombay star.
As Deepak Mahaan wrote in The Hindu: “A sublimely gifted artiste, Sahni’s earthy effervescence also came about due to his delicate understanding of the nuances of English, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Punjabi. A writer from his college days, Sahni’s eloquent oratorical skills not only earned him a place on the distinguished panel of BBC Radio in London in the pre-Independence era but also made him dominate theatre in Bombay later. . . . Today, if Balraj Sahni hasn’t been accorded his stature, it is probably because the man wasn’t given to canvassing for himself.”
Balraj Sahni died on 13 April 1973 due to a heart attack, shortly after completing Garam Hawa, his final film.
In a convocation address delivered at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1972, he had said: “Our little film world either offers the actor too little work, forcing him to eat his heart out in idleness; or gives him too much – so much that he gets cut off from all other currents of life. Not only does he sacrifice the pleasures of normal family life, but he also has to ignore his intellectual and spiritual needs. . . . A vast number of books which I should have read, I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in, have passed me by. Sometimes I feel terribly left behind.”
Also on this day:
1940 — Najma Heptulla, Indian politician, was born
1956 — Satish Kaushik, Indian film director and actor, was born