During his successful career, Balraj Sahni delivered memorable performances in films like Dharti Ke Lal, Do Bigha Zameen, Chhoti Bahen, Kabuliwala, Garam Hawa and many more.
Balraj Sahni has never played. He was a method actor before the method game was invented. Long before immersive gaming became all the rage, Balraj learned to own his characters as if they were part of his DNA.
And yet, the Hindi film industry has never recognized its greatness. At a time when screams and ramblings were considered awesome (they still are), Balraj chose to underestimate all of his characters, even in heavy melodramas like Ghar Grihasti, Devar Bhabhi, Ghar Sansar, bhabhi(a great success), Chhoti Bahen and Chaadi.
Early in her film career, she was cast as the husband in heroin-oriented movies like Lajwanti, Bhabhi Ki Chudiyaan, Anuradha, Seema, Bhabhi and Sone Ki Chidiya. Or he played the leading role in neo-realist cinema which had its roots in the progressive Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA).
Commercial Indian cinema simply didn’t know where to position the no-frills genius of Balraj Sahni. Not before Raj Khosla Do Raaste in 1969, where Balraj gave a deeply moving performance as a patriarch desperately trying to keep the family together, did Balraj Sahni find commercial success.
Very early he started with the neo-realism of KA Abbas Dharti Ke Lal where Balraj had a strong but supporting role. Hemen Gupta Kabulwala was a rare example of a leading role for Balraj in the 1960s. As a homesick Afghan dried fruit vendor in Kolkata who misses his daughter, Balraj moved generations to tears. This great performance came at a time when the filmmakers cast him as the hero’s older brother or the heroine’s reluctant husband. Satta Bazaar in 1959 and Bhabhi Ki Chudiyaan in 1961 revolved entirely around the character of Meena Kumari, although it is true that Balraj was exceptional as a husband
In 1953, Bimal Roy gave Balraj his first of several memorable roles in Make Bigha Zameen. As an emaciated rickshaw puller Shambhu, Balraj Sahni actually drove the rickshaw through the streets of Kolkata, unrecognizable in his dirty dhoti and unkempt appearance. When Om Puri played a rickshaw wallah in Roland Joffe The city of joy he modeled his performance on Sahni’s acting method.
Some think Balraj Sahni was bigger in MS Sathyu Garam Hawaii. I think the performance in Make Bigha Zameen is just as honest as Garam Hawaii. Initially, Balraj was hesitant to play the role in Garam Hawaii of a Muslim patriarch torn between India and Pakistan. He asked his IPTA colleague Shaukat Kaifi if he would be able to play the role of Salim Mirza. Shaukat assured him that only he could do it. To prepare for the role, Balraj Sahni had gone to live with a family in Bhiwandi, a region populated by Muslims. Balraj Sahni as Salim Mirza gives what many film pundits consider to be the most perfect performance in Hindi film history. He enters the skin of his character and inhabits the most intimate recesses of Salim Mirza’s soul. You really don’t see Balraj Sahni on screen. You see this Muslim patriarch of a disintegrating family who never stops believing in his God even when he seems busy elsewhere.
Moreover, the dialogues of Garam Hawaii have been dubbed from the memory of artists! Director MS Sathyu thought there was no point recording in the noisy streets of Agra. So they put together a “silent” film and then invited all the artists from Mumbai, Delhi and Agra to do dubbing. Balraj had to dub without sound on screen. And the tape containing the dialogues has been lost. He had to relive the emotions through his imagination. As Balraj came from the theater, it was not difficult for them to remember their lines during the dubbing.
Balraj Sahni died the day after the dubbing for Garam Hawaii. When he finished his dubbing, he didn’t settle for just one line. So he called director Sathyu to redouble that line at Raj Kamal Studios. Sathyu went there at lunchtime and re-recorded this line.
And then there was silence.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has written about Bollywood long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.