This happens to be the centenary year of the great actor Balraj Sahni (May 1, 1913 — April 13, 1973) who expressed the tragedy of the Partition with his unforgettable performance in M.S. Sathyu’s “Garm Hava” (Hot Wind). While the South was not much affected by this great human tragedy, the North bore the brunt of this cataclysmic event that caused the biggest transfer of population ever witnessed in human history. Yashpal, who hailed from Lahore, portrayed the physical trauma experienced by the people of the undivided Punjab in his two-volume monumental novel “Jhootha Sach” (False Truth) that contained vivid descriptions of all the horrors associated with the vivisection of the country while Rahi Masoom Raza expressed the emotional anguish and deep distress felt by the Hindus and the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh in his great novel “Aadha Gaon” (Half-a-Village). Although “Garm Hava” showed the sufferings of a nationalist Muslim family in Independent India with Agra as its locale, it too was in a way an extension of the great Partition narrative.
Balraj Sahni as Salim Mirza offered one of his best performances, comparable to any in world cinema. His restrained, understated acting was in the true tradition of neo-realism. Sadly, he could not see the film as he breathed his last soon after he had finished dubbing for it. When he died, he was not even 60.
Sahni had worked with the BBC as its Hindi announcer. A life-long communist and a dedicated activist of IPTA, he remained committed to the common man and the need to establish communication with him. A radio announcer has to be very sensitive towards language as he should be able to reach even the illiterate listener. Sahni never lost this sensitivity for spoken word. His convocation address at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 1972 bears testimony to his deeply felt concern for the two major languages of the North — Hindi and Urdu.
When JNU invited Balraj Sahni as chief guest to deliver the convocation address, the Right rose to vociferously protest. However, the protest failed to cut much ice. His address requires close reading and looks as relevant today as it was in 1972. An ardent advocate of Hindustani, he spoke at length in favour of the language developed by the common man. He said: “A rough and ready type of Hindustani is used by the working masses all over India…Today in this bazaari Hindustani the word university becomes univrasti–a much better word than vishwavidyalaya, lantern becomes laltain, the chassis of a car becomes chesi, spanner becomes pana, i.e. anything and everything is possible. The string with which the soldier cleans his rifle is called “pullthrough” in English. In Roman Hindustani it becomes fultroo–a beautiful word. “Barn-door” is the term the Hollywood lights man uses for a particular type of two blade cover. The Bombay film worker has changed it to bandar, an excellent transformation. This Hindustani has untold and unlimited possibilities. It can absorb the international scientific and technological vocabulary with the greatest of ease. It can take words from every source and enrich itself. One has no need to run only to the Sanskrit dictionary.”
In this address, Balraj Sahni made a controversial point regarding the oneness of Hindi and Urdu that are perhaps the only two languages in the world that share the same nouns, pronouns, verbs and syntax. “It is an open secret,” he said, “that the songs and dialogues of these Hindi films are mostly written in Urdu. Eminent Urdu writers and poets – Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, K. A. Abbas, Gulshan Nanda, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi are associated with this work. Now, if a film written in Urdu can be called a Hindi film, it is logical to conclude that Hindi and Urdu are one and the same language.” A noble soul, Balraj Sahni failed to see the duplicity of the Hindiwallahs who would insist on the so-called “shuddh” (Sanskrit-laden) Hindi but would deny Urdu its rightful place by describing even “Mughal-e-Azam” as a Hindi film!