Balraj Sahni (1 May 1913 – 13 April 1973)
A life Sketch by Rashmi Doraiswamy…
This article is a tribute to his work in the Hindi cinema (from 1946, with the films Insaaf, Dharti ke Lal and Door Chalein to 1977 with the posthumously released film, Amaanat).
Balraj Sahni was influenced by three major cultural/political trends of his time. He and his wife worked at Shantiniketan under Tagore, then at Gandhi’s Sewagram at Wardha and the left intelligentsia at the BBC in London, during the war years. After his return to India in 1944 he and his first wife, Damyanti, joined the IPTA and the Communist Party of India. Both became cultural activists, who worked in the theatre and in the cinema, with Damyanti becoming a star. Dhart ke Lal, IPTA’s production, was directed by K A Abbas and had Sahni and his wife in the lead roles. Sahni in his autobiography recalls: “He (K A Abbas) was assisted by three men who hailed from three parts of India – Shombhu Mitra from Bengal, Vasant Gupte from Maharashtra and I from Bombay. The film was based on three books which in those days had been acclaimed as classics. All three had the Bengal famine as their central theme. They were the two plays by Bijan Bhatacharya – Zabanbandi and Nabanna – and Krishan Chander’s lyrical novel, Annadatta” . The freedom struggle was then at its climax and with independence came Partition. Sahni worked tirelessly against communalism and for secular ideals. Balraj Sahni, somewhat like Ritwik Ghatak, remained deeply affected by the split in the political line of the Party and the waning of the IPTA. Of IPTA in its heyday in the forties he writes: “… IPTA flourished because in those days, the Communist Party was following the right policy, a policy that evoked an immediate response from the people. I remember people in the auditorium would stand up spontaneously as soon as someone started singing a Prem Dhawan song…. The Party’s policy was genuinely nationalistic in its outlook, while at the same time being in tune with true internationalism…. The devotion with which the party workers used to work for the IPTA had won them everyone’s respect. … Even their enemies could not help admiring the disciplined way these communist workers organized everything” . Although Sahni subsequently left the Party, P. C Joshi remarks that “His heart was so generous and his loyalty so great that he never blamed the party but took all the blame on himself, and remained loyal to the party and served it as and when he could” . Sahni remained committed to socialism as a political ideology, to theatre, and became a major actor in the Hindi film industry. He continued to write – his first book had come out in 1936 – prose, plays, poetry, travelogues throughout his life. Sahni straddled the three worlds of theatre, cinema and literature effortlessly and made a mark for himself in all three. He was awarded the Soviet Land Nehru Award for his travelogue Mera Roosi Safarnama and the Padma Shri in 1969.
Balraj Sahni’s commitment to Marxism-Leninism and the collective spirit in art, did not blind him to the negative sense of power that belonging to a collective such as a political group could induce in people: “The moment I became a card-holding member of the Party, I began undergoing a mental transformation. I took to evaluating art wholly in terms of political expediency. … In fact, I was getting to be a petty dictator” . Likewise, his being in the industry for decades, did not convert him into an individualist, who could not see the larger systemic changes that the industry was undergoing, with the star system getting entrenched and the studio system changing.
Balraj Sahni’s work in the Hindi film industry (he also worked in films in Punjabi), spanned a wide spectrum of genres. He acted in war films (Haqeeqat), in dacoit films (Paraya Dhan), in adaptations (Kabuliwala, based on Tagore’s story, high in literary value; Hanste Zakhm, based on popular writer Gulshan Nanda’s novel), in melodramas, in women’s films, neo-realist films within the industry (Do Bigha Zameen)…. He also has the distinction of having played the central character in the landmark Indian New Wave film, Garam Hawa. As such his oeuvre as an actor was a rich and varied one.
