'A broken man': Balraj Sahni, an incredible actor, had an incredibly unfortunate life

·8-min read

Balraj Sahni believed in influential Soviet and Russian theatre practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavski, who spoke of ‘emotional memory’. That explains why he pulled out archived moments from his life to play out the required angst and desolation of his characters.

Like he drew from his sense of alienation after the Partition and poured it in in his performance as the homesick Pathan in Kabuliwala…

Like he emptied the sorrow he felt on losing young wife Damyanti in a heart-breaking scene in Aulad…

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Like as Salim Mirza in Garm Hava, he dispensed the palpable grief of losing his daughter, borrowing from the fresh trauma of having lost his own.

Indeed, sadness and sorrow are vital bookmarks for an actor. But for Balraj, the shadows stalked him forever. His disenchantment with the ‘ideal’ of communism, also burdened his already fragile heart. A stand-apart actor, whose method lay in authenticity, was crushed by the inauthenticity of the world around him as by his increasing loneliness…

It’s an uncanny happenstance that the famous last line, “Insaan kab tak akela jee sakta hai!” in Garm Hava was contributed by Balraj Sahni, who died soon after he’d finished dubbing for M.S. Sathyu’s 1973 classic.

Balraj Sahni was born in 1913 into a prosperous family in Bhera (now in Pakistan). After securing a double MA in literature, a creatively inclined Balraj chose the arts over trade.

He married Damyanti (Sahni), also an actor, in 1936. In the late ‘30s, they joined Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in Bengal as teachers. Son Parikshat (Sahni, actor) was conceived there. His daughter Shabnam was born four years later.

Tagore advised Balraj, inclined towards writing, to pen in his mother tongue, Punjabi. Balraj learnt the Gurumukhi script, got himself a Gurumukhi typewriter and began writing. The couple went to London where Balraj joined the BBC’s Hindi service. Balraj developed an interest in Russian cinema, which introduced him to Marxism and concepts of social and economic equality. They returned to India in 1943.

His chance meeting with old friend Chetan Anand in Srinagar, got him a role in the filmmaker’s Neecha Nagar (1946). Balraj and Damyanti soon became part of the Indian Peoples Theatre (IPTA). Damyanti’s play Deewar for Prithvi Theatre made her a star. Balraj resented that initially, something he mentioned in his autobiography (Meri Filmi Aatmakatha). On his part, Balraj began his film career in 1946 with Insaaf, Dharti Ke Lal and Door Chalein, the last with Damyanti.

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Being a member of the Communist party, Damyanti engaged in social work. She diligently worked for the slum-dwellers and even shared meals with them. 

Sadly, she fell ill with amoebic dysentery. The medication had an adverse effect on her heart. 

She was only 26 when she passed away in 1947. 

Balraj was devastated by his young wife’s demise. Grief-stricken he’d bang his head on the walls and cry, “Dammo nahi rahee, Dammo chali gayee.” He blamed himself for being neglectful towards his talented wife. Son Parikshat was just around eight then.

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Balraj married again in 1951. His wife Santosh Chandhok was a writer. Their daughter, Sanober, was so named after the pine trees in Kashmir, Balraj’s second home there being close to his heart. 

Parikshat was sent to boarding school, as Balraj struggled in Mumbai.

As we know, Balraj started doing films around the age of 42 and played roles with gravitas. Initially, he was mocked for being thin. Being part of the Communist Party, he was once jailed. A gaunt Balraj was let off for a few days to complete the shoot of K. Asif’s Hulchul (1951). Finally, Hum Log (1951) brought him success.

The ’50s saw him in notable films like Seema, Sone Ki Chidiya, Lajwanti and Ghar Sansaar.

Do Bigha Zamin
Do Bigha Zamin

But the most notable was Bimal Roy’s hard-hitting Do Bigha Zamin (1953) in which Balraj, played the farmer-turned-rickshaw-puller. To enter the ‘soul’ of the exploited character, Balraj practised running barefoot on the scorching streets and developed blisters on his soles.

