It was Bombay of a different era. In the year 1949, Juhu was “a godforsaken place” cut off from the rest of the city. The beach was clean, sand shiny and the water blue. Close to the beach, in a small bungalow called Stella Villa lived actor Balraj Sahni. He loved nature, was an expert swimmer and spent long hours in the sea. His son, Parikshat Sahni, recalls, “Dad loved the swelling waves, the gigantic breakers and the blustery and strong winds.”
One day, when the sea was stormy, Balraj “challenged” his then pre-teen son Parikshat to join him for a swim in the sea. The currents were strong and they were pulled away from the shore. As panic gripped Parikshat, Balraj asked him to “keep his head”. “The tide always turns. And when it does, the sea will push us back to the shore on its own accord. Now, let’s sing,” he told his son, and belted out some revolutionary songs. Eventually, the tide turned and they were pushed back towards the shore.
The episode left a strong impression on the 1939-born Parikshat, teaching him to “not panic and give up”. He first wrote about it nearly 15 years ago. “I have revised it several times since then,” he says. Yet, he had never thought of writing a book about his father.
Nearly 44 years after Balraj passed away on April 13, 1973 — a month before his 60th birthday and before the release of one of his best movies, Garm Hava (1974) — Parikshat shares memories of his father in a new biography, The Non-Conformist: Memories of my Father Balraj Sahni (Penguin; Rs 599). “To appreciate a painting in totality, you need to look at it from a distance. Similarly, I needed some distance and time to understand and admire my father,” says Parikshat.
Writing about his father turned out to be an act of “seeking redemption” for him. “I had a stormy relationship with dad…I was reluctant to dredge up my memories,” writes Parikshat, who has acted in Munnabhai MBBS (2003) and 3 Idiots (2009). After much prodding from friends over the years, he finally got down to writing about his father a year ago, when “the burden of memories became unbearable,” says the actor-author.
“Even though it was difficult to write about my father, I found it to be cathartic,” says Parikshat. As Balraj struggled to make his mark during his early years in Mumbai, Parikshat spent much of his childhood and youth with relatives (mainly with uncle, writer Bhisham Sahni and his wife Sheila), boarding schools and later studying film direction and script-writing at the Moscow Film Institute. Staying apart created some distance between father and son, even though Parikshat mentions his father’s “deep and profound” love for him.
Parikshat was six months old when, in 1939, his father and mother Damayanti took a ship to England to join BBC’s Hindi service as announcer. By then, Balraj had already worked with Mahatma Gandhi for a year in Sevagram and as a teacher at Santiniketan. Upon his return five years later, Balraj moved to Bombay on the suggestion of his classmate, director Chetan Anand.
In 1946, he debuted in Anand’s first movie, Neecha Nagar. But it took him five more years to find success with Humlog (1951). Parikshat says that his father was blessed with “bulldog tenacity”. Apart from exercising and looking after his diet, he read Konstantin Stanislavski’s book on acting several times. “He often rehearsed in front of the mirror, modulating his voice and looking at his expression,” writes Parikshat. Balraj formed his own theatre group, The Juhu Art Theatre, even as he took active part in plays by the Indian People’s Theatre Association.
However, finding acceptance took time. After the 1954 movie Seema released, Parikshat remembers his father reading out a letter that hurled abuses at him for acting alongside a beautiful and young actor like Nutan. Eventually, his unaffected performance in Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Kabuliwala (1961) established Balraj as a method actor who took immense pain to slip into his character.
In The Non-Conformist, Parikshat writes that director Bimal Roy had first offered the role of hand-rickshaw-puller Shambhu to Ashok Kumar. Many years later, the latter told Parikshat how he had resented the role finally going to a “lanky, fair and London-returned fellow” and was sure that he would mess it up. After watching the movie, however, he told himself that he couldn’t have performed as well as the “unknown newcomer”. Today, Balraj pulling a handcart on the hot asphalt of Calcutta’s roads, in spite of developing blisters, is one of the iconic scenes of Hindi cinema.
Only one chapter in The Non-Conformist focuses on Balraj Sahni the actor. The rest of the book deals with his deep belief in Marxism, his love for Kashmir, and his relationship with his brother, Bhisham. “Everyone knows him as an actor and a good human being. By narrating my experiences with him, I have tried to show what’s hidden from the people. He was uprooted from Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) and led a difficult life. We, as children of a major actor, had a better life,” says Parikshat.
Parikshat harbours several regrets. “He always wanted to be my friend. I shared my first cigarette and beer with him. But I was not a good son to him many times. I have made a lot of mistakes,” says Parikshat.
After returning to India from Moscow, where he had lived for six years, Parikshat felt like “a fish out of water” as he couldn’t adjust to India’s tropical weather and ways. Even though Parikshat was offered lead roles, and his debut Anokhi Raat (1968) was a hit, he squandered the opportunities he had, frequently arriving on film sets with a hangover.
Balraj Sahni’s family had, for years, tried to live together under one roof. They were able to do so finally in the late ’60s when the late actor built Ikraam — a grand bungalow in Juhu. It is in this “dream house” that their life came apart as the warmth of Stella Villa faded.
Following the demise of Parikshat’s grandmother, his sister Shabnam, who had been suffering from depression, died from a clot in her brain. “Being part of the film industry often makes things a little difficult. We had a difficult family life. Fame comes at a price,” Parikshat says.
It’s the heart-break caused by Shabnam’s loss that took a toll on Balraj. He died after a cardiac arrest on April 13, 1973, having just finished dubbing for Garm Hava. The night before, at Rajkamal Studio, he had insisted on finishing his work. “Those were the last words he dubbed,” says Parikshat.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘A Son Remembers’