Balraj Sahni was an actor par excellence. And beyond his histrionic talents, he was also a writer, screenwriter, teacher, radio announcer and theatre artist. SMM Ausaja explores the life and works of the multifaceted artist.
A list to name ten greatest actors of Hindi cinema is incomplete without Balraj Sahni. This powerhouse of talent contributed to the success of acclaimed filmmakers like Chetan Anand, Bimal Roy, B R Chopra, K A Abbas, and M S Sathyu in some of the greatest films ever made in this country.
Balraj was a luminary of the 50s theatre movement IPTA with numerous plays to his credit. He changed various avatars before settling as an actor in the Bombay film industry. In a career span of more than 25 years, Balraj played a wide variety of roles displaying an unusually strong intensity in each. The difficult the role, the better the performance.
Born on May 1, 1913 in Rawalpindi, Balraj was named Yudhishthir. He graduated in Hindi and did his masters in English Literature from Government College, Lahore before joining the family business in Rawalpindi. Being influenced by his professor Jaswantrai’s persona, Balraj eventually married the professor’s daughter Damyanti. The couple was blessed with two children – Parikshit and Shabnam. Their creative yearnings led them to launch a weekly newspaper – Monday Morning. The journal didn’t do well due to marketing and investment constraints and was discontinued in six months. Balraj turned to Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in West Bengal in the late thirties to take up teaching. Being stationed in a creative hub, Damyanti completed her masters, while Balraj began to experiment with theatre.
During an educational seminar, Balraj was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji called the couple to Vardha for an Indian National Congress conference to pen the Hindi and English report. In 1940, with the help of Mahatma Gandhi, Sahni moved to London to work with BBC London’s Hindi service as a radio announcer. The couple stayed for three years in London and Damyanti used the opportunity to learn acting.
Balraj returned to India in 1944. His childhood friends Chetan and Dev Anand were struggling in films in Bombay. Balraj joined them and got bit roles in Phani Majumdar’s Insaaf /Justice and Dur Chalen (both released in 1946). Balraj got his first major role in films in K A Abbas’ much acclaimed Dharti Ke Lal. Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar composed the music for this film. Damyanti was cast opposite him in this film.
Dev also got his break in 1946 with PL Santoshi’s Hum Ek Hain, and Chetan’s first film Neecha Nagar was eventually completed in 1947. By then Balraj had also established himself as a theatre luminary in the Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA) winning accolades as an actor in Prithviraj Kapoor’s Deewaar and as a director with K A Abbas scripted Zubaida.
Balraj couldn’t enjoy his newfound success for long as Damyanti passed away in 1947, leaving him shattered. This personal tragedy made him decide to settle in Bombay for good after the country’s partition. Balraj married his cousin Santosh Chandok in 1949.
Balraj’s next film Gunjan (1948) was opposite Nalini Jaywant whose husband Virendra Desai had produced and directed the project. The film failed but Balraj got noticed as an actor of potential. The legendary K Asif cast him in Hulchul (1951) where – for the first time – he shared the screen space with the iconic Dilip Kumar and held his own against the star. Being associated with IPTA and known for his leftist leanings, Balraj was arrested as part of a government crackdown on communists in 1951. During the period of his arrest, he attended the shooting of Asif’s Hulchul under special permission from the government!
Balraj zoomed to the top league as a scriptwriter with Navketan’s Baazi. This film’s super success changed the fortunes of many. It was the first hit of Navketan, the debut of Guru Dutt as director, the second huge hit of Dev Anand after Shahid Latif’s Ziddi, and a launch pad to big league for lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and music director S D Burman.
Balraj’s next hit as an actor was Zia Sarhadi’s Hum Log (1951) opposite Nutan. K A Abbas cast him in Rahi (1953) with Dev Anand and Nalini Jaywant. He began getting stellar roles in big banners. He was seen opposite Nadira in Akash (1953) and opposite Nirupa Roy in the cult classic Do Bigha Zameen.
Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen is considered one of the best films of the actor’s career. The film won an international prize at the Cannes Film Festival, besides winning numerous awards back home. Sahni had actually learnt to pull rickshaw on the streets of Calcutta, amidst other rickshaw pullers! Bimal Roy was not too keen to cast Sahni initially because he found the star too polished and educated to be able to carry off the role of an uneducated villager to perfection. Sahni eventually proved his mettle in a role that has gone down in the annals of Hindi cinema as one of the finest characters ever essayed on the silver screen.
The success of Do Bigha Zameen was followed by acclaimed performances in Bazooband (1954), Aulad (1954), Garm Coat (1955), Jawaab (1955), Seema (1955) and Taksaal (1956). In Amiya Chakraborty’s Seema, the prayer Tu pyar ka sagar hai, teri ek boond ke pyaase hum written by Shailendra and composed by Shankar-Jaikishan swept emotions across the country. Filmmakers began to swear by Balraj Sahni’s versatility. When he played a character, he lived it.
Bimal Roy repeated Balraj Sahni as a protagonist in the screen adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala. Released in 1961, the film added another milestone to the actor’s shining career. Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat (1964) widely acknowledged as the best war film ever made in the country had Balraj in a stellar role. The Kaifi Azmi song Kar chale hum fida jaan-o-tan saathiyon still gives goosebumps to the listeners.
In 1965, in the B R Chopra classic Waqt Balraj sang O meri zohra jabeen to Achla Sachdev amidst thunderous applause in theatres. In the seventies Balraj delivered a landmark performance in Garam Hawa – directed by M S Sathyu – the film is widely acknowledged as the best film ever made on the country’s partition.
The year Garam Hawa was released, on 13th April 1973, Balraj died of cardiac arrest. His last outstanding performance would continue to inspire generations of actors.
(All pictures are courtesy SMM Ausaja Archives)
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