Balraj Sahni’s work is interesting because it creates a crossroad for several distinct, if not disparate tendencies in the cultural scenario of the three decades of post-independence India. What would have remained distinct or separate paths in this scenario, were forced to intersect because of the person and persona of Balraj Sahni. Here was a theatre actor and activist working in cinema; an IPTA activist with its left, secular, democratic views working in an industry that by the sixties had given up on the Nehruvian-Gandhian vision in its narratives; an urban, educated intellectual who could act out convincingly roles as varied as the poor peasant in Do Bigha Zameen, the arrogant patriarch (Anpadh) or the poor Afghan migrant (Kabuliwala); an actor, whose natural proclivities lay with the realist mode, but who acted for the most part in melodramas…. In fact, Balraj Sahni’s tryst with the Hindi cinema sharply poses the question of the relationship between realism and melodrama; between the actor, his persona and star status; between progressive views and moribund values in film narratives; of the personal intersecting with the public….
Most of the films Balraj Sahni acted in in the Hindi film industry were what could be broadly categorized as melodramas. Melodrama, a form that combines music and drama, has its antecedents in theatre (particularly the medieval morality play), literature, opera, folk songs, and ballad . According to Ben Singer “Melodrama as it generally is used today refers to a set of subgenres that remain close to the heart and hearth and emphasise a register of heightened emotionalism and sentimentality” . In India, music has been a very important part of the classical and folk traditions of theatre and other performances, including those that involve narrations. Melodrama was part of the Parsi theatre that was to influence Indian cinema. Indian filmmakers also drew their own kind of inspiration from Hollywood and European cinemas, adapting the influences to their requirements. The melodrama in the Hindi cinema is thus a hybrid mode and often has mythological or allegorical undercurrents in the narrative.
Melodrama was a mode that rose to prominence from the 1800s in the West in times of turmoil and change: “For many people, the social upheavals of modernity – the erosion of traditional feudal and religious authority and the rise of modern capitalism – were more anxious, unsettling, and oppressive than they were empowering. Melodrama conveyed the stark insecurities of a modern life in which people found themselves ‘helpless and unfriended’ in a postsacred, postfeudal, ‘disenchanted’ world of moral ambiguity and material vulnerability. From this perspective, melodrama was less about an emergent liberal populism than about the anxieties of a society experiencing unprecedented moral, cultural, and socioeconomic disarray” . The post-independence period was a period of transition, a period when the Indian state was finding its feet and despite problems, looked to the future with optimism. This was the time that several narratives in the Hindi cinema were also jelling into moulds. There was also the larger anxieties of the transition to the modern which had been occurring for over a century. This transition, mediated by colonialism, was all the more complicated since it created ‘intermingled layers’ rather that a linear progression. Many temporalities co-existed and the narratives of popular cinema reflected these contradictions. The conjuncture, thus, was of two transitions, the historical one from colonialism to the free Indian state and the other, a socio-temporal one of arriving at the modern with the large baggage of the feudal past, with what Raymond Williams termed ‘cultural remnants’.
Melodrama in the Hindi cinema ‘documented’, or should one say, ‘subjectively archived’ these transitions through several genres-in-the-making. The genres of Hindi cinema are structured very differently from the Hollywood cinema: they are far more hybrid. The characteristic features of the conception of characters as ‘black’ or ‘white’, moral polarization between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ or the conflictual arraignment of two characters who are both ‘good’; the unabashed play on the emotions of the characters as well as of the audience; the sensational events (in action melodramas) and /or the emotional shocks (in other melodramas); exaggerated or excessive emotions; pathos that is usually evoked through pity for the characters as well as, as Franco Moretti has pointed out, self-pity ; a narrative structure that dispenses with logical cause-effect series and relies more on discontinuity, episodic structure, coincidences that are often implausible, remain as much a part of the melodrama in the Hindi cinema as they did in Hollywood.
Balraj Sahni acted in very few action films, which were mostly war films (Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat and Hindustan ki Kasam). His script for Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) etched a protagonist who descended to the lower depths of society as a gambler and the villain who ran the dens was, paradoxically, one of the pillars of respectable society. Sahni himself did not play such ‘negative’ roles; Rajendra Bhatia’s Paraya Dhan (1971), in which he plays a dacoit who turns a new leaf, is an exception. His filmography as an actor, in the main, consists of family melodramas, social melodramas and a specific type of ‘woman’s film’. Many of these ‘woman’s films’ have nouns designating women as titles (Anuradha, Seema, Lajwanti). The woman’s film has been defined as a film in which the narrative focuses on a woman and issues of her emotional, psychological, social being. In many Hindi films of this period, the conflict between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ was played out around a woman character. The woman and her travails as she transited from the private to the public space (Lajwanti, Seema, Sone ki Chidiya, Kathputli), or from one kind of domestic space to another (rural/feudal to city, with its different value systems in Anpadh or from centre/city/public to periphery/small town/domestic in Anuradha, formed the core narrative drive, although other male and female characters occupy much of the screen time. Balraj Sahni plays the role of a lawyer, a jealous husband who throws his wife out of the house in Lajwanti directed by Narendra Suri (1958). The wife feels neglected because of her husband’s preoccupation with his work. Nargis, who plays the wife, puts up a spirited defence of her position when she is falsely accused of having an affair with the family friend, an artist. Balraj Sahni brings up their daughter on his own, and though he realises that he has been unjust to his wife, is unable to find her for many years. The daughter is able to influence her father more than the wife had been able to do. When the family is reunited, there is a tussle of affection between mother and daughter because the daughter does not recognize her mother and thinks she is her step-mother till everything is sorted out. Amiya Chakravarty’s Seema (1955) has Nutan in the lead role of an orphan who is being lives with her uncle and nagging aunt. She is accused falsely of stealing in the house where she works and is sent to a remand home. Balraj Sahni is the in-charge and father figure of this remand home. Seema is a rebellious inmate, difficult to control, but Balraj Sahni understands her rage. After a few escapades from the home she takes her revenge on the thief. The film ends with Ashok Babuji (Balraj Sahni), a heart patient, changing his attitude from that of a ‘father figure’ to that of the future husband of Seema.
Films such as Kathputli (directed by Amiya Chakravarty/Nitin Bose, 1957) and Sone ki Chidiya (directed by Shaheed Latif, 1958) took a critical look at show business and the plight of the woman caught between a conflict-ridden home situation, career and the distinctive problems of the performance industry, in which the heroine emerges as a star. In Kathputli, Balraj Sahni is a widowed patron of the arts, who is bringing up his young sick child on his own. Vyjantimala is the dancer he promotes. She becomes a star, while the husband, a puppeteer, fails to find any work. This leads to marital discord. In Sone ki Chidiya Nutan is once again an orphan, being given shelter by her mild uncle and avaricious aunt and cousin. She has a talent for singing and becomes a star, acting in films. Her family exploits her and is unwilling to let her go even though she is in love with a poet (Balraj Sahni) whose poetry she admires and likes to sing. Both Kathputli and Sone ki Chidiya, in the melodramatic mode, touch upon the travails of stardom and the fact that women are ‘puppets’ both at home and the workplace. Ismat Chugtai, fellow IPTA member, had scripted Sone ki Chidiya. It was not, therefore, surprising that the film also raises questions about the fate of extras in the industry, the shabby deal they get and the need for a film school to be set up.
What is interesting about all these films is the way in which the excess of emotion is dealt with by Sahni. This is the central element of the melodramatic mode. Balraj Sahni often plays the brother who loves his sister most of all in the world (Anpadh, Choti Bahen), the husband for whom his work is above all relationships (Anuradha, Lajwanti), the father, for whom the child – his own or someone else’s – is the centre of his world (Kabuliwala, Ek Phool Do Mali, Neel Kamal), the head of the family (Waqt, Do Raaste). He also plays roles where the nature of the relationship with the heroine is ambivalent, as in Kathputli and in Seema. He plays the patriarch, the rich zamindar, the urbane city professional, the idealistic doctor, the successful trader…. In all these films the melodramatic mode that feeds on the excess of emotion is punctured by Sahni with a dialogue delivery that is controlled, avoiding histrionics even in scenes with high emotional quotient . The ‘situation’, an important element of the melodramatic structure, in which excessive emotion is played out and put on unabashed display, is given a very different interpretation by Sahni. Sahni negotiates the almost implausible – even by the standards of melodrama – transitions as in Seema – from the heart-patient father- figure turning into a husband – or Lajwanti – where the husband does not explain to the daughter that Nargis is actually her biological mother and his first and only wife – by a detachment of the actor from the character.
The question that may then be posed is ‘Why did Sahni, at the height of his involvement with the IPTA movement and the Left, find it necessary to act in these melodramatic films at all’? or ‘How did Sahni as a progressive-minded artist cope with the hackneyed and often unrealistic elements/segments of melodramas’? It is here that the point of interface or intersection, that I made earlier, becomes relevant. Sahni brings to the melodramatic mode of the Hindi cinema of the forties, fifties and sixties an encounter with realism within the mode, of restraint and control in lieu of “sound and fury”. The political and voice culture that P C Joshi has referred to has played an important role in this: “Working in the BBC also enabled him to cultivate and modernize his inherent talents. He learnt voice cultivation, wrote numerous skits and produced them, and used various cultural forms to expose the horror of the threat of fascist domination. While in London they went to the best theatres and saw the best films, including Soviet films. There he also discovered Stanislavsky, He used to say that his gurus were Tagore, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Stanislavsky” .
I even detect a certain Brechtian distantiation effect in his acting, despite his reverence for Stanislavsky. This distantiation effect is evidenced in the fact that even in heightened emotional moments, Sahni’s acting does not bring tears of pity, or as Moretti states – of self-pity – to one’s eyes. The pathos he evokes is greater in the realist films in which he has given memorable performances (Do Bigha Zameen, Kabuliwala, Garam Hawa) than in the melodramas he has acted in. The answer to the questions raised above also lies in the fact that given the belief in reaching out to the masses that the progressive movement had, cinema was an important medium. The film industry attracted many talents in the post-independence period including artistes from the progressive, left movement: Bimal Roy, Shailendra, Prem Dhawan, Balraj Sahni, Ravi Shankar, Chetan Anand, K A Abbas, Salil Chowdhary, Hemant Kumar, Sahir Ludhianvi to name but a few. (Many of these people were ‘constants’ Balraj Sahni worked with through his career). These artistes were to inspire a larger circle of artistes within the industry to be fellow-travellers. They were also to influence the film text in various ways, from narrative to lyrics, to music to acting. While Dharti ke Lal was to remain the only film wholly produced by the IPTA, the IPTA-effect was felt strongly in the cinema of the fifties .
In L V Prasad’s Choti Bahen (1959), the eldest brother of the house bears the weight of the entire family, sacrificing his own interests to look after his younger sister who goes blind on the eve of her marriage. Brother and sister face trials and tribulations and are even thrown out of the house they live in due to the machinations of a wily uncle. The film is a family melodrama although the central character is the younger sister. Raj Khosla’s Do Raaste (1969), a blockbuster, remains the quintessential family melodrama. It has the old Saigal song ‘Ek bangala bane nyara’ as an important thematic and ironic motif running through it. The entire effort of the family in the film is to save the mortgaged house. The eldest son of the house (Nabyendu Gupta, played by Balraj Sahni) has looked after his step-mother and step-brothers selflessly. But once the middle brother gets married a new set of values are brought into the house. The main family is gradually made to feel alienated from its own spaces. The sanctity that surrounds the things, chairs, photos in the house is disturbed. The split in the family occurs when the newly-married brother leaves home to set up his upmarket house. The main family is finally thrown out of the house that has been mortgaged and they find shelter in the old family friend’s house. This friend is a Pathan and is himself a de-spaced person, diasporic and hoping to return to his land someday. The elder brother, the ‘father figure’ is honest, sacrificing, yet a little out-of-sync with the times, making him sometimes seem pusillanimous. Sahni presents Nabyendu’s avoidance of conflict over the ‘small’ issues that threaten to blow up into ‘big’ ones first as his ‘large-heartedness’, but later imparts a sense of indecisiveness and even of weakness. This is a very subtle change and it allows the younger brother, Satyen (played by the superstar of the times, Rajesh Khanna), who is more upfront about familial conflict, not afraid of calling a spade a spade, to emerge as the ‘correct’ and more valuable voice in the family in his approach to familial and social problems. In the climactic scenes at the end, Nabyendu is reinstated as the head of the reunited joint family, as they all recover and re-enter the house their ancestors had built. The family sticks together and Satyen fulfills Nabyendu’s firm belief that he (Satyen) will not send his villainous brother Birju to jail for beating him up, thus positing that the strong bonds of kinship (even of step-brothers), will finally hold. Balraj Sahni’s acting out of the character, in fact, balances out the strong attacks Satyen launches against his troublesome sister-in-law, criticizing her ‘modern’ ways, of trying to ‘upgrade’ the house, bring in her friends, and split the not so well off, but happy family. The narrative of the film hinges on the binary opposition of the ‘good’ traditional elder sister-in-law, Nabyendu’s wife (played by Kamini Kaushal) and ‘modern’ Birju’s wife (played by Bindu). The ‘tradition-modernity’ debate often hinged on women characters, with women exploiting and traumatizing other women.
