For an actor who passed away four decades ago, Balraj Sahni’s name continues to evoke smiles and loving memories of two of the all-time great performances in Hindi cinema, Do Bigha Zameen and Garam Hawa amongst many more.
Tales of his commitment to the craft of acting and dedication that he imparted are stuff of industry folklore.
Similarly, stories of how Sahni, a devoted Marxist, reported to the set of a film that he was shooting handcuffed as he was incarcerated for his views, also contributed to the overall myth of the actor whose admirers included thespians such as Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Amitabh Bachchan, who has also written the foreword of the book.
With such a backstory, it’s not surprising that Parikshat Sahni chose to call the book The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni, and much like the man it chronicles, the way the book is written is devoid of any conformity.
Right at the onset, Parikshat makes it clear that his relationship with his father was stormy and replete with many misunderstandings, which is one of the reasons why he did not write the book much earlier.
His father passed away at 60, and Parikshat, now in his 70s, started to write when the burden of the memories became unbearable. He mentions how diffident he felt in the initial stages of writing about his father, and it was about penning one story at a time rather than writing a full-fledged book, which to his mind, might prove interesting to the readers.
As luck would have it, the final result, too, in some way, is a collection of anecdotes that offer an insight into the screen legend.
An offspring writing about their parent can be a no-brainer, and at the same time, a daunting task.
Moreover, things become more complicated when the parent happens to be an iconic actor, writer (Sahni senior wrote the 1951 classic noir Baazi, the film that launched the careers of Guru Dutt and Johnny Walker besides being one of Dev Anand’s biggest box office hits) and a revered public figure.
As Parikshat recounts his father’s days, he also relives his life. The way their lives while being together also seemed to crisscross.
Balraj and his wife, Damyanti, left a six-month-old Parikshat with his grandparents in 1939 as they went to London to work for BBC for five years.
You can’t help but wonder if the son really knew his father. The son recalls instances where his father landed up at a government official’s fancy dinner dressed as a peasant only to mock the “frauds” and “scum the British left behind” or made him venture into the sea next to their Juhu shack during high tide, or during a state-sponsored trip to the erstwhile USSR where the then up and coming politician Giani Zail Singh found the Russians Balraj Sahni admired to be “fikkey” or tasteless.
He sheds light on many hidden facets of Sahni’s life and times, but in the end, does not completely do away with the shroud of mystery that adorned Balraj Sahni. The legendary Sahni was much more than an actor.
He had spent part of his life working at Sevagram with Mahatma Gandhi, taught at Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan—in fact, it was Gurudev Tagore who suggested the name ‘Porikkhit’ for his.
The staunch Marxist also changed his views when the Left became too critical of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He was also a pioneering force behind the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and a prolific writer in Punjabi.
He often argued with his brother, the celebrated Bisham Sahni, on what was the natural language for a writer to express one’s self. By the end, the reader wonders if Parikshat, or for that matter, if anyone really knows Balraj Sahni? There are many wonderful instances such as the one where Parikshat during the filming of a song for Pavitra Paapi (1970), where his character doesn’t have much to do, appeared disinterested and couldn’t understand why his father chastised him for not taking the film seriously enough; or the poignant memories of the making of Garam Hawa where reliving the suicide of his daughter, Shabnam, as a part of the method to enact, literally sapped the life out of Balraj.
These reveal much more about Balraj than peeks into the persona by his son. Maybe Balraj Sahni’s greatness and brilliance cannot be broken down to some method or interpretation. Perhaps this is why he remains peerless, and this is also why The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni is a breezy read.