Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tribute to Balraj Sahani-1

- 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).

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”[1]. 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”[2]. 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”[3]. 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”[4]. 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[5]. 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”[6]. 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.



  1. बलराज साहनी जी का विस्तृत वर्णन अच्छा लगा काफी जानकारी मिली।