Balraj Sahni’s Son Remembers the Inimitable Actor On His Birthday
May 1 is the legendary actor Balraj Sahni’s birth anniversary. Sahni began his career with the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) in Mumbai and went on to become both art and mainstream cinema’s most dependable actor.
In the late 70s, when I became a journalist, I often met up with Balraj Sahni’s son Parikshit Sahni, a busy actor in those days but strangely, we never talked about his father. Today, so many decades later, both of us are happy to discuss Balraj Sahni, the man and the artiste.
In your early days were you shy about talking about your father?
Parikshit: Not shy but I was careful not to make references to him without context. He was too special to be mentioned just in the passing and I have too much admiration for him to do that.
Your father came to Mumbai after Partition and went through a long period of struggle.
Parikshit: Yes, and my grandparents were not keen that they take me with them because those were difficult times. Dad was involved with the freedom movement and wanted to safeguard me from the chaos so he enrolled me in a boarding school. I came home only during holidays and young as I was I sensed their struggle. There were deprivations. He was an actor yes, but had to still make his mark.
Q: And did things change after two years?
Parikshit: Oh yes, his film Kabuliwala was a huge success and close on the heels followed Seema, the story of a juvenile delinquent warden. It was a difficult part and a film on this subject had never been made before. Seema had terrific music, launched Nutan and was a turning point in dad’s career. He now owned a motorbike and our home looked more cheerful. I was still out pursuing higher studies, after St Stephens I went to study filmmaking in Europe. I wrote Pavitra Paapi because I wanted to direct it but the producer made me the hero and turned director himself. This is fate.
Q: What did your father advice you that time?
Parikshit: Dad said actors wait a lifetime for a break while I wasbeing offered it on a platter. He said I must go with the flow and if circumstances willing I would soon direct my film too.
He always lived in the moment and inspired us to do the same. When I was a little boy and traveling with him for his stage shows, I was always the stand-by for an actor who fell ill. They put moustache on me and sent me on stage irrespective of whether I knew the dialogue or not, so improvisation was part of our growing up.
Q: You even did a film with your father didn’t you?
Parikshit: We signed two but they were never released. We had shot a patriotic film for Hrishikesh Mukherjee in which I played Uddham Singh and he was Mahatma Gandhi. In a scene I had to abuse him and spit at him. Now this was tough so I said my dialogue and spat elsewhere hoping it would be taken care of in the editing. Dad insisted I do it the way it was written in the script. He taught me a valuable lesson that day – a true actor must never compromise with his character.
Q: Balraj Sahni did many memorable roles over the decades, which do you rate as his bestperformance?
Parikshit: Garam Hawa undoubtedly, he was not just brilliant but perfect in every scene. You can feel his pathos in every scene and in every dialogue.
Real actors always know their worth and I’m sure dad knew he had given to the character more than his best.
(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 1 May. It is being republished to mark the actor’s birth anniversary.)