Saturday, January 04, 2020

Father, humanitarian, Communist, show-off - the many faces of Balraj Sahni

[My latest Bookshelves column is about Parikshat Sahni’s candid and moving memoir about his father Balraj]

There has been much discussion in liberal circles recently about the cravenness of movie stars when it comes to taking a public stand on issues of national importance. Such conversations are often simplistic, built around the expectation that onscreen “heroes” and “heroines” be not just inspirational real-world heroes but also that they endorse specific positions, and have comprehensive knowledge of politics and history. Consider some of the gratuitous mocking Alia Bhatt was subjected to when, in taking a mild stand about the violence directed at the anti-CAA protests, she mistakenly shared an older version of the Indian Constitution’s Preamble.

Inevitably, these occasions also become pretexts to recall the greater heroes (real or imagined) of the past; to evoke a time when celebrities were more explicitly political and spoke for the “right” ideals. And among Indian screen actors, one of the first to be mentioned is the much loved and admired Balraj Sahni. Sahni was an exemplar of progressive thought, much like his younger brother, the writer Bhisham. He was a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), was involved with socially conscientious theatre and cinema, had a worthy writing career of his own, and frequently rallied against social hypocrisies and injustice. Here is someone who might easily – and even understandably – become the subject of a hagiography.

Which is why I was intrigued by The Non-Conformist: Memories of my Father Balraj Sahni, a heartfelt memoir by Parikshat Sahni, who was an actor himself but stayed in the shadow of his famous dad. Though affection and respect are the dominant tones of this book, there is also a real sense – whether or not the author fully intended this – of the missteps, delusions and contradictions that can mark even the most sincere and well-intentioned life.

Parikshat doesn’t hold back while discussing the barriers in his relationship with his father, the seeds for which were laid when his parents left for England during WWII, leaving their six-month-old child behind – and returned five years later, strangers to his eyes.
For Balraj Sahni, making the dangerous voyage overseas to broadcast radio programmes about Indian soldiers was an act of patriotism, but from the boy’s point of view it must have been alienating. Poignantly, in the captions accompanying the book’s photos, Parikshat refers to his biological mother (who died young) as “Dad’s first wife Damayanti”, admitting that he never really got to know her or felt anything particular when she passed away.

Some father-son bonding did eventually take place, and there is an account of a conversation where Balraj tells the child Parikshat about the virtues of Marxist philosophy and the Communist economy, using the sugarcane stalks they have just purchased as a starting point. Genial chatter soon gives way to the assertion that “all property should be owned by the government […] the capitalist class, the petty bourgeoisie, the counter-revolutionaries, and the revisionists should be eliminated, decimated, destroyed, wiped out, crushed and blown to smithereens.” Reading this passage – a reminder that extreme idealism can create its own dark spaces – I couldn’t help thinking of the gentle and noble Balraj Sahni persona in films like Kabuliwala and Anuradha, the melancholy patriarch watching his world fall apart in Garm Hava, the dreamy-eyed romantic singing “Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen” in Waqt.

Elsewhere, in one of the book’s drollest sections, there is an account of an official trip to Moscow in the company of future Indian president Giani Zail Singh, who initially appears rustic and naïve but soon reveals the sharpness of a statesman. While Balraj Sahni repeatedly extols the USSR’s greatness, and even tries to gloss over state oppression and control by invoking “the principles of dialectical materialism”, Zail Singh quietly demonstrates that all is not well with the Russian system; that a regime which doesn’t even allow its citizens to travel abroad may have something rotten at its heart.

But perhaps my favourite chapter is the one that Parikshat saves for the end, almost as a dark coda (it comes immediately after a clumsy filler about the film industry’s “extraordinary people”, which reads like it was imposed on the author by his publishers). This final section is about the doomed house called Ikraam, which Balraj Sahni built for himself and his family in the mid-1960s, a project that, in Parikshat’s words, “was the biggest paradox in Dad’s life”. In direct contradiction to his socialist beliefs – “simple living and high thinking” – the senior Sahni had set about constructing a giant mansion near Juhu beach, unmindful of the sad contrast it created with the shanties inhabited by poor people nearby.

This urge – to hanker for something bigger than strictly needed, to lead a “luxurious” life after decades of self-denial – is a reminder of the gap between ideology and experience. Trying to make sense of his father’s grand illusion, Parikshat quotes Winston Churchill: “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” It’s equally true that as we grow older, life shapes most of us in ways we never expect – and that we can never fully return to our original dimensions.

Reading about Sahni’s other worthy contemporaries too, one often sees how ideals like egalitarianism and open-mindedness must coexist with the thorny business of negotiating daily life. For instance, Bread Beauty Revolution, a compendium of writings by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, has Abbas saying in an interview that young people are too respectful to their parents; that they must be more disobedient, more willing to question everything they are told and to move away from outdated ideas. And yet, the same book offers a view of Abbas as a conservative elder, exercising hegemony: interviewing the young Amitabh Bachchan for Saat Hindustani, he says the contract could only be signed after he had the written permission of the actor’s father Harivanshrai, because “I wouldn’t like to have a misunderstanding with him”.

None of this is to put down Abbas or Sahni, just to say that we expect inspirational people to consistently meet unreal standards; to be more than human. The standards set by Sahni were exceptionally high anyway: he was known (to a greater degree than others in his profession) for practicing what he preached; the book’s many anecdotes about the beneficiaries of his unshowy kindness include an elderly junior artiste’s recollection of Sahni refusing to be the privileged star, keeping his own thick coat on during a sweltering indoor shoot because other crew members were being made to suffer the worst of the heat. But this doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be permitted other sides. The man who was a humanitarian at heart could also idolise an oppressive Communist system without seeing its flaws; even someone who loathed capitalism might in his later years become over-excited about having a grand house and an ornate dining table as a show of status.

[Earlier First Post columns are here]

Extra: for me, this book was equally about Parikshat Sahni, his struggles, and his efforts to write it as a form of therapy. And as such, I found it very moving in places and understood and related with much of it. You won’t find many Author’s Introductions that end like this:


  1. Will definitely read this book

    Bhisham Sahni's Balraj My Brother is also most interesting, not just as a portrait of Balraj but also as a social history

    The Balraj Sahni described by the son and by the brother seem very similar

  2. Separated at birth? If you see balraj sahni 's face at certain angles, he remarkably resembles jawaharlal Nehru. Don't you think so?