"WHEN I saw Balraj-ji on screen, it was not the character he was portraying I saw, but only the purity of his heart," writes Amitabh Bachchan in the foreword to Nonconformist: Memories of my father Balraj Sahni', written by his son, Parikshat Sahni. His acting calibre in movies such as Haqeeqat, Do Bigha Zameen and Garm Hava got legends such as Ashok Kumar raving. In an interview to MAIL TODAY, Parikshat Sahni says he's tried to unravel the man behind the method actor. One comes face to face with another Balraj Sahni, a ladies man and a staunch Communist who liked to go skinny dipping in the sea. Edited excerpts:
You write about a film in which your father insisted on more than 10 retakes for a scene where you had to spit in his face. Who, among the current actors, is a true inheritor of the Stanislavsky school of acting and the realism that he espoused?
In dad's time, there was no institute for acting. He had to learn everything on his own by reading and watching movies. Nowadays they have the NSD, and FTII. When you talk of a realist, I find Nawazuddin Sidiqqui in that mould. Aamir and Shah Rukh are tremendously realistic. Amitabh is a great actor on top of this list. He did such a fantastic job in Paa.
You've been brutally honest and not tried to glorify him
One writer who has influenced me enormously is Ernest Hemingway. He said that even if you write one sentence of your story or a novel, it has to be true. I wanted people to know how my father was like in real life.
Your father comes across as a parent full of positivity. How do you compare?
Whenever I compare myself to him as a parent, I have a guilty conscience. As a child, dad sent me to boarding school and I never lived with my immediate family. Then I went off to Russia for six years to study film direction and writing skills. When I returned, I had to unlearn everything I'd learnt in Soviet Russia to work in the film industry here.
The biggest life lessons from your father's life journey?
I once asked him to teach me acting. He said something that became my credo: You won't be a good actor till you are a good man.' Also, he used to repeat what Tagore told him at Santiniketan: That all art should be should be palatable but in its kernel, there should be something that benefits their souls and spirits. The camera never lies. If you are a lousy fellow, it will expose your character. He taught me to be kind to technicians and people on the street.
How would've he reacted to the demise of Communism?
American author Howard Fast had penned a book The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party. My father thought the world of Communism and the Soviet Union. But after I had accepted his viewpoint, I read Jean Christophe by Romain Rolland, in which he wrote, 'Each man must learn his own ideal and try to accomplish it. That is a surer way of progress than to take the ideas of another'. I wanted to go there and see for myself the Utopia dad had so assiduously painted for me. Some institutions in Russia had already begun to show cracks.
Your favourite Balraj Sahni performance?
Everybody remembers Ae meri zohra jabeen from Waqt. He had a small role but he strode like a giant on the screen. In one scene, he is standing in one corner of the courtroom and the other big stars Shashi Kapoor, Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Sharmila Tagore and Sadhana in another but people tell me they could not take their eyes off my father. He was an incredible actor, yaar.
Reprinted with the publisher's permission
THE NONCONFORMIST: MEMORIES OF MY FATHER BALRAJ SAHNI BY PARIKSHAT SAHNI
PENGUIN; 260 PAGES
By the late 50s, Dad was a recognised actor. I was studying at St.Stephen's College in Delhi at that time. On one occasion, dad was invited to a party at Mr Prem Kirpal's official bungalow in Delhi.
Dad asked me to join him. The elite in Delhi society-high ranking government officials, businessmen, artists, writers and intellectuals - had been invited. The men were all dressed in suits and ties; the women were in chiffon sarees and laden with colossal amounts of jewellery. Liveried waiters flitted in and out of the crowded drawing room carrying trays of snacks and drinks. It looked like a party 'back home.' But dad didn't quite fit into this milieu He had come dressed like a Punjabi farmer and was wearing a lungi-kurta and chappals. He had taken to dressing in his 'national' garb when attending parties and even state functions. Guests stared at him in surprise and amusement. But this didn't bother dad. It was his way of asserting his patriotism and distaste of bourgeois servility.
Had it not been for the colour of their skin and their heavily accented English, the guests could have passed for Englishmen-with the same genteel manner of speech, the same gestures and the same topics of conversation, they looked staid and proper, and spoke with a stiff upper lip in hushed undertones as they shook hands and politely bowed to one another. Some of the women turned up their noses on seeing dad. One middle-aged, thin, pale, cadaverous-looking woman, weighted down with jewellery and wearing more make up than a transvestite, came up to him and asked him mockingly, 'I am told you are an actor!" pronouncing the word 'actor' with distaste.
'Yes, madam, I am an actor,' dad answered with an amused smile 'What trash are you working in nowadays? Indian films are trash, aren't they?' Dad was not used to this kind of rude behaviour and was fed up of the condescending attitude of the so-called 'genteel' society towards Indian cinema. What she had said infuriated him, but he controlled himself. He looked at her pensively for a while and said, 'Yes, Madam, you are right. Hindi films are trash. However, have you seen a film called Do Bigha Zamin?' The lady gave dad a toothy smile and said contemptuously, 'Sorry, I never see Hindi films. I see only English or European films.' Dad was put off by this sort of brazen hypocrisy and decided to put the woman in her place. He smiled. 'Good!' he said politely, 'Do you see French films?' Yes, of course I do. I don't miss a single one.' 'Then you must have seen Hiroshima Mon Amour?' dad asked. She looked confused and said, 'No, that is one film I seem to have missed.'
She was about to walk away when dad called after her, 'Just a minute, madam!' She turned around. Dad walked up to her with a smile. 'You are right, madam. European cinema is way ahead of our cinema. But how could you have missed this film? It is a masterpiece. I think it won an Oscar. It has a very artistic beginning.' The woman raised her eyebrows and listened condescendingly. Dad continued, raising his voice a couple of decibels. People in the vicinity perked up their ears. 'The opening shot is of a naked woman, and when I say naked I mean stark naked. The camera shows a close-up of her breasts!" The woman winced and people gasped. This sort of talk was taboo in genteel society.
Alarmed, she quickly stepped back. Dad continued, 'And then, as the camera moves into a mid-shot, it reveals a naked man, and when I say naked I mean stark naked, lying beside her. Dad was about to continue with the lurid details when Prem Kirpal came up to him with a mischievous smile, took hold of him by his elbow, and steered him away towards a far corner of the room, saying he had something important to discuss with him Dad walked up to me after a while, smiling. I was nibbling on some titbits. "Hope you are enjoying yourself, son?' I nodded, my mouth full of chicken. 'Frauds, all these people, I tell you! Humbugs and hypocrites! 'Brown sahibs' as the British used to call them. They are the scum the British left behind when the tide of colonial rule receded from the shores of India. These hypocrites look down on everything Indian. They need to be taught a lesson"