ENTERTAINMENT  :   Bollywood : In Focus

Balraj Sahni: A forgotten  gem of Indian cinema

Saturday , 09 January 2016

TGI brings you the second installment of its three-issue retrospective on actor Balraj Sahni…

Balraj Sahni shone in the iconic role of Rabindranath Tagore’s kabuliwala

Last week, we looked at Balraj Sahni’s moving performance in the iconic Indian film, Do Bigha Zamin (1953). In his autobiography, Meri Filmi Aatmakatha, Sahni expresses regret that Do Bigha Zamin’s acclaimed director Bimal Roy failed to give due credit to Rabindranath Tagore, on whose poem the film was based. Sahni wouldn’t have had the same lament for the film we’re looking at this week—Kabuliwala (1961). This Hindi-language feature was based on a well-known short story by Tagore, and the film pays homage to the writer in a still before the opening credits. It’s worth noting that, before the 1961 film, director Tapan Sinha made an award-winning Bengali adaptation of the story in 1957.

The 1961 Kabuliwala was directed by Hemen Gupta, produced by Bimal Roy and starred Balraj Sahni. Although it might not be in the same league as Do Bigha Zamin, Kabuliwala, nonetheless, leaves a lasting impression, in large part, due to Sahni’s performance. In it, Sahni plays Abdur Rehman Khan, an Afghan who migrates to India, where he becomes a kabuliwala (a dry fruit seller).

The story begins in rural Afghanistan, where the widowed Rehman lives with his daughter and mother. The opening scenes show Rehman as an indulgent and loving father. We learn that his daughter, Amina, has just recovered from a long bout of illness and that he had to sell a plot of land and borrow some money for the medical expenses. In order to repay the loan, he has to sell their last asset (their house) as well. Winter is coming, and with it, work prospects will diminish, so, Rehman decides to move to Hindustan. He hopes he can earn enough there to buy back his land and house. Amina is distraught when she’s told that she can’t go with her father. He tries to pacify her, promising to buy her a doll and little red bangles, but she remains upset. So, Rehman follows his mother’s advice and slips away at dawn while Amina is still asleep. But, before he leaves, he covers her tiny hands in ink and takes prints on a piece of paper, as a keepsake.

Once in Hindustan, Rehman does make money, but he misses home, especially Amina. In this new land, his appearance—marked by a long beard, a turban and loose clothing—is alien and frightening to children. Mothers warn their children, if they don’t behave, the kabuliwala will come and take them away. This bogeyman-esque reputation leads children to scurry away, when he shouts out his kabuliwala call in neighbourhoods. This is especially difficult for Rehman, who longs to befriend a child. One day, he runs into a young girl named Mini, in whose face—for a moment—he literally sees the face of his own daughter. Mini is initially scared of the kabuliwala, but also fascinated by him, and over time, they develop a special bond. The film focuses on Rehman’s visits to Mini and this unusual friendship between an Afghan kabuliwala and a young Bengali girl.

Sahni plays the kabuliwala as a strong and proud Pathan, who has a soft spot for children. He stands tall; shoulders, always, pulled back. Rehman is a larger-than-life character—in complete contrast to Do Bigha Zamin’s Shambhu. The kabuliwala speaks loudly, is flamboyant and unapologetic. He communicates with hand and head movements, as much as he does with his booming voice. In the hands of a lesser actor, the kabuliwala could easily have become a caricature, through an over-the-top performance. But, Sahni seems to slip into the skin of the character. His dialect and diction are spot on. His mannerisms, gestures and delivery are exactly what one would expect from a proud Afghan. Sahni even cultivated a fitting laugh for Rehman; one that is hearty, bellowing and sounds as though it rises from deep within.

Sahni also depicts the kabuliwala as someone who has a no-nonsense, almost black-or-white sense of right and wrong, inferably rooted in tribal values. Additionally, he creates an impression of a man who veils little; who experiences emotion—be it guilt, sadness, anger or joy—openly and fully. And, while Sahni shows us the tender side of the kabuliwala, not once, does he let us forget, that this is a formidable character, who, if crossed or disrespected, might even be capable of violence.

