Ye Sang-e-Dar tumhaara todenge apne sar se
(I’ll break your marble door by banging my head on it),
Ye dil agar dobaara toota Salim Chishti
(If my heart breaks again) …
MRS. Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973) and even more the burning qawwali Maula Salim Chisti in the film, were important in the life of the late Balraj Sahni. Playing Salim Mirza, an alienated Muslim from India after the score, the film gave an impression of déjà vu to the actor, who was a refugee in India, after leaving Pakistan after independence. The film also highlighted the grief of a father when his daughter (Geeta Kak) commits suicide, abandoned by the man she loves. He echoed similar trauma in Balraj’s life, as his young daughter Shabnam died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a disastrous marriage. “Papa believed very much in Konstantin Stanislavski, who spoke about emotional memory, revisiting an experience in your life to make the scene look true,” says son / actor Parikshat Sahni, adding, “It was painful for dad to remember the death of Shabnam to stage this scene. “
While his performance is considered the culmination of the classic, a heartbroken Balraj Sahni died one day after completing the dubbing for Garm Hava and one year after his daughter’s disappearance. Several of these ideas are proposed in the book, The Non-Conformist: Memories Of My Father Balraj Sahni, written by Parikshat Sahni. He says, “To relive so many memories, it was a kind of catharsis. A redemption. For many years, I have been guilty as a son. I owed him that people have the true image of the man. “
Dad lived with his family in Rawalpindi (Pakistan) before independence. He married my mother, Damyanti (Sahni), also an actor, in 1936. In the late 1930s, Mom and Dad joined Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in Bengal as teachers. I was conceived there. My sister Shabnam was born four years later. Tagore advised Papa to write in his mother tongue, which was Punjabi. Dad learned the Gurumukhi script, got a Gurumukhi typewriter and started writing. Then my parents went to London where dad joined the Hindi service of the BBC. He developed a love for Russian cinema, which introduced him to Marxism. They returned to India in 1943.
He began his acting career at the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA). My mother was well known as an actor long before dad did. Dad initially wanted something, which he mentioned in his autobiography (Meri Filmi Aatmakatha). Dad started his film career in 1946 with Insaaf, Dharti Ke Lal and Door Chalein, the last with Mom. After the partition of 1947, he came to Delhi, leaving me with my grandparents in Rawalpindi. It was difficult because he was a muhajir (refugee).
Being a member of the Communist Party, my mother engaged in social work. She worked with slum dwellers and even ate with them. As a result, she developed amoebic dysentery. The drug had an adverse effect on his heart. She was only 26 years old when she died in 1947. I was then about eight years old and I hardly remember her. Years later, my cousins shared that Dad was devastated by the death of Mom. He banged his head against the wall and shouted, “Dammo nahi rahee, Dammo chali gayee”.
Dad got married again in 1951. My mother-in-law (writer Santosh Chandhok) was a beautiful lady. My sister-in-law, Sanober, was so named after the Kashmir pines, my grandparents’ second home and my father’s favorite place. Dad thought it was better for me to stay in a boarding house as he struggled in Mumbai. First, I was sent to Shivaji Boarding School in Pune. Later, boarding at Sanawar. After that, it was boarding at St Stephen’s College in Delhi. I believe that children should not be kept out of the family too long.
I did not know what a house meant.
At first, Dad was ridiculed for being too thin. They called him “kawwe jaisa (like a raven)”. As part of the Communist Party, he has already been imprisoned. He was released for a few days to complete the shooting of K. Asif Hulchul (1951). I also worked in the film as a child actor. I remember he looked so haggard. Finally, Hum Log (1951) earned him success. He got on a motorcycle from Mumbai when I boarded Pune to celebrate his success and lunch with me.
The 50s saw him in notable films like Seema, Sone Ki Chidiya, Lajwanti and Ghar Sansaar, while the 60s featured him in films like Neel Kamal, Anupama, Ghar Ki Kahani Ghar, Do Raaste and Ek Phool Do Mali. He started playing late in life, around the age of 42. Dancing around the trees was not his cup of tea.
