Balraj Sahni’s political ideology impacted his career, says Son Parikshat

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Veteran actor Parikshat Sahni created his own identity in the film industry despite being the son of Balraj Sahni, the iconic actor known for classics such as Make Bigha Zameen (1953), Kabuliwala (1961) and his swan song Garm Hava (1974). But he says, in a frank conversation with Giridhar Jha, it was not easy for him because everyone expected him to be like his inimitable father. Excerpts from the interview:

You just released a biography of your father titled Maverick: Memories of my Father. What prompted you to write it after so many years since its disappearance?

A few years ago, an editor told me that I had to write a biography of my father, but I couldn’t do it at the time. Barely a year and a half ago, my journalist friend Ali Peter John insisted that I do it. He said he read my articles and a short story I wrote for The illustrated weekly. I told him I didn’t have time but he continued to persuade me. Finally, I decided to give it my green light. Then, of course, there is an American writer called Harshi Syal Gill, whose doctor brother is my old friend. They helped me a lot to finish the book.

This biography is an honest account of Balraj Sahni, the man behind the iconic actor. How difficult was it for a son to write an objective account of his father’s life and times?

It was difficult because I had to resuscitate a lot of memories. He passed away over four decades ago in 1973, but once I started to think about all those times I had spent with him, it all came back to me. The more I thought about them, the clearer they became. It was a labor of love for me, very exciting and cathartic.

Did you manage to present it as it was? Didn’t you try to make him some sort of demigod?

There is no point in writing if I am not telling the truth. You have to be truthful. I tried to be as true to my memories as possible. I didn’t want to glorify the man. He was a great man, but there were sides to him that were very human. I tried to be as objective as possible as a writer.

In the book’s preface, Amitabh Bachchan writes that his father, the late Harivansh Rai Bachchan, had advised him early in his career to be like Balraj Sahni. “He’s in the industry, but outside,” he said in the foreword. What exactly did he mean by that?

He meant the simple thing: to be a maverick like my father was. He lived as he wished and was not part of the world of glamor. He was a Marxist and believed in a simple life and high thought. He was an intellectual and a writer. After studying at Government College in Lahore, he lived with Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) in Santiniketan and also stayed with Gandhiji in Sevagram. He spent five years in England while working for the BBC. He was a scholar and a rounded personality. Movies weren’t the only goal of his life. Although he mastered the craft, he did not conform to the standards of the film industry. He did what he wanted to do throughout his life.

Of Make Bigha Zameen To Garm Hava, he has given some remarkable films but after reading the book you get the feeling that he has been roughed up by the industry.

The industry did not take him seriously because he did not comply with the established standards. He didn’t ride in a big car or show up in fancy costumes at movie nights. He lived entirely on his own terms. Somewhere down the line, he didn’t want any publicity for himself. A lot of people criticized him for it. I wrote how a great writer, a friend of mine, once called him an impostor. I still don’t know why he said that. But after his death, his fame multiplied. People understood that he was way ahead of his time.

Balraj Sahni is often ranked among the three best actors in Bollywood with Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan but he remained a confirmed Marxist all his life. Has his dissenting political ideology affected his career in any way?

Absoutely. An actor must do what he is asked to do. If he played a poor peasant in Make Bigha Zameen, he also played a very rich man in other movies like Talaash and Ek Phool Do Mali (both in 1969). His job as an actor was to transform himself onscreen depending on the script. But in his real life, his sympathies were with the common man.

You wrote about your close bond with your father, remembering the days you accompanied him to swim in the sea in Mumbai (then Bombay) or dive deep into a frozen lake in Kashmir and on other adventure trips with him. Was he in essence a father?

Oh yes. He was a family man who loved every member of his family. Love was the basic principle of his life and he managed to bind the whole family together with love.

But did you also mention your stormy relationship with him?

As a teenager, you are a rebel. Every young man is. I was sent to residential school and blamed him for it for many years. But he wanted me to study first before joining the movie industry. Most of the star sons in the industry live in the shadow of their fathers and get spoiled. But I was unlucky as I was in a boarding school before I joined St Stephen’s, one of the best colleges in the country. I also went to Europe. He insisted that I get a good education and that’s why I was able to write this book.