Anpadh, directed by Mohan Kumar (1962) was a social melodrama that focused on the progressive need to educate women. In this film Balraj Sahni plays the role of an affectionate elder brother, a well-to-do landowner in the village who believes that his sister Lajwanti (Mala Sinha) does not need to study or learn how to run the house, so confident is he that she will marry into a wealthy family. Although she does, she has to experience rejection from her husband who is aghast at her illiteracy and from her in-laws. The humble school teacher’s daughter, on the other hand, is educated, does well for herself and offers shelter to Lajjo when she and her daughter have no roof over their heads. It is this same schoolteacher who is reminded rudely by the brother that his school runs with the money donated by him and he should not dare to scold his sister for not studying. Both Lajjo and her brother are uprooted from their homes and it is only in old age that there is retribution and peace. They set up a school in their village. This ‘enlightenment’ narrative that deals with the theme of the utter necessity for women to be educated, unfolds in melodramatic mode with many coincidences and emotional climaxes. In the scene of the confrontation between Balraj Sahni and Lajjo’s father-in-law (played by Nazir Hussain), in which the actor begs him to be kind to his sister, several antimonies are set up: feudal values and the modern ones, feudal riches and modern money, and the double-sided ideology of patriarchy in which there is, on the one hand, excessive love for the sister and, on the other, intolerance towards the daughter-in-law.
Nazir Hussain and Balraj Sahni have a very different face-off in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (1960). It is Nazir Hussain who understands the loneliness of Anuradha, whose husband, Dr Nirmal Choudhary has no time for her. Although the doctor has explained to Anuradha that his mother died for the want of medical attention and that he wants to serve the people of the remote town he lives in, some years down the line, Anuradha feels neglected and misses the career she had as a singer. In a song, Haaye re who din kyon na aaye, beautifully choreographed for the camera, the melodramatic situation of two ‘good’ protagonists, with their own commitments, coming into a domestic conflict, is highlighted. The song expresses longing, nostalgia for a time past, the sense of loss and pain. Nazir Hussain Balraj Sahni and another actor watch Leela Naidu as she sings this song in the room of their modest house. Nazir Hussain’s look shows that he comprehends her loneliness and her longing for music and that he sympathises with her; Sahni’s look expresses his disturbance that his marital problem has been communicated to his peers, but also that he understand that his wife may want to leave him to pursue her own talent, that is so different from his. These complex emotions are only seen on the faces of all three actors (the fourth actor is not an important presence). This is a very sophisticated used of melos and drama, for the strongly felt emotions are all internalized. There is verbalization; only the song expresses the feelings of the woman. Ravi Shankar’s music, though soft and melancholic, wells up in the instrumental segments of the song and seems to ‘guide’ the camera movements. The tracks and cranes move with the music and rhythm and stop at mid-shot close-ups of the three characters, allowing for the saturation of the split emotions of the characters. The editing and the movement of the camera in the song create ‘phrases’ of cinema movement, with, more often than not, the mid close-up as the crescendo of the phrase. Balraj Sahni excels in these phrases, where his entire body postures, movement and language along with facial expression conveys remorse/mild irritation/mortification/pain/regret. He is rueful yet unrelenting. The range of emptions expressed through this song is no small feat for an actor to pull off . The picturisation and the music of this sequence draw lines, as it were, of the tension in the room ending with a close mid close-up of the face. The close-up in this sequence is not arrived at as a definitive ‘full-stop’, even though it is coming at the end of a movement, but as ellipsis. The mise-en-scene internalizes the drama as much as the characters do. Mise-en-scene transforms characters not into action (as Elsaesser suggests it does where melodrama is in the expressive mode ), but into emotion. This kind of track and crane that ends in a close-up in scenes of dramatic/melodramatic tension is characteristic of the Bengal school of directors. The master in this is Ritwik Ghatak, who also arrives at the face as ellipsis and emotion, but breaks the threshold of realism moving on to mythic and archetypal realms .