His commitment to his job was incredible. Once I had accompanied him for the shooting of Aulad (1954). Papa held the doors of his master’s house and begged his child, “Malik mujhe mera bachcha toh de do!” The stage is over, everyone applauds and luggage is announced. On the way back to the car, Dad said he was not happy with the shot. He came back by car and told director Mohan Segal that he wanted a recovery. Mohanji felt that it was not necessary. Dad gave an ultimatum that if he did not allow it, he would not show up for the shoot. The studio has been reopened. The lights have been reinstalled. Dad got back. But this time, no one applauded. Because they were all crying. It was such a brilliant shot. Later, Dad explained, “I wanted to feel the blow. I wanted to relive what I felt when your mother died. “
After college, I went to Russia for six years to learn direction, screenwriting and publishing. When I returned, I was 26 years old. Dad loved having me with me. In the house, he made a special room where I could paint, a dark room, a room, a huge balcony where I could do the gym … He said: “We have lived separately all our lives. dosti rakho yaar, do not treat me like a father. “But I was an unsuited person who did not know what a home and a family were. My childhood was spent with my grandparents and later with my uncle (Bhisham Sahni of Tamas fame) or at boarding schools.
I reproached him for aapne mujhe itne saal toh door rakha. I never returned the favor. I had become lonely. I’m always. This is one of my biggest weaknesses. I did not make a good husband either. My wife (late Aruna Sahni) has often said, “You are not a husband.”
Anyway, I did Anokhi Raat (1968) just for fun. After it became a success, I was offered Pavitra Paapi (1970), for which I also wrote the screenplay. I never felt overwhelmed by the fact that I had to correspond with my father. I never wanted to be an actor. Moreover, no one could compete with him. I tried to copy it in a scene to which he remarked: “It is better to be a first rate Parikshat than a third order Balraj.”
On the screen, he may have played serious characters. But other than that, he was full of jokes. He had a thirst for life. He was unethical in that he did not adhere to social norms. He did not follow the flock. He believed that compliance was mediocrity. He did not like staging, artificiality or celebration. He did not like sequins and the brilliance of the industry. He was a Marxist, a man of the people. He connected with the masses. Daddy adhered to the saying:
“A good actor is a good man.”
As a person, he was waterproof. He was not subject to mood swings or anger. Only once did I find him disturbed. He was called at 9 am and asked to wear makeup for a shoot. Until six o’clock he was not called for a single shot. Finally, he was told that it was a package. Dad was livid. Then he started to wear his typewriter on the board. He has written books including travel stories like Mera Pakistani Safarnama and Mera Rusi Safarnama and his autobiography Meri Filmi Aatmakatha. He was opposed to religion. In his book, Mera Drishitikon, he urged readers to be wary of padres, experts and mullahs. They are the ones who provoke wars in the world, he writes.
My sister Shabnam had a bad marriage. She came back to live with us. She felt undesirable and had a nervous breakdown. Then one day, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. She was about 26-27 years old, the same age that my mother had died. She was the carbon copy of my mother. Dad was a broken man and did not recover from grief. Shabnam died in 1972. Papa died in 1973. He felt responsible for his death somewhere.
I was in a horrible state myself. She was dead in my arms. I started drinking a lot and taking tranquilizers.
In the last two years of his life, Dad and I had moved closer together. One morning, when I called him for a swim, I was told he had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. He died the next day. He was 59 years old.
It was Dad’s wish that no flowers be placed on his body or that pundits be called or shlokas recited. Being a Marxist, he just wanted to keep a red flag. I regret a lot. I was not a good son. I feel remorse for not doing as much as I could have. Dad did his best all his life to develop a father-son relationship. But there was always a chasm between us. Today, I understand that he loved me deeply. The debt can never be repaid.