Born Yudhishtir Sahni, Balraj Sahni was an unassuming man, who, with his natural style of acting sank deep into the characters he played on screen. It is hard to separate the man who played the Kabuliwala from the Lala of Waqt, or the talented doctor from Anuradha from the desperate villager of Do Bigha Zameen. He was all of them; never ‘Balraj Sahni’ playing at being a Kabuliwala or a villager or a doctor.
Like many of his contemporaries in the film fraternity (Prithviraj Kapoor, Salil Choudhary, Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak), he also had had leftist leanings, and was associated with the IPTA, the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. In fact, he started his acting career with plays performed by the IPTA, after working as a teacher of English and Hindi at Santiniketan and as a radio announcer for the BBC’s Hindi service in London.
The first film I saw of his was Do Bigha Zameen on Doordarshan which, in those years, used to show ‘Classics’. It was not a good introduction then. For the longest of time, I associated him with the rustic roles and ‘art’ movies. Then during Doordarshan’s golden age (under Bhaskar Ghosh) I had the opportunity of watching Seema. Since a few years had passed in the interim, I was struck by the dignity he brought to his role, and how his acting affected me. In the years that followed, thanks to Doordarshan, I saw some of his other movies… and I was hooked! As soon as I could, I started hunting around for all the Balraj Sahni movies I could find.
And so, I present here, my personal ten favourites from the wide range of roles that the man with a thousand facets (apologies to Bogart) made his own.
Based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, Bimal Roy directs the touching tale of a widowed Afghani Pathan, Abdul Rehman Khan, who is forced by circumstances to come to India to earn a better livelihood.
When he finally gains employment as a door-to-door salesman of dry fruits and nuts, he meets a little girl, Mini, who reminds him of the daughter he left behind in Kabul. Her father, a progressive man, encourages little Mini to become friends with the gentle Pathan, though her mother is suspicious of the stranger. Despite her mother’s misgivings, little Mini becomes attached to the Pathan who is a regular visitor to their house, and always has a little gift for her.
Soon, however, fate intervenes; in a fit of anger, Khan murders one of his debtors and is led away in handcuffs even as Mini sobs. Years pass, and Khan has served his sentence. But his memories of Mini remain frozen; he goes to meet her with the red bangles he had once promised her for her birthday. Only to find that not only has she grown up and it is her wedding day, but that she has absolutely no recollection of him. Khan is shattered; he suddenly realises that his daughter may not remember him at all. And be warned that it is hard to hold back your tears when Mini’s father gives the Kabuliwala money to go back to his homeland so he can see his daughter.
Balraj Sahni is Lala Kedarnath, a successful business man who has come up the hard way, and believes that every man writes his own destiny. But since the very premise of the movie is that destiny makes or mars a man’s future (वक़्त ही बनता है, वक़्त ही बिगड़ता है), you know he is going to get his comeuppance soon. And lo, it happens, right after the Lala serenades his middle-aged wife, the mother of his three children. An earthquake destroys everything that the Lala has worked for, and worse, it separates a loving family – the wife is under the impression that everyone else died except for the bab in her arms, the middle son is rescued and adopted by a well-off childless couple, and the oldest ends up in an orphanage where the ill-treatment he receives from the manager, drives him to a life of thievery. The Lala, upon seeing his son being beaten up, kills the manager and is sentenced to life imprisonment.
A well-directed (Yash Chopra for the BR banner) entertainer, the film is replete with all the cliches that one can ask for, but they are held firmly in check. And as the man who comes to accept that destiny is far larger than any one individual, Balraj Sahni lived his role to the hilt.
One film which made me want to catch Balraj Sahni by his collar and shake him. Hard. He is a doctor, an idealist, who prefers to work in the villages, to serve the poorest of the poor. The memory of his mother who died due to the lack of medical attention makes him decide that such tragedy will not recur with anybody else if he can help it. In fact, he promises his father that he will not look to greener pastures.
A trip to the city brings him in contact with the beautiful Anuradha, a renowned singer and dancer. They fall in love, get married, and relocate to the village. Anuradha cheerfully submerges her well-established career, singing only for her husband, so she can support his dreams. But as the years pass, her songs still. Her husband is so involved in his work, his mission, that he has no time to listen to her sing. Or for anything else either. She could be just another piece of furniture. Neglected and frustrated at having no outlet for herself, she withdraws into herself, until an old friend re-enters her life, and brings the music back.