The ’60s featured him in films including Neel Kamal, Anupama, Waqt, Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani, Do Raaste and Ek Phool Do Mali.

Hemen Gupta's Kabuliwala (1961) is remembered for the poignant yearning of his character, which drew a parallel between Balraj’s own longing for his birthplace in Pakistan.

For Balraj the actor there were no shortcuts. Once a scene in Aulad (1954) required him to hold the gates of his master’s house and beg for his child. The scene was okayed, everyone clapped and it was a wrap. Dissatisfied with the shot, Balraj drove back and asked director Mohan Segal for a retake. 

Reluctantly, the studio was reopened. The lights were set up. Balraj gave the retake. But this time no one clapped. Because they were all crying. The take was brilliant. Later, Balraj reportedly told son Parikshat, “I wanted to feel the shot. I wanted to relive what I felt when your mother died.”

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Unpunctuality and indiscipline on the set upset him. So, he began carrying his typewriter on the set. He wrote many books including travelogues like Mera Pakistani Safarnama and Mera Rusi Safarnama. He believed ‘conformity was mediocrity’. 

At heart, he remained a Marxist, a man of the masses, someone who rushed to rescue riot victims in Bhiwandi as he aided the war-ravaged people in Bangladesh. Balraj adhered to the saying, “A good actor is a good man.”

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But along with his cheerful countenance co-existed a contrasting world – of heartache and disenchantment. His relationship with son Parikshat had undergone turmoil given the fact that as a child he had spent his growing years away from his father. Later on, a contrite Balraj urged Parikshat to treat him as a friend and not as a father.

“But I held it against him (his being sent to boarding school). I never reciprocated,” revealed an equally remorseful Parikshat, who authored the book The Non-Conformist: Memories Of My Father Balraj Sahni. Sadly, the chasm upset Balraj.

Balraj had also supported Indira Gandhi’s waging a war against Pakistan to liberate East Pakistan in 1971. The CPI condemned this. A resolution to throw him out was passed, which broke his heart. 

Around the same time, his daughter Shabnam, who had undergone a bad marriage, returned to live with Balraj. Highly sensitive, she felt ‘unwanted’ and had a nervous breakdown. Subsequently, she suffered brain haemorrhage and passed away. 

She was around 26-27, the same age at which Balraj’s wife Damyanti had died. Balraj was a broken man and didn’t recover from the sorrow. He felt somewhere responsible for her death.

Garm Hava
Garm Hava

Close to his daughter's demise, Balraj was shooting for M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974). The film underlined a father’s (played by Balraj) grief when his daughter (Geeta Kak) commits suicide. “It was painful for dad to remember the death of Shabnam while enacting that scene,” told Parikshat to Filmfare.

Jitni balaayein aayee, sab ko gale lagaaya

(I embraced all the travails that came my way)

Khuun ho gaya kaleja, shikwa na lab pe aaya

(Though my heart lay bleeding, I bore it silently)

Har dard ham ne apna, apne se bhi chhupaya…

(I hid every pain from my own self)…

These lines from the qawwali in Garm Hava (Maula Salim Chisti) come closest to Balraj Sahni’s tryst with tragedies.

On 13 April 1973, a day after he had finishing dubbing for Garm Hava, and a month before his 60th birthday, Balraj suffered a massive heart attack. He passed away at the Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai. He was 59.

Sadly, his desire to settle in Punjab, where he’d even organised a home, and write far from the madding world, was left unfulfilled.

According to his wishes, no flowers were placed on his body, nor were pandits called or shlokas recited. Being a Marxist, he just wanted a red flag to be kept on his mortal remains.

“Apart from friends, relatives and some dignitaries, there was a crowd of fishermen, hotel bearers… street urchins… The fishermen kept vigil by his body all night long, the hotel-bearers… had been financially helped by Balraj during their long strike against the management,” thus wrote brother and acclaimed writer Bhisham Sahni, in his book Balraj, My Brother.

The emotive send-off summed up Balraj Sahni. His art and heart were in the right place.

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