Remembering Balraj Sahni, the celebrated actor, humanitarian and litterateur, on his 105th birth anniversary.
Balraj Sahni (1 May 1913–13 April 1973), born Yudhishthir Sahni. He belonged to a Punjabi Khatri family from Bhera now in Punjab, Pakistan. He was the brother of Bhisham Sahni, noted Hindi writer, playwright, and actor.
It is quite surprising that such a great actor did not receive even a single award for his memorable roles.
Sahni started his acting career with the plays of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) He started his film career in Mumbai with the film Insaaf (1946), followed by Dharti Ke Lal directed by KA Abbas in 1946, Door Chalein in 1946, and other films. But it was in 1953, with Bimal Roy’s classic Do Bigha Zameen, that his true forte as an actor was first recognised. The film won the international prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
He followed it up with an encore in the 1961 classic Kabuliwala penned by Tagore.
He also starred in the classic Punjabi film Nanak Dukhiya Sub Sansar (1970) as well as the critically acclaimed Satluj de kande.
His performance as the angst ridden but stoical Muslim man who refuses to go to Pakistan during partition in his last film Garam Hawa has often been called his best performance by critics. Balraj, however, could not see the completed film himself to rate his own performance, as he died just the next day after he finished dubbing for Garm Hava.
The last lines he recorded for the film, and hence his last recorded lines are, Hindi:- “Insaan Kab Tak Akela Jee Sakta Hai?”
Sahni was a gifted writer; his early writings were in English, though later in life he switched to Punjabi, and became a writer of repute in Punjabi literature. In 1960, after a visit to Pakistan, he wrote Mera Pakistani Safar. His book Mera Rusi Safarnama, which he had written after a tour of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1969, earned him the ‘Soviet Land Nehru Award’. He contributed many poems and short stories in magazines and also penned his autobiography, Meri Filmi Aatmakatha. Sahni was an extremely well-read and politically conscious person.
Sahni also dabbled in screenwriting; he wrote the 1951 movie Baazi which starred Dev Anand and was directed by Guru Dutt. He was also a recipient of the Padma Shri Award (1969). Balraj Sahni also wrote in Punjabi and contributed to the Punjabi magazine Preetlari. Very few people know about his love for the books, In 1950’s he was first to inaugurate the Library and study centre for underprivileged class in Delhi.
His acting in Do Bigha Zameen and Garam Hawa were the highlights of his career. He believed in what is known as Neo-Realistic cinema.
Balraj Sahni died on 13 April 1973, of a massive cardiac arrest at the age of 59. He had been depressed for some time by the untimely death of his young daughter, Shabnam.
‘Punjabi Kala Kender’, founded in 1973 at Mumbai by Balraj Sahni, gives away the annual Balraj Sahni Award’, and also the ‘All India Artists’ Association’.