8 May 2017

A Political Actor

My Mirror column:

Balraj Sahni would have turned 104 on May 1. What made him such an unusual figure in Indian filmdom?

Measuring a film actor's contribution ordinarily means enumerating his screen appearances: "In a film career spanning 25 years, Balraj Sahni acted in over 125 films." But Balraj Sahni was no ordinary actor. Delivering the 1972 convocation address at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Sahni stated the above fact - but far from sounding proud, he expressed regret at the "the special conditions of film making in our country" that had enabled it. 

"In the same period, a contemporary European or American actor would have done thirty or thirty-five. From this you can imagine... A vast number of books which I should have read, I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in have passed me by... the frustration increases when I ask myself how many of these... films had anything significant in them?...Perhaps a few."

There are few people in any field, let alone the Indian film world, who can speak with such astonishing honesty about their careers or their industry. And Sahni's perspicacity went together with grace.

"[A] great many of our films are such that the very mention of them would raise a laugh among you... even though some of you may dream of becoming stars yourselves," said Sahni in the same address. "It is not easy for me to laugh at Hindi films. I earn my bread from them. They have brought me plenty of fame and wealth. To some extent at least, I owe to Hindi films the high honour which you have given me today." (That last sentence might betray a subtle sarcasm: PC Joshi, respected Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and Sahni's old friend, has written of how CPI(M) students at JNU had threatened to protest because "the university was being disgraced by inviting a film star to deliver its convocation address".)

Otherwise, Sahni's speech was exemplary: asking students to think about the great questions of their time, in a style that was lucid but not dumbed down. Reading it forty-five years later, in the week of Sahni's 104th birth anniversary, I am struck not just by the quality of his thought - asking sharp questions about the meaning of freedom, at a national level and an individual one, that no-one seems capable of asking even in 2017 - but by his keenness to reach out to his audience. That desire to communicate may well have been what united the disparate parts of Sahni's life: wanting to make other people think along with him.

After graduation, he may have considered teaching and journalism as a possible route to this. He and wife Damayanti spent 1937-39 in Santiniketan, with Sahni teaching Hindi at the university and absorbing whatever they could from what was then a uniquely fertile artistic environment. He also worked briefly in journalism in Lahore; then, in a year spent at Gandhi's ashram in Wardha, he helped edit a journal called Nai Taleem. When he sailed to war-time Britain, it was to work as a Hindi radio announcer at the BBC from 1940 to 1944. In Britain, the young couple arrived at two decisions - one, to join the Communist Party (it was Damayanti who joined first), and two, to return to India and work as actors.

Soon after their arrival in Bombay, they discovered the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). At the first meeting Sahni attended, K.A. Abbas - then an acquaintance -- dropped a bomb by announcing that the next IPTA play, Zubeidaa, would be directed by Sahni.

The association with IPTA was to last for many years. Writing, directing and acting in plays that drew upon Indian folk forms - jatra in Bengal, tamasha in Maharashtra, nautanki in Uttar Pradesh -- but delivering progressive messages turned out to be something Sahni was very good at. IPTA also produced a film called Dharti ke Lal (1946) - directed by Abbas, with a script based on two Bangla plays by Bijon Bhattacharya about the Bengal famine and a Krishen Chander story. Sahni was an Assistant Director, as well as playing the elder brother who struggles to keep the family land from being sold.

Balraj Sahni in Waqt, as the still-in-love Lala Kedarnath
Sahni soon became a popular actor, appearing in more mainstream films. He never developed anything like a star persona. And yet, the roles he played did perhaps have something in common. In Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen, he played a character very different from but sociologically akin to Dharti ke Lal - afarmer who had lost his land to the moneylender and been forced to work as a rickshaw-puller in the city. The alienation of labour from land and the miseries of forced migration have never been more powerfully embodied in an actor's face.

In unlikely milieus like Dharti ke Lal and Do Bigha Zameen, he had already offered glimpses of the loving, even companionate, long-term marriage. And then there is Yash Chopra's Waqt, where his romancing of on-screen wife Achala Sachdev as his Zohra-Jabeen remains a fixture for singing uncles.

But in several other films (Amiya Chakrabarty's 1955 Seema, Shahid Latif's 1958 Sone ki Chidiya and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1960 Anuradha), Sahni played the idealistic man who places a larger social cause above a woman's emotional needs - and his own. His last great role - in MS Sathyu's Garm Hava - also showed us a man torn between the personal and the political. Perhaps that was where his strength lay: in knowing how deeply those two things are intertwined - and being able to convey the hurt when they insisted on pulling apart.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 May 2017.

No comments: