It was April 1973. Balraj Sahni had almost completed dubbing for Salim Mirza’s character and wanted to finish it off. Main... akeli zindagi ki ghutan se tang aa gaya hoon (I am tired of living in his solitary, suffocating condition), he uttered and, perhaps sensing some closure, departed. The next morning, he was dead.
Thus ended the life of a polymath-artiste, whose relative brevity in life the providence compensated through a multitude of achievements.
And it was perhaps scripted by providence that Garam Hawa , a film through which he channelled all his beliefs and experiences — faith in the egalitarian ideals of the freedom movement; secular thinking; commitment to humanism; the depression caused by the loss of a young daughter; and belief in the power of human will to resist communal tensions — became his swansong.
Sahni’s migrant journey often feels like one long sentence replete with restlessness.
He left a life of affluence in Rawalpindi and, after imbibing the best of enlightenment ideals, began teaching at Tagore’s Shantiniketan; later for him, in true Tagore terms, the Gurudev’s own school turned out to be a nest that became a jealous rival for the sky, his wings then taking him to Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha; he then sailed to the U.K. to become a BBC presenter, where he polished his diction and embraced Marxism; on his return, he plunged headlong into IPTA’s endeavours; later, disillusioned by the dogmatism of many Communist apparatchiks, he entered the world of make-believe; and despite succeeding in show business, he considered himself a man of letters, but was never able to completely surrender his ego to the latter.
Writer Sharat Kumar called Sahni “an inquiring spirit” who kept within him “the conflicting pull of the ideal and the material.”
But what could an actor who also expressed himself so eloquently in words, and who penned two travelogues and a memoir in his lifetime, have unsaid that a biography can tell? If written from the point of view of a blood relative, the book can give us a glimpse into the individual hidden behind his screen identity.
For Parikshat, however, who has forever felt protected in the shadows of his father, the book is a way of paying him back through an account that is as much autobiographical as it is biographical.
The biggest takeaway from this life story is that, far from what a lot of Sahni’s screen characters suggested, he was anything but a realist; he was a consummate romantic, believing in living life to the fullest — the zest expressed in not just his commitment to the cause of the proletariat but also his numerous travel sojourns; impromptu drinking bouts; and the swimming escapades in the sea.
The life of Sahni was full of multiple contradictions. Veteran Communist P.C. Joshi said that though Sahni hated the “big money domination” of the film industry, he “loved to work in film studios.”
Parikshat says that despite railing against private property all his life, Sahni was not averse to accumulating wealth himself, later building a grand mansion that, ironically, overlooked a sea of shanties. And being resistant to religion earlier, his daughter’s death made him graduate from Das Kapital to Guru Granth Sahib .
P.C. Joshi wrote that “to understand [Sahni’s] life, work and early end is to discover the key links that constitute the strength and weakness of our national life”.
Though Parikshat is not a historian, this book does give glimpses of that national life — one that is not just to be appreciated but to be studied — by paying a detached and somewhat-dialectical tribute. And at a time when the garam hawa of communalism is threatening to roll back India’s hard-fought constitutional achievements, the life of this humanist is worth revisiting.
The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni