Monday, June 11, 2012

Balraj Sahni and the age of excellence, when creativity mattered above all

Thinkers make cinema, actors get the attention. When thinker and actor are the same, cinema rises high: Orson Welles in Hollywood, Guru Dutt in Bollywood. Or, at one remove, Paul Muni there, Balraj Sahni here.

Balraj did not direct movies. Like Muni, he portrayed characters. But the mastery with which he did it made the movies as much his as the director's. The Kabuliwala Tagore visualised was a remarkable character, but it was Balraj who gave it flesh and blood. M. S. Sathyu's Garam Hawa was a classic; its pathos moved audiences when Balraj gave rare authenticity to the angst of an Agra Muslim who just couldn't see why he should give up his house and his friends because Pakistan had come into being.

Balraj could pack his portrayals with power because he was a complete artiste who heeded the call of destiny. Restlessness made him leave the family business, leave Shantiniketan, leave the Gandhi ashram in Wardha, and leave the BBC in London. He found fulfilment only when he plunged into fulltime stage-and-screen activity in Bombay.

It was a wonderful Bombay. Bal Thackeray luckily was still drawing cartoons for a living. Dance-drama troupes thought nothing of loading stage props on to a bullock cart in Andheri and “driving” to Grant Road six hours away (if the bullocks were in a good mood); some of the artistes would sit on top of the stuff, singing. Balraj was always on the road because he was the only one with a motorbike. Half of Bombay rode pillion with him, from P.C. Joshi, the famed General Secretary of the Communist Party, to lowly journalists. They felt betrayed when Balraj eventually promoted himself to a Vauxhaul car.

It was the level of commitment he showed to theatre, cinema, public causes and politics that made Balraj Sahni different. There were some others like him. But they have disappeared behind the curtain of time thanks to our national habit of not maintaining records. Fortunately, Balraj had written a couple of autobiographical books. Now a small (just 98 pages) booklet has been published by Sahmat in Delhi.

But this is a valuable book because it is written by two privileged authors, Kalpana Sahni and P.C.Joshi. Kalpana, professor of Russian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is the daughter of Bhisham Sahni, Balraj's brother who too devoted his life to theatre. Hence the title of the book, Balraj and Bhisham Sahni, Brothers in Political Theatre. P. C. Joshi was a lifelong comrade of Balraj. Naturally the book is full of fascinating insights.

The basic point that comes through is that 1950s-1960s was creative India's Age of Excellence. In filmdom, only talent mattered, not abdominal muscles or item numbers. They didn't think twice about living commune style. In a small house in Bandra, the newly arrived Balraj, his wife and two small children joined Chetan Anand, Dev Anand and Hamid Butt and their respective families – 12 souls in all. In that chaos they found space for rehearsals too. K. A. Abbas lived in a two-room flat where associates and their families would descend to stay overnight, the Sahni family included. No one thought of inconveniences, because everyone thought of cameraderie.

The Indian People's Theatre Association, more than cinema, was their bond. Those were IPTA's glory days with everyone who was anyone in theatre, dance and music being an active participant – Prithviraj Kapoor and Zora Sehgal, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. This little book sheds light on a mystery topic – how IPTA collapsed. P.C.Joshi had made it a part of everyday life, even staging plays in communally disturbed areas at considerable risk to its members. But the B.T. Ranadive line pushed Joshi aside in 1948 and suddenly all who were not party-approved communists were declared enemies. IPTA was all expense and no income, they said – and that was that.

History takes revenge on the short-sighted. Ranadive is a footnote today; P.C.Joshi is a chapter. IPTA is a remembered treasure. And Balraj Sahni lives.