Three films stand out in Sahni’s oeuvre as the high-points in his career: Do Bigha Zameen (Bimal Roy, 1953), Kabuliwala (directed by Hemen Gupta, produced by Bimal Roy, 1961) and Garam Hawa (M S Sathyu, 1973). All three films engage with realism as a mode of representation. Of these Kabuliwala carries the weight of melodrama, despite its largely realist-romantic moorings. While the character of the Afghan migrant who lands up in Calcutta to eke out a living and pay off his debts back home is cast in the mode of a positive stereotype (the well-built, large-hearted Pathan, generous to a fault, honest and dependable); the cramped living quarters of the migrants, the streets on which he walks selling his wares, the family of the little child he becomes attached to, are all captured naturalistically. The melodramatic moments of the excess of attachment to ‘Mina bachi’ as a substitute for the separation from his own young daughter, are thus embedded in a naturalistic-romantic-realist narrative. Do Bigha Zameen is also about migration – from the rural countryside that has ceased to provide sustenance to the city. In this, too, Balraj Sahni uses his body very well to create the opposite effect of a lean, emaciated, impoverished poor peasant. The utopian moments of both Do Bigha Zameen and Kabuliwala are captured in the community songs. Penned by Prem Dhawan (Do Bigha Zameen has lyrics by Shailendra as well) and set to music by Salil Chowdhary, these songs do not ‘interrupt’ or ‘complement’ the narrative. They are the narrative. They set up the community against which the protagonist’s life story unfolds, and as such are integral to the narrative. The IPTA in the forties had a very large repertoire of folk songs, songs of social activism and of dances. Two of their most popular shows were Spirit of India (1945) and Immortal (1946-47). The IPTA-effect in the Hindi cinema was, I believe, was most strongly felt in the songs and dances of films made by people who were members of, or fellow travellers of the IPTA. Hariyala sawan dhol bajata aaya, which is in the beginning of the Do Bigha Zameen has the entire village community, young and old, joyously celebrating the onset of the monsoon season. Into this are woven little vignettes of their life: a couple thatches their roof, a woman rocks her baby and we see Nirupa Roy, enjoying the song being sung by others. The song speaks of hope, of renewal, of the passing of sorrow and grief, as the earth turns green with the rains. There is a sense of relay in the song which is continued in Apni kahani chod ja as Sahni leaves his family and village in the hope of earning enough to pay off his debts. The villagers are ploughing the fields, drawing water from the well and singing in relay of journeying out and not knowing whether one will return or not and the need to leave behind a trace. The song is affirmative, yet for the protagonist leaving the fields and hearth, the song is a sad one. As he walks through the fields and the song, there is a juxtaposition of his sadness and the robustness and vitality of those who are staying back. This juxtaposition of feelings is utopian, because the protagonists feel sadness, no doubt, but their link with the community is not broken, even though they now have to tread their own separate path . Pity/self-pity are in response to individual tragedy; pathos contextualizes the tragedy in larger social, historical forces. One man has been uprooted suddenly; but the sowing and ploughing and the work on the fields will go on. One man moves on, but life continues with its natural and productive cycles and rhythms. The song sequences in Do Bigha Zameen bring together melos and drama, but are so structured that they do not become melodrama! The drama, paradoxically, is muted through the melos. Hemen Gupta also uses two songs in Kabuliwala to show the emotional dilemma of the migrant. Prem Dhawan beautifully captures the longing for the homeland in ‘Aye mere pyaare watan’ and the song sung by a saintly figure on the banks of the river ‘Ganga aaye kahaan se’, in which the river is represented as a ‘melting pot’ of all cultures . Balraj Sahni is shown listening to, and getting powerfully moved by both the songs, relating to the content of both songs: on the one hand, separation from the homeland, on the other, the oneness of all humanity.