It is time to decide, and she does; choosing to leave for the city so she can establish her own individuality. Balraj Sahni was an absolute powerhouse in the role of a man who suddenly wakes up to realise that he has lost something that made his life infinitely precious in the pursuit of his dreams. It has taken a visit from his mentor to make him realise that he had been perpetrating an injustice. This devastating realisation prevents him from begging his wife to stay though he wants her to.
Directed by Amiya Chakravarty, Seema was the sensitively told tale of an orphan, Gauri, who, after a series of incidents is sent to a juvenile delinquent home. Totally mistrustful of humanity, she is like a wounded animal, licking its wounds; she spits and snarls at anyone who comes near, be it a friendly co-inmate, or even the quiet, sympathetic head, who believes in her innate goodness. Gauri runs away, only to come back, drawn to the one person who has offered her an unconditional acceptance.
This was Nutan‘s film from beginning to end, but Balraj Sahni made his unobtrusive mark as the dignified head of the correction centre, whose unswerving strength of conviction succeeds in winning the trust of his wards and rehabilitating them. This May-December romance broke some social barriers – she is in his care, and when she falls in love with him, he reacts angrily to the notion that they take their relationship further. However, his response to her shows that he is not untouched by the same emotions.
This film is like opening a box of surprises and finding one delight after another. Based on a story called Rikshawala by Salil Chowdhary, the tale goes that Salilda only gave Bimal Roy the story on condition that he be allowed to compose the music for the movie. And that Meena Kumari, who was filming Parineeta with Bimal Roy at the time, saw the rushes of Do Bigha Zameen and begged so hard to be part of it, that she made a special appearance with this lori
The film revolved around the Balraj Sahni, in a role that he, despite his urban, highly educated background, made so utterly believable. As the villager who stands to lose his little plot of land if he does not pay back a disputable loan, Balraj Sahni was Shambhu; along with his wife (Nirupa Roy – you cannot believe she is the same lachrymose mother in countless movies in later years – such a fine actress!) and son, Shambhu moves to Calcutta where he seeks work as a rikshawala. As their troubles increase, they decide sadly to go back to the village, only to find a smoke-belching factory on their land. In their absence, their land had already been usurped by the landlord. A special mention at Cannes, an award at Karlovy-Vary, the first Filmfare award for best film, this is the movie that made Balraj Sahni a force to reckon with, and kickstarted the best creative years of his career.
Probably Balraj Sahni’s most definitive performance, and that is saying a lot, considering his immense talent. A landmark movie, based on the Partition, MS Sathyu directs Ismat Chugtai‘s poignant story (Kaifi Azmi‘s script) that takes a searching look both at the social repercussions of tearing apart a nation, and at the impact of such an occurrence on the lives of one individual family.
Balraj Sahni is Salim Mirza, a Muslim businessman who chooses to stay back in India even as his siblings and even his older son decided to leave for Pakistan. It is a decision that will have grave consequences. Being a minority in a fledgling that suddenly looked upon their own people with suspicion, Mirza’s younger son (Farooque Sheikh) is told, often to his face, that he should go ‘to his own country’. As the individual strands play out their own denouements, Balraj Sahni’s Mirza is the face of every Indian muslim of the time who made that same choice.
A man who is so proud of his riches that he assumes that the pursuit of wealth and its accumulation triumphs over education. It is a movie with a very progressive script, with its emphasis on the education of the girl child.
As the brother of the protagonist Lajwanti (Mala Sinha in one of the best roles of her career), Balraj Sahni plays a man who so loves and pampers his sister that he doesn’t want her to suffer at all. When the school teacher reprimands her, he stops sending her to school He is sure that his wealth will ensure her happiness. When she grows up, he gets her married to a man who values learning for its own sake (Dharmendra in a small supporting role).
