ENTERTAINMENT  :   Bollywood : In Focus

Balraj Sahni: A forgotten gem of Indian cinema

Saturday , 02 January 2016

TGI pays tribute to acting giant Balraj Sahni in a three-part series

Diversely talented, Balraj Sahni was a noted writer, conviction-led political figure and acclaimed actor

Recently, Javed Akhtar said that he doesn’t believe there is an actor of the calibre of Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan or Balraj Sahni among today’s generation. While the first two names are commonly held in high esteem by fans of Bollywood, Balraj Sahni’s name might come as a surprise to some. We take a look at this often overlooked acting titan, in a three-part series.

Balraj Sahni was a man of prolific talent. He was an actor (both on stage and in film); writer and poet (in multiple languages); teacher; radio announcer and activist. Of all the professional roles he played, acting is what he’s most remembered for.

Born in 1913 in pre-partition India, Sahni developed a love for the cinema (Indian, Hollywood, British and later Russian), early on. In his autobiography, he notes with joy how a bicycle he was gifted “brought all the cinema houses” of Rawalpindi within “easy reach!” But, for years, Sahni struggled to make a proper start in acting. In no small part, due to his parents’ view that film acting was not fit for a gentleman.

University gave him his first taste of the theatre, as he performed in plays staged by the Dramatic Society at Lahore’s Government College. He credits his professor Ahmed Shah Bukhari for helping him develop a “realism”-driven acting style.

This foundation was to serve him well in later years, as he delivered some of the most mesmerising, moving and powerful performances in Indian cinematic history.

In our tribute to this titan of thespianism, we will look at three groundbreaking films that Sahni acted in: Do Bigha Zamin (Two Hectares Of Land) (1953) (note: a bigha is a unit of measurement that varies regionally in India; this film refers to about two-thirds of an acre of land); Kabuliwala (The Kabuli Man) (1961); and Garm Hava (Scorching Winds) (1973).

The 1950s saw a spate of idealistic, nation-building-centred films, precipitated by post-Independence zeal. In the midst of such films, a new genre of filmmaking emerged—the so-called ‘socials’—that offered starker representations of the newly-conceived nation.

KA Abbas’ Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth) (1946), through its trenchant depiction of the Bengal famine of 1943 (a movie that, coincidentally, starred Balraj Sahni), served as a prototype for the socials. Filmmakers like Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy started making films with similar sensibilities, depicting the harsh realities of new India.

Arguably, the most well-known example of this movement was Roy’s Hindi-language feature, Do Bigha Zamin, which won the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes in 1954 and has been called the “first great realistic Indian film” (by writer Yves Thoraval).

The superlative actor elevated Do Bigha Zamin from ordinary to compelling drama, through a realistic performance

The story depicts the efforts of a poor farmer, Shambhu Mehto, in a tender, nuanced performance by Balraj Sahni, who, in an effort to retain his small ancestral (seven generation-old) plot of land is forced to move to the city and engage in hard labour as a rickshaw-puller.

The crisis is triggered by the village zamindar (landowner), Thakhur Harnam Singh, who wants to set up a mill in the village, but realises that he first needs to acquire Shambhu’s plot of land. Shambhu had earlier taken a loan from the zamindar, which he has been slowly repaying. The remainder due is disputed. Shambhu believes he owes 65 rupees, which he somehow manages to raise. But, it seems he’s been duped, largely owing to his illiteracy. He’d, earlier, unwittingly given his thumbprint against a far greater sum. Shambhu begs the zamindar for more time to pay this fabricated amount, but the Thakur does not relent and the matter goes to court. The ruling stipulates that Shambhu must pay 235 rupees and 50 paisa (an exorbitant amount for a poor farmer, at the time) within three months, or else the land will be auctioned off and part of the proceeds will be awarded to the zamindar.

The court scene perfectly represents the naturalistic performance that Sahni delivers throughout the film. When the preliminaries in the ruling are being read out, we see nervousness etched on Sahni’s face. His brow is furrowed; eyes, widened in anticipation; mouth, tense and ajar; his hands slowly come together, and nervously clasp the shawl hanging on his shoulder. As soon as he hears the first part of the verdict—that the zamindar will not be allowed to immediately seize his land—his face is transformed into a wide grin. He believes he has won. He turns to look at one of the zamindar’s men to confirm this. Shortly after, as soon as the word “but” is read out, his face contorts into anxious confusion.

