What was unique about Balraj Sahni was the style in which he portrayed the oppressed masses of India.He was a thorn in the flesh to the ruling class culture.From his youth days he was influenced by Marxism and joined the Communist Party of India.Balraj was one of the founding members of the I.P.T.A.and was arrested in 1951 for supporting the Telengana Struggle.
Balraj was the founding member of the All India youth federation-the youth wing of the Communist Party of India.
In 1947 Balraj gave his first portrayal in Dharti ke Lal. Dharti Ke Lal was critically acclaimed for its scathing view of notorious Bengal famine of 1943 in which over 1.5 million people died. It is considered an important political film as it gives a realistic portrayal of the changing social and economic climate during the World War II.The film uses the plight of a single family caught in this famine, and tells the story of human devastation, and the loss of humanity during the struggle to survive.During the Bengal famine of 1943, members of IPTA travelled all over India, performing plays and collecting funds for the survivors of the famine, which has destroyed a whole generation of farmer families in Bengal. Thus Abbas was deeply influenced by the work of IPTA, and hence based his script upon two of IPTA plays, Nabanna (Harvest) and Jabanbandi by Bijon Bhattacharya, and the story Annadata by Krishan Chander. Even the cast of the film was mainly actors from IPTA.
Hower it was in 1952 that he gave the best performance of his illustrious career in ‘Do Bhiga Zameen’.This film portrayed the poverty and landlordism prevalent in post-independence more than any film and it’s theme is arguably more relevant in the modern era of globlisation. Balraj brilliantly enacted the role of Shambu Mahato who becomes a rickshaw puller in Calcutta in order to pay his debts to the money lender and save his land. