Friday, April 19, 2013

A tribute to Balraj Sahni as he nears his 100

(Did a version of this for my DNA column)

With the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s most respected actors just around the corner – May 1 is the date – I came across an amusing little anecdote about Balraj Sahni. In his biography Balraj: My Brother, Bhisham Sahni recalls a Bombay producer saying the young Balraj resembled the Hollywood legend Gary Cooper. “Balraj took this as a compliment, but it was meant to convey that he had grown too lean and thin for the role of a hero in Hindi films; the Indian audiences preferred chubby and round-faced heroes.”

There were other ways in which Balraj would confound expectations of the Indian movie star in the 1940s and 50s. Having trained as a BBC announcer in England, and also being familiar with a relatively “realistic” stage tradition – compared to the Parsi theatre that gave Hindi cinema many of its florid conventions – he had a knack for understatement that recalled the best work of such American star-actors as Spencer Tracy ... or Gary Cooper for that matter, of whom Orson Welles once said: “You’d see him working on the set and you’d think my god, they’re going to have to retake that one! He almost didn’t seem to be there. And then you’d see the rushes, and he’d fill the screen.”

Those who observed Sahni may have felt similarly. Watching him as the idealistic Dr Nirmal in the 1960 film Anuradha, I was most struck by his performance in the scenes where the doctor, doing his rounds on his bicycle, casually chats with patients. Nothing very important or purposeful is happening here in terms of the narrative, but so much lies in the way Sahni listens and responds; you feel that the character has a life and personality that extends beyond the restricted world of the film.

We sometimes label acting as subtle or loud, quiet or exaggerated, but there are variances even within those categories. Dr Nirmal represents a different sort of understated performance from the one Sahni gave in Garm Hava, where you can see that Salim Mirza (losing family and status but holding on to personal dignity as the hot winds of Partition blow around him) is constantly suppressing his feelings; that a reservoir of emotion lies behind the stiff posture, the pursed lips and even the way he grips his cane. For contrast, watch him as the large-hearted Pathan in Kabuliwala: the role is marked by flourishes (for this is a flamboyant man, especially when he is trying to impress children with his wares) and by an accent that draws attention to itself. But though the film sometimes comes close to caricature in its depiction of boisterous Afghanis rolling their eyes and singing jolly songs together
in an alien land, Sahni's performance has an internal consistency that transcends the role’s superficial trappings – and everything important about the character comes together brilliantly in his brief look of terror at the end when he realises that his beloved “Mini bacchha”, now grown up, may not have recognised him.

None of this came easily to the actor, if Bhisham Sahni’s book is to be believed. It reveals things about Balraj’s many struggles with film acting and his realisation that even the so-called “natural” performer needed to switch gears when the lights came on; you didn’t simply go in front of the camera and continue to be yourself, the process was more complicated than that. There are descriptions of his fear of the camera (“it was like going before the gallows”), of having to shake off stiffness, even wetting his pants in nervousness between shots – all indicative of how much it mattered to him that he did the best possible job. But there is also a story about how he became less self-conscious after a conversation with a real-life rickshaw-puller whom he met while shooting Do Bigha Zamin; the encounter helped him to stop obsessing about acting methods and to relax into his role, by seeing it as an opportunity to pay tribute to real people undergoing real hardships.

Sahni’s career was not exactly sprinkled with classic films, and most fans will agree that the three movie roles he will be best remembered for are Shambu the farmer who moves to the city to earn money in Do Bigha Zamin; the kabuliwala who travels from Afghanistan to Hindustan for similar reasons and forms a bond with a little girl; and the beleaguered Salim Mirza. These are all men in debt, separated from the people they love, adjusting to new things, watching the way of life they knew passing them by – in other words, tragic heroes. Yet they are also vibrant and multidimensional. Do Bigha Zamin is often thought of a relentlessly bleak film, but Shambu is a cheerful, upbeat sort at heart. Even after he is reduced to a wreck in front of his greedy landlord, he is optimistic enough to think that it doesn’t matter that he knows no one in the big city; he can make friends after getting there. (“Jaan pehchaan wahaan jaane par hee hogi, bapu.”) In a film with a somewhat overblown reputation for De Sica-like realism, Sahni grounds the edifice by playing the character as a well-rounded individual rather than just a victim or a symbol.

Here and elsewhere, it is also worth noting what a fine, attentive lover Sahni could be on screen. His latter-day role as the elderly Lala Kedarnath ardently singing “Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen” to his wife in Waqt is well known (perhaps too well known; it sometimes invites annoyingly patronising attitudes about old people), but he was equally moving in less demonstrative romantic parts. An undervalued aspect of Do Bigha Zamin is the depiction in its early scenes of the love between Shambu and his wife, the playfulness of their banter, which makes onlookers say “They’ve been married for 10 years, why does he still keep whispering to her?” The humour and affection stays intact even in times of stress (“Tujhe khareedne ki himmat hai kissi mein?” he jokes when his wife complains that he should sell her too, along with their other valuables), and much of the film's power comes from watching the gentle smile erased as circumstances become much worse.

It may be a mistake though to judge Sahni only by his work in “respectable” cinema. “He seemed to lend his gravitas to many films that did not seem worthy settings for his talent,” sniffed Leela Naidu in her memoir, but I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Recently I saw him in a tiny, inexplicable part as Rajendra Kumar’s father in Aman, a film that also has a famous special appearance by the then 94-year-old Bertrand Russell. In his one big scene, Sahni – who is chummily credited only as “Gautamdas’s dad” in the IMDB credits – tries to persuade his doctor son to stay in India instead of going to Japan to help nuclear-radiation victims. He then masterfully keeps a straight face - and continues speaking his own pain-soaked lines with conviction - when Kumar likens himself to a sweet-smelling flower whose sugandh isn’t meant only for the maali who tended it.

The scene is a reminder that the measure of actors can lie not just in their obviously great roles, but in their ability to make the best of preposterous situations. A continuing joy for any true Balraj Sahni fan is discovering his performances of integrity in dozens of “unworthy” roles, a reminder that acting in a commercial medium isn’t just an ivory-tower pursuit, and that the true artiste can achieve big things across a range of canvases.


  1. A very fine "no frills" actor.
    Been watchng several old Hindi films lately. I also recommend his movie Kathputli co-starring Vyjayanthimala - a slightly uneven film but well worth watching. Great songs and dances to boot.

    Also recommend the Dev Anand-Vyjayanthi starrer Duniya where Sahni plays Dev's dad. A zany "commercial" film that is quite exhilarating to watch!

  2. Great tribute, Jai. I am a Balraj Sahni fan, and while I do agree that Kabuliwala and Do Bigha Zameen are probably among his greatest (defining?) roles, he's equally at ease in other, lesser-known films. As a lottery-winning blind villager in Mai Baap, for instance, or as a police officer conducting an investigation - just the sort of role I'd expect an early Ajit to have done - in Black Cat.

  3. Shrikanth: have you seen Kabuliwala? Would like to know what you think of it, since it is not what one would call a "no-frills" performance. Also, I think it's intriguing to compare Sahni with Chhabi Biswas in the original version. Having watched only a few scenes of the Bengali film, I think Biswas plays the external aspects of the character (the "Afghan-ness", so to speak) a little more broadly - which may be just as well, since physically he didn't fit the stereotype of the tall, strapping Pathan.

  4. Dustedoff: thanks - I'm sure you've seen a lot more Sahni films than I have. (Have been wanting to see Mai Baap for a while.) And yes, I partly addressed that point about the lesser-known films at the end of the piece.

  5. Jai: No. I haven't seen Kabuliwala. I know him mainly from his relatively more "commercial" efforts like Waqt, Duniya, Kath Putli, Anuradha. He's very good at playing the ordinary urbane man. Should we call him the Walter Huston of Indian film? I can imagine him doing a great job as Mr.Dodsworth.

    Other commercial Hindi movie actors I have been exploring lately - Rajendra Kumar, Vyjayanthimala. Major stars with very fine ouevres. Strangely forgotten these days.

    Indian cinema needs a Scorsese-like historian who can dig out unfashionable commercial efforts from the past and bring them back to public memory. As opposed to hacks who glorify the same old films - Mother India, Mughal-e-azam and the like.

  6. Shrikanth: Huston in Dodsworth - that's a very intriguing idea. Though I wonder how Sahni might do as old Lucifer in The Devil and Daniel Webster, which was one of Huston's great "flashy" performances.

    And yes, Indian cinema needs historians and archivists and record-keepers very badly - though theirs is bound to be a depressing job.

  7. And yes, Indian cinema needs historians and archivists and record-keepers very badly - though theirs is bound to be a depressing job

    But very rewarding. Last few weeks I have discovered films and songs that I had never heard of all my life. Movies like Gharana, Aas ka Panchhi, Dr Vidya, Zindagi, New Delhi, Nazrana.

    These are not slick films in the Shammi Kapoor style but movies that portray Indian society as it existed back then - warts and all.
    Also I discovered that so many of these Hindi films were made in Madras by Tamil filmmakers. Suggesting that Hindi cinema was never really synonymous with Bombay as is often supposed.

  8. lovely post ! and ofcourse someone like Balraj Sahni brought immnse depth and dignity to even mainstream films. I remember Lajwanti, where he played a suspicious , almost cruel , husband ..a difficult role to essay but done with much elan. And even in Anuradha, the mild obsessiveness with his work can have grey shades. But Sahni Saab was not the one to shy away from these.

  9. Thank you for bringing back the memories of one of my favourite actors (the second being Ashok Kumar) in Indian films. I couldn't agree more with your assessment but there is one bit that is missing. Sahni in Sone Ki Chidiya is quite dashing; the scene where he and Nutan lie on the beach as the waves wash over them is quite scintillating (in a subtle, unexpected way). But I admit I may be in the minority here.

  10. And Mere Humsafar has Balraj successfully tackling a role with grey shades; unfortunately, Sharmila Tagore is straddled with playing the ponderous, virginal heroine with no sexual agency. It is exciting to think what the movie may have become in the hands of more creative, and talented scriptwriters. As it currently stands, Balraj Sahni's almost-obsessive attachment to Tagore's character is well worth sitting through the otherwise plodding film.

  11. ...there is one bit that is missing

    Slytherin: oh, I'm sure there are hundreds of other bits that are missing! This is not by any means a comprehensive post - how could it be?

    Will look out for Sone ki Chidiya. I have a dim recollection of Mere Humsafar.

  12. Anubha: thanks. And yes, I wrote in my Anuradha post about the way the film creates a conflicting response to Dr Nirmal.

  13. A Great Actor! Balraj Sahni was probably one of Indian cinema's first truly great actors who never really got the credit they deserved.

    I used to be perplexed that while Indian cinema heaped laurels on the likes of Dilip Kumar and the Kapoor's , Balraj Sahni never got much mention. The best example is in the so called idolizing that people like Dilip Kumar enjoy with as much as Amitabh claiming to be the biggest fan of Yusuf Saab.

    The painful part is that while all these sycophantic ramblings are a part of bollywood, its better actors can at least show some appreciation of fine talents of the previous era; rather than harping about some known brands deserving or undeserving. Rather the arrogance some of these actors display is legendary , recently I was reading an interview where Rishi Kapoor boasted that he cannot do theatre since he is a spontaneous actor. Again this spontaneity is something which only he can explain about.

    The point I would like to make is how do we appreciate subtle variations and layered performances when frivolity is so in your face these days. A Balraj Sahni performance in Kabuliwala or Do Bigha Zameen would be difficult for people with bogus spontaneity to understand and here I mean both the audience and the performers.

    In WAQT for instance, a movie which had its flaws, the scenes where Balraj boasts about his acquisitions and simultaneously his pain when he is reduced to poverty are done with his trademark understated style where he could easily have played to the gallery. In contrast just imagine these scenes being played by the spontaneous brigade and you get the full picture.

    Also I have not seen the original Kabuliwala version so can't comment but I believe you can discount the physicality part, since physical stereotypes should never be important for an actor. All Pathan's are not Tall or Strapping just like all Jat's are not physically strong, these are typical Indian stereotypes much like the western stereotype of Afro-americans being physical brutes. An actor can probably get the nuances right before being concerned with the external aspects.

  14. Good post Jai - Haven't seen his films in a while, but still remember Garam Hawa well.

    @ Shwet - Balraj Sahni continues to be very famous in Punjabi families. So famous that many good looking men in 50s and 60s were compared to him. And, people even praised his acting abilities. Perhaps, he was not very famous in other parts of India.

    In fact, I think people like Sahni were still lucky, as we had some very good directors then who could utilise their talent. I wonder what would have happened to an actor like him if he had made his debut in late 70s or 80s or 90s.

  15. its better actors can at least show some appreciation of fine talents of the previous era; rather than harping about some known brands deserving or undeserving

    People like ostentation. Everywhere. Be it the stylized ostentation of Olivier or Leigh on one hand or the strained hyper-realism of a Marlon Brando or a Monty Clift. No wonder these are the sort of names you hear being bandied about as "great actors" even in Hollywood.

    Understatement gets short shrift. Gary Cooper - to my mind one of the greatest movie actors of all time - gets short shrift from the cinema buff crowd these days! It is a shame.

    I've heard the eulogies of Dilip Kumar at many places...Deserving no doubt. But have you ever heard anyone call Rajendra Kumar a great actor? I haven't. So very effective in his type of film. Yet so utterly unacknowledged by the chatterati.

  16. It seems that you did not like his work in Seema, or was it the character he played? I liked it very much though.. besides having the 'Gaandhi-wadi' stereotype-shade in his role, he also depicted his desire for Nutan pretty well in the movie. Any thoughts?