Garam Hawa is the third film where Sahni uses his body and voice in the service of a realistic mode of representation. The theme was close to his heart; he laments in his autobiography, that not a single, noteworthy film had been made on this theme: “The traumatic experience of 1947, which was nothing short of a death wave, left us untouched. We have not been able to produce a film which could be said to mirror those catastrophic events faithfully. Nor has any of our writers written a novel, which, steering clear of sentimentality, would describe the horrors people on both sides of the border were subjected to” . This was the crowning glory of a long career and a role he gave his heart and soul to. Pathos is invoked here time and again at the plight of the Muslim family whose business is dying, whose finances are dwindling, whose family is forced to move out of the haveli into a small, claustrophobic house, whose relatives are migrating to what they believe a better life in Pakistan…. Pathos is invoked precisely because of the dignity with which Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni), the head of the family, faces adversity. The extreme close-up of Sahni in the climactic scene where he sees the body of his daughter who has committed suicide is one of restraint; the horror and the shock are internalized as he closes his eyes and bites his lip; it is the music that is heart-rending. The very first sequence in the railway station, in which we see the erect back of Balraj Sahni as he waves goodbye to his relatives who are migrating. His back, as he turns from the grave of his beloved daughter, who was jilted and has committed suicide, is still straight, but the gait is of a broken man. Sahni is once again cast here as the head of the family, a role he played with aplomb in so many melodramas, but here he bears the weight of not just the family, or society on his shoulders, but the weight of history itself. It is only in the last sequence as he joins his son and other young people in their demands for employment and a better life, that he regains a determination in his walk as he disappears into the crowd.
Balraj Sahni has a unique and abiding place in the Hindi film industry as an actor. The paradox is that although he acted with all the top directors and heroines of his time, and even got first mention in the credits, he was never really considered a ‘star’. The two dimensional iconicity of the star was probably never sought by him, or accorded to him. The reason for this could be his commitment to a realistic mode of performance. He also did not summon the aura of remoteness, essential for a star, probably because of his social activism. The persona of the actor came in the way of stardom. As a hero he was more than a ‘character-actor’, yet not quite a star. The aura of being a romantic hero too, was not for him. This is reflected in the songs that were picturised on him. Despite the popularity of a love song such as ‘Jaane kaise sapnon mein kho gayi ankhiyaan’ picturised on him (Anuradha), he is remembered more for songs in which he is a brother or father: ‘Bhaiya meri rakhi ke bandhan ko nibhana’ (Choti Bahen), ‘Babul ki duayein leti jaa’ (Neel Kamal), ‘Tujhe suraj kahoon ya taara’ (Ek Phool Do Maali), or for more philosophical songs picturised on him – ‘Raat bhar ka hai mehmaan andhera, kiske roke ruka hai savera?’ (Sone ki Chidiya), ‘Kahaan jar aha hai tu aye jaane wale’ ‘Tu pyar ka sagar hai’ (Seema). He is, of course, best remembered for the song ‘Aye meri zohra jabeen’ in Waqt, directed by Yash Chopra (1965). The song encapsulated robust Punjabiyat (with a whiff of the undivided Punjab); of getting ahead in life with hard work, enjoying material wealth, and celebrating life with one’s family and friends.
Balraj Sahni’s work in the Hindi cinema reflects an era gone by, in which it was still possible to be a hero as an actor, and not as a star. Today, with the coming together of the media, body/beauty, fashion and culture industries, it is possible to be a hero and star, without having any truck with the profession of acting! Sahni’s place in the industry is unique precisely because, despite the changing scenario of the Hindi film industry (which he records and bemoans in his autobiography), he managed to retain his place as actor who carried with him a whiff of social realism, not only in the realist films he acted in, but also in melodramas.