At the end of the scene, after the ruling has been announced in full, and people are filing out, a helpless Shambhu rushes to the front of the courtroom. Visibly distraught, with his hands outstretched in a pleading manner, and then constantly clasping and letting go of his shawl, through mounting sobs, he tries to explain how implausible it would be for him to achieve what the court is asking for. He tries to reason (without realising that the ruling is final) that he has an elderly father and a young son; that they’ll all go hungry; he asks how will he be able to raise so much money in such little time. He then explains, “Is zamin ke siva mere paas kuch bhi nahee hai, Huzoor” (“Without this land, I have absolutely nothing, Sir”), and breaks down, burying his face into his shawl, and has to be led away.

Sahni’s performance doesn’t, for a second, betray his own vast knowledge and exposure to the world. That the man playing Shambhu had taught at a university or had been a radio announcer in London during the war years seems incredible. His mannerisms convincingly mirror those of a simple farmer from a small village. Indeed, it’s this ability of Sahni’s to convey Shambhu’s straightforwardness, which makes us sympathise with the character and be moved by his plight.

A scene from Waqt, in which Sahni’s character professes his love for his wife in the iconic song ‘Ae meri zohra jabeen’

Shambhu decides to move to the city. His son, Kanhaiya, secretly boards the train. When the two arrive in Calcutta, they struggle to find a footing in the big city and to understand its ways. At one point, Shambhu exclaims, “Wah reh, Calcutta shehere, kam tho kya, puchne par, koi baat ka jawab nahee de ta!” (“Wow, Calcutta city, forget about being able to get work, nobody even replies when you ask them a question, here!”). The father and son’s belongings are stolen and they’re literally left penniless, on the streets. Through a stroke of luck, they’re able to secure accommodation and Shambhu manages to earn a little by, informally, working as a coolie. Eventually, in what begins as an attempt to help out an elderly neighbour, he begins pulling a rickshaw.

Now, this isn’t an auto-rickshaw or a cycle-rickshaw. This is the most labour-intensive of the lot… A pulled-rickshaw, in which a man has to run in order to draw a cart carrying passengers. In many scenes, Sahni is shown pulling a rickshaw. In order to prepare for this, before filming began, Sahni pulled rickshaws on the streets of Calcutta and spent time with some rickshawallas. His brother, Bhisham Sahni, who was a noted writer, translator and professor, said that during this time, Balraj met a rickshaw-puller, who was in a similar predicament to Shambhu. This, Bhisham Sahni says, inspired his brother to forsake the acting rules he’d normally follow and to, instead, favour life as his source material. In this way, Balraj Sahni was ‘method’, before being ‘method’ was really a thing in Indian cinema.

All in all, Do Bigha Zamin is a moving portrayal of the struggle and hardships endured by Shambhu and his family, replete with gritty depictions of the daily lives of Calcutta’s poor. It’s impossible not to read into the urban versus rural subtext. And, into the effects of modernisation, which Bimal Roy characterises as, both, inescapable and brutal. The film explores exploitation, oppression and injustice.

It’s particularly sad to see that, more than 60 years on, much of Roy’s critique on the treatment of India’s poor, their disenfranchisement and the struggles that they face, is still very much applicable today.

SPOILER ALERT – Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film!*

The poignant performance delivered by Sahni in the final scenes of Do Bigha Zamin is heart-wrenching and unforgettable

Roy’s direction and Sahni’s performance are what distinguish Do Bigha Zamin and elevate it from mere melodrama. This is, perhaps, most notable in the film’s final scenes. The movie ends on a deftly crafted and poignantly acted note, when, after shots of the imposing alien structures of the mill that’s being constructed, the family is shown peering through a caged fence, at what was once their land.

As they are about to leave, a wretched Shambhu slowly turns back around. He bends to pick up a handful of soil; inferably, to serve as a small reminder of their happy past and the land he once owned. As he bends, a man from the construction site demeaningly yells: “Aye, aye! Kya utha tha hai? Dikha, kya uthaya hai!” (“Oye! What are you picking up? Show me what you’ve picked up!”). In a shaky voice, a stooped Sahni (his posture embodying Shambhu’s defeat), weakly responds: “Kuch nahee, Bhai. Kuch nahee.” (“Nothing, brother. Nothing.”). The construction worker accuses Shambhu of being a thief and thrusts his hand through the fence, grabbing a hold of Shambhu’s shirt, and demands, again, to see what’s in Shambhu’s hand. The camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Shambhu’s hand, as he releases the soil, over a banishing “Dut!” from the worker, who then orders them to leave. The image of Shambhu’s hand being forced to let go of the last link to his land, serves as a powerful recapitulation of the film’s themes. It is simply heartbreaking.

The family is then shown walking into the distance, into an unknown, but almost certainly grim, future, carrying the few belongings they have left on their backs, until they are but silhouettes on the horizon. They turn around once, right before the credits, for a final glimpse at their confiscated land; a symbol of their former lives.