He is disgusted when he finds out that she cannot read the poetry that he loves. But he is not a bad man, and when he realises that he has hurt her, he decides to teach her himself. There is a beautiful scene when her marital difficulties seem to be on their way out, and she is basking in her husband’s new found love for her. Unfortunately, her joy is shortlived. Homeless and pregnant, she must manage to forge an identity for herself. This, a movie which was Mala Sinha’s all the way, still had Balraj Sahni offering strong support in a well-etched role.
Do Raaste (1969)
Brought up by a stepmother who never let him feel the loss of his own, Navendu promises his dying father that he would do unto his half brothers and sister what his stepmother had done for him. To that end, he works to bring up and educate his siblings, even taking out a mortgage on their ancestral home to send the older of his two half-brothers, Birju (Prem Chopra), abroad to complete his education. He is sure that upon his return, his brother will help him repay the mortgage and get the house back.
When Birju comes back, he gets married to Bindu, the daughter of a rich businessman. Soon the love and peace of the joint household is shattered. And Navendu is devastated when he realises that his new sister-in-law has no intention of allowing Birju to help him repay the loan. When Navendu loses his job, he is thrown out of the house which is repossessed by the moneylender.
The movie revolves around Balraj Sahni who is the very picture of dejection and tiredness as Navendu, as he battles both the loss of his brother’s love and respect, and the responsibilities on his aging shoulders. Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz provide the romantic interlude; it is easier to film Laxmikant-Pyarelal‘s lilting melodies on two easy-on-the-eye leads, though Prem Chopra looked very handsome indeed.
By the early sixties, Balraj Sahni had seamless moved into ‘character roles’; an ironical term for this actor, who even when he was playing the role of the leading man, was the ‘character’. In Bhabhi ki Chudiyan, his is a supporting role, the titular Bhabi (Meena Kumari) having the meatier role.
After his parents’ death, Shyam and his wife Geeta take charge of Shyam’s younger brother. (IMDB lists him as a Sailesh Kumar, but I cannot find any other information on him.) The boy is very attached to his sister-in-law seeing in her the mother he lost. When he grows up and gets married, his young wife is aghast that her husband defers to his bhabhi. Dominated by her mother*, who foments the disagreement, Prabha leaves her sasural. Her husband, angered by her disrespect toward his beloved Bhabhi, refuses to have anything to do with her or their new-born child. And it is up to the brother and sister-in-law to (lovingly) knock some sense into their heads.
*(Durga Khote cast against type! Has anyone ever seen her in anything other than a the-milk-of-human-kindness-oozing-out-of-every-maternal-pore movie mom?)
A greyer precursor to the neglectful husband of Anuradha, Balraj Sahni is a businessman (Nirmal Kumar) who suspects his wife (Nargis/Kavita) of infidelity. Nirmal Kumar is too busy making money to have time to spend with his beautiful wife. When his friend, Prabhu Dayal shows up, Nirmal is relieved; now he can take Kavita out for shopping. Or movies. Or restaurants. Kavita too is happy to be out and about with a man with whom she can talk about her beloved husband. On one such outing, a French (I think; I saw this so long ago that he could be Russian for all I know!) photographer who sees her out with her baby daughter, asks to take her photograph titled ‘Mother and Daughter’ for a book he is publishing. Prabhudayal encourages her to get the photo taken, and is himself inspired to paint her. Kavita is thrilled – what a wonderful present to give her husband for his birthday. And she has a better idea – let it be a surprise present. And so she sits for him in the afternoons, while he paints her portrait.
And Balraj Sahni spots her one afternoon going into his friend’s studio; she hides the truth from him and the seed of suspicion is born. And it feeds on itself until finally, he accuses her of adultery. Like Sita of yore, Kavita cannot prove her chastity (there is no ‘innocent until proven guilty’ for Nirmal), and is banished from her husband’s life. She is also forced to leave their baby daughter behind. She rushes to Prabhudayal’s studio – surely, if Nirmal were to see the half-finished portrait, he would realise she was never unfaithful? However, Prabhudayal has gone out of town on some personal emergency, and she is quite undone.
An embittered Nirmal shuts himself off further until, on his birthday, his friend comes back with the finished portrait. There is a lovely scene here – when he learns how Nirmal threw Kavita out, the searing contempt with which Prabhudayal addresses Nirmal; Nirmal’s expression when he realises how much his unfounded suspicions have cost him, the utter helplessness of a man who does not know where to turn… Balraj Sahni’s mobile face registers anger, shock, horror, anguish, despair, all within the space of a few seconds – it’s like watching quicksilver.
Sone ki Chidiya (1958)
The poignant story of a bird that lays golden eggs, Nutan plays the titular role. She is Lakshmi, a girl who bears the weight of family responsibilities on her young shoulders. An orphan who is initially considered a burden by her relatives, they are even willing to sell her off for the price of a bottle of booze. Fate is kind (even munificent) for once, and she manages to break into the film industry. And perhaps having been so cruel until then, the fates are determined to balance the scales – she goes from strength to strength as an actress, and as her economic status improves, so too does the reactions of her erstwhile relatives. They descend on her enmasse, handling her wealth (and spending it) until one day, she meets Amar (Talat Mahmood), a young journalist who is trying desperately to break into the industry. Enamoured, Lakshmi recommends him to her producers, and soon Amar is an actor too. Enraged at the quick progression of the love affair, the relatives accuse Amar of being after the same thing as they – her wealth. Shocked and traumatised, Lakshmi seeks reassurance from her lover, who assures her of his deep unabiding love. But with three unmarried sisters and responsibilities of his own, he cannot afford to marry her, you see, a fact that he conveniently forgets to mention while making plans to elope.
And where is Balraj Sahni in all this, you ask? Ah, well, he provides the rescue and the redemption, and all that is good in the world. His restraint (in a quite-melodramatic story) is amazing. Actually, I do not think that man could overact at all.
Based on a story by Ismat Chughtai and produced by her, the music was an OP Nayyar/ Sahir Ludhianvi collaboration.
If he wasn’t neglecting his (on-screen) wives (Anuradha, Lajwanti), he was playing kind-hearted saviour to young women (Seema, Sone ki Chidiya, Ek Phool Do Mali). This one belongs to the latter category. Pushpa (a scrap collector) is poor but cheerful, always singing and dancing her way to and from work. Shivraj (a rather wooden-faced Jawahar Kaul) is a puppeteer who dreams of making it into the big league some day. Pushpa, who is fascinated by the puppets (the first time she sees the show, she dances like the puppets on her way back home), has an idea – Shivraj should perform in a theatre instead of giving roadside shows. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Shivraj has an accident that leaves him disabled, and Pushpa goes back to the theatre to see if an earlier offer (that she had rejected) made by Loknath (Balraj Sahni), the theatre owner, is still valid. Of course it is, assures Loknath, who is absolutely certain he can also make her an overnight star.
And so begins Pushpa’s tryst with her destiny. She becomes a star, marries Shivraj, becomes a bigger star, and soon there is a canker in her marital bliss. So how does it all end? As they say in the movies, आगे आगे देखो, होता है क्या!
Watch it for Shankar-Jaikishen’s music, a top-of-her-form Lata, Vyjayanthimala‘s prowess as a danseuse, and above all for Balraj Sahni, who plays suave single father, benign mentor (though there is a hint of a burgeoning love for his talented artiste), and a misunderstood philanthrope – all with elan. It’s all in a day’s work.
Director Amiya Chakrabarty died during the making of this movie, and Nitin Bose took up the baton to complete it.
There are other Baraj Sahni roles that are far better than some of those listed here (Lajwanti and Bhabhi ki Chudiyan would not have made the cut, though I included Lajwanti purely for the negative shades to his character) – Hulchul, one of his earliest movies is said to have so impressed Bimalda that he offered him Do Bigha Zamin. That and Dharti ke Lal could have made the list, only I have not been able to lay my hands on the DVDs of either one. And in case anyone is interested, Balraj Sahni was also a very talented writer, it is he who wrote the script for Guru Dutt‘s Baazi; he was such a perfectionist that he kept Dutt waiting for six months before presenting him with a leather-bound script.
© Anuradha Warrier
Written By: Anuradha Warrier, is a writer, editor, film, and music buff. She writes for pleasure, edits for a living, and indulges in watching films, listening to music, and writing about both on her blog Conversations Over Chai as and when time permits.
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