Amidst the boisterousness of the Hindi film industry’s centennial celebrations, Balraj Sahni, the screen’s most real “common man”, remains forgotten

R.K. Laxman had his “common man”. If an actor had to fit the bill, it would have been Balraj Sahni. Look at any of his films, and you know he’s someone you know.

With a face that reflected unalloyed human dignity, this “common man actor” was probably one artiste whose countenance would have suited any character in world cinema. Is it any wonder then, that this champion of human rights was born on International Labour Day (May 1, 1913) and remained a confirmed communist throughout his life?

Unfortunately, just as the common man is repeatedly cheated by polity and elite civil society, the Indian film fraternity too forgot the centenary of one of its most erudite and humane artistes even though Balraj Sahni’s birthday coincided with its centennial year. Despite the cacophony of celebrations, it is evident that the industry has scant respect for its past greats. What else can explain its strange silence when it comes to paying tributes to not just Sahni but numerous other stalwarts who laid the foundations of this thriving industry with their blood and sweat?

Nevertheless, filmdom’s indifference and insolence do not diminish Balraj Sahni’s stature as one of the finest actors to walk across Indian screens. “Balraj ji had the unique gift of living a role rather than enacting it,” says noted film director Kundan Shah. A strong votary of India’s secular fabric, Shah admires “the quiet dignity and realism that the actor brought to his roles in commercial as well as new wave cinema” while rating Sahni’s “Kabuliwallah” and “Garm Hava” as his personal favourites. Shah believes Sahni’s performances stood out even in mediocre films due to his instinctive understanding of human frailties, thus “making him look the part rather than doing it” — a subtle yet intricate difference that most actors forget these days.

In contrast, Balraj Sahni was a quintessential common man, and if his sensitivity was born out of his scholarly background and teaching stints at Santiniketan in the company of Rabindranath Tagore, his concern for the welfare of the downtrodden came about with his close association with Mahatma Gandhi in the Independence struggle. How could he not convey the pain, anguish, angst and laughter of a character when he had even suffered a jail term in 1949 for six months for his voluble support of Communist ideology! Perhaps this makes Sahni the only actor in the world convicted for championing human rights and yet allowed by prison authorities to work during the day on his film sets!

Look at any of his characters from “Do Bigha Zamin”, “Lajwanti”, “Kathputli”, “Seema”, “Kabuliwallah”, “Garm Hava”, “Haqeeqat”, “Sunghursh”, “Pavitra Paapi” or “Waqt” and you realise that none else would have fit the bill. A sublimely gifted artiste, Sahni’s earthy effervescence also came about due to his delicate understanding of the nuances of English, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Punjabi. A writer from his college days, Sahni’s eloquent oratorical skills not only earned him a place on the distinguished panel of BBC Radio in London in the pre-Independence era but also made him dominate theatre in Bombay later. A pioneer of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), he’s not only written and directed but also acted in several plays in the company of Chetan Anand, Krishan Chander and Rajendra Singh Bedi, which obviously made film acting a cakewalk for him. However, in his autobiography, he reveals that writing was his first love.

Not many know that he carried a typewriter to his sets to write articles and stories for various Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi magazines. Today, if Balraj Sahni hasn’t been accorded his stature, it is probably because the man wasn’t given to canvassing for himself. Sahni’s habit of speaking unpalatable truths cost him many friends in the industry as well as the political hierarchy. Never to wear his stardom, riding around on a motorcycle even in his heydays, Sahni was the force behind the formation of the All India Artists’ Association since he understood the needs and rights of the daily artistes and workers. And even though he suffered great personal tragedies before and after the Partition, dying at a relatively young age of 60, Sahni was never a bitter man. It speaks volumes about his character that even a few minutes before his death, he thanked his countrymen for their love and adulation, while affirming that life had blessed him more than he deserved.