  17. It seems that you did not like his work in Seema, or was it the character he played?

    Anon: and where did you get that impression? I'm always a little surprised by these assumptions - once again, this was not some sort of comprehensive exploration of Sahni's career, just an attempt to say a few things about him using selected films as examples.

  18. Great post as usual. Sahni is a personal favourite. Must re-read Bhisham Sahni's biography and revisit the films to mark his birth centenary. Will watch Aman too, if only to find out how Russell ambled into it...

  19. Deepa: oh, you don't have to watch the whole of Aman for that (though it is an interesting film in some ways) - the video with Russell's two-minute appearance is there in the post I linked to.

  20. So very true Shrikanth, I agree with you on your observation about Gary cooper. It's much the same like when you hear people say "OH! I am a big Tarantino fan" but would blink twice if you mention De Palma. It is always easy to praise what's fashionable.

    Its easy to praise ostentation e.g in Tarantino's case its deserving but it is as hollow in many obvious examples.

  21. Balraj Sahni has mentioned the Gary Cooper anecdote in his autobiography too - though I remember it being said to him by a heroine. Another one - when Geeta Bali, in her not so successful days was working with him, and he was still a newcomer - he overheard her saying - "ab ye muhjala Balraj hee rah gaya hai..mere saath kaam karne ke liye" or something to that effect.
    My favorite Balraj moment is from the movie Haqeeqat - two fine gentlemen Dharmendra and Balraj are somewhat inexplicably vying for the affections of Priya Rajvansh, the Katrina Kaif of the sixties , and when Balraj comes to know that Priya favors Dharmendra, he shrugs his shoulders and throws away the ring he had kept for her. In that rather understated scene, he was able to demonstrate his acting chops - that scene has stayed with me.

  22. Its easy to praise ostentation e.g in Tarantino's case its deserving but it is as hollow in many obvious examples

    Yes. It's the same old distinction between white elephant art and termite art!

    Lately I have been discovering a lot of good termite art virtues in old Hindi movies of 50s/60s. These are often movies with lousy scripts, unfunny comic reliefs among other things. But most of these films have "melodramatic" nuggets that illuminate Indian life as it existed some 50-60 years ago.

    For eg: In the movie Duniya, Balraj Sahni offers striking insights into gender relations that existed in the 60s. The guy announces the marriage of his foster daughter in a lavish party without having breathed a word about his intent to the daughter previously!! I thought this is melodramatic license. But then I was told my an elder in my family that respectable people did actually behave that way some 50 years ago. Great historical insight.

    I feel one ought to seek out the most "dated" movies while selecting old films to watch. Because those are the ones that illuminate the past and educate us. Not slick, synthetic Vijay Anand thrillers that don't tell you much about 60s India!

    This is the opposite approach of a film critic who takes pains to recommend those old movies most pleasant to modern sensibilities. But that's not likely to be very educative!

  23. I got the impression because you never mentioned this movie. And, yes, I agree that this post of your's is not comprehensive... and I am not complaining either. But, what to do/say? yeh dil maange more..
    Can you write a post on this movie, or maybe 1 paragraph here in the comments...?

  24. "This is the opposite approach of a film critic who takes pains to recommend those old movies most pleasant to modern sensibilities. But that's not likely to be very educative!"

    I agree with you; of late, even I have started to watch the so-called boring older Hindi films and they do end up being pretty interesting in the most unexpected of moments.

  25. I have started to watch the so-called boring older Hindi films and they do end up being pretty interesting in the most unexpected of moments.

    Yes. Also these so-called "boring" boy-and-girl-running-around-trees movies are often most representative of the Indian aesthetic. And yes these routines have an authenticity that modern item songs (performed with 100 extras) don't. Boys do chase girls around trees everyday in every Indian town.

    Moreover the idea of regarding films as being "dated" is intellectually flawed especially if it is used in a pejorative sense. Suppose a 60s movie failed at box-office but is now a cult favorite we call it "ahead of its time". Well by the same token it is also "not in tune with its times"!

  26. Watched yet another Balraj Sahni film co-starring Dilip Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar and Vyjayanthi. Sunghursh.

    A great film. An eccentric film. A 19th century period drama that grapples with themes as diverse as clans, thagee cult, masochism, roleplays among other things! Sad that these films are lost to public memory. There's more to Sahni than the 2-3 Bimay Roy films that keep getting mentioned here!

    A most morally ambivalent performance by Sahni and all other actors as well.

  27. Shrikanth: I've watched Sunghursh; I agree it was one of the more interesting films of that period that I've seen. And Balraj was very interesting in it.