What was your father’s relationship with his younger brother, the famous Hindi writer Bhisham Sahni?

I spent my first years with Bhisham I have. He was a great writer who wrote Tamas and many other excellent books in Hindi. The two brothers were like pals who loved and supported each other throughout their lives. They were discussing everything. It was amazing to see their connection. I wrote a chapter on their relationship in this book.

You had gone to Russia for training in directing and scriptwriting but found yourself in front of the camera as an actor when you came back? Being the son of Balraj Sahni, was that predestined?

It looks like it.

Did you have to be under pressure to live up to people’s expectations at the time?

I was not under any pressure as such because my dad told me early on that I didn’t have to copy it. He told me to be myself and not to try to become a third-rate Balraj Sahni. But the job that I found most exciting was, of course, the writing. I then wrote many scripts in my company, Balraj Sahni Productions. I also wrote soap operas for television. Playing the part comes quite easily to me as I have been on stage for many years but never aspired to be a big star. Acting was never the end of my life.

But you got off to a flying start as an actor, delivering one hit, Anokhi Raat (1968) with a new screen name (Ajay Sahni), which was followed by Pavitra Paapi and Samaj Ko Badal Dalo (both in 1970)…

It’s true, but after my father died there was a big fall. I was offered a lot of hero roles but I didn’t know what to do. I was educated in Europe so I was uncomfortable with Hindi cinema. Now it’s different but at that time I was thinking about what I was doing, singing and dancing around the trees. My heart was not there. In fact, I wanted to be a director.

And then, you came back after a break with Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie with your original name …

As I got older I started to take on interesting character roles. Shortly before his death, my father asked me why I had changed my name? So I went back to my original name, which he had given me, out of respect for his wishes.

To post-Kabhi Kabhie, you have become a prolific actor in the industry and you have carved out a place for yourself, far from the shadow of your illustrious father.

I do not know. He told me to do my best in everything I do and believe in it. That’s what I do. No one can be like him. I still don’t understand how he worked and how he did even an ordinary scene in such an unmistakable way.

Is it true that he once forced you to spit in his face while shooting a movie?

He said you have to do it since the script requires it. I was terribly upset and kept spitting on the ground, to his left and to his right, but he kept repeating that I had to spit on him. I finally did but I was very upset. After the shoot he took me to the make-up room and told me that he was not my father but a character in the script and that I had to do everything that was written in the script. I almost cried but he told me that an actor has to be like that.

Your book is full of interesting episodes. You also remember meeting Giani Zail Singh on a trip to Russia, long before he became president of the country.

I think I didn’t write the book; the book writes itself. I hadn’t planned it and everything I could remember, I wrote it down. My father was with Giani Zail Singh as part of an official delegation to Russia. No one had heard of him and I was his interpreter. But my father had a presentiment that he would go far in his life. He used to say that this man makes deep statements and is very knowledgeable. Many years later, when Giani I have sworn in as President of India, I remembered my father’s prediction and cried when I realized how he made such a precise prediction about it.

I feel like there are still many chapters in your life still waiting to be told. Can we expect an autobiography from you in the future?

My life is not that interesting. The episodes related to my life in the book happened elsewhere. In fact, my father had written a brilliant autobiography. Who would be interested in my autobiography today? Naseeruddin Shah wrote a beautiful autograph. Amitabh can also write a great autobiography because he is an institution; he is a mahapurush and a great man and actor. I do not fit into their category.

Was it just in the right way that Mr. Bachchan not only wrote the foreword to your book, but also published it when it was launched in Mumbai the other day?

The release was a success mainly because of him. In fact, he got the wrong launch location because he didn’t receive the correct information. But he called me, turned his car, and reached the location about 20 to 30 minutes late. It shows his education. He is the son of a great man and he is great himself. My father used to say that an actor must have three D’s: dedication, discipline and determination. He has it all. That’s why he’s where he is. He is now a legend.


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