The kabuliwala’s lack of passivity must have appealed to Sahni, who, in his autobiography, lamented that Do Bigha Zamin’s Shambhu never stood up for himself in the face of injustice. Kabuliwala, on the other hand, offered Sahni the opportunity to play a character who, despite living on the margins of society, fears no one and stands up for himself, as a matter of right.

Though the film’s pace lags in places (the editing could have been better), there is a definite charm to Kabuliwala. This is most apparent in the scenes between Rehman and Mini and in Sahni’s portrayal of Rehman.

We see how the kabuliwala showers Mini with gifts, mostly dried fruit. They talk and laugh together. She asks him questions, all of which he answers honestly. He entertains her with his own brand of humour and gesticulates emphatically, which seems to entertain her all the more. She sings for him and reads him stories from her book. She implores him at the end of every meeting to come and visit her the next day. And for him, it seems as though Mini is the only bright spot in a lonely existence far from his family and homeland.

It’s all the more heart-rending, then, when concern from Mini’s mother wedges a distance between the kabuliwala and Mini. Mini’s father (whose character is the narrator in Tagore’s short story—even suggested by some to be Tagore himself) is more open-minded, and engages the kabuliwala, but ultimately must submit to his wife’s understandable apprehensions.

The day before Mini’s birthday, her mother instructs the domestic help to tell the kabuliwala to go away and not to come by the house anymore. The father intervenes and says he will deliver the message himself. He delicately puts across to the kabuliwala that it’s Mini’s birthday and that guests will be coming over, so, if he could perhaps not come around for a few days. The kabuliwala immediately replies, “Accha, Babu ji, mein samaj gaya” (“Alright, Sir, I understand”).

As he turns around, for the first time, his face—in full view of the camera—wears a look of defeat. His eyes narrow and look ahead, and he looks down and then up again, clearly emotional. He seems more than disappointed. He seems hurt, even wounded. All this transpires in a matter of seconds. But Sahni plays the reaction so pointedly, that it hits you right in the heart and lingers for a long time afterwards. After all, the kabuliwala was harming no one. He adores Mini, who had made him promise that he would come to see her on her birthday.

Unable to break his promise so easily, he returns that evening and stands on the street outside the house, peering above the garden wall, through a window, to catch a glimpse of Mini enjoying the celebrations. He strains to see her, craning his neck. The bond between the unlikely pair of friends is so strong, that while he watches her from outside, Mini is busy, inside, hiding sweets for him.

In the following scene, Mini’s father sees a hand open the front door and try to leave something on the floor. He rushes to the door, throws it open and is startled to see the kabuliwala, who apologises and explains that he knows he was told to keep away, but, he had promised Mini red bangles for her birthday. He quickly pushes the gift into the father’s hands, entreating him to accept it, gives him a salaam and hurriedly leaves, not wanting to overstay his welcome. Sahni’s performance in this scene is exceptionally natural—from the restrained tears and his paying respect to Mini’s father by maintaining eye contact, to the imploring eyes (when he asks for his gift to be accepted) and the quick, forced smile he musters when leaving.

Sahni’s acting makes the kabuliwala a character you cannot help but love. It is a testament to his performance that, when a certain incident takes place later on in the film, which makes us question the morality of the kabuliwala, we feel almost compelled to see things from his point of view. Almost as though we owe it to him.

Kabuliwala offers a subtle exploration of xenophobia and makes us reflect on the difficulties faced by many of the world’s poor, who travel far from their homes and families, in search of better opportunities. The film also features the beautiful songs ‘Aye Mere Pyaare Watan’ (‘Oh My Beloved Homeland’) and ‘Ganga Aaye Kahan Se’ (‘Where Did The Ganga Come From?’).

Although the themes and songs are compelling enough reasons to watch this classic, what really makes the film special, is Sahni’s performance. Most other actors in such a role would have appealed to our sense of pity. But, Sahni imbues the kabuliwala with a certain nobility and pride that commands respect. By doing so, he appeals to our sense of empathy. He reminds us that, although we might not share the same experiences, we all experience the same feelings. We all know what it means to be human.