- Rashmi Doraiswamy
Actor, writer, theatre activist, script-writer Balraj Sahni’s hundredth birth anniversary (1 May 1913 – 13 April 1973), is being celebrated this year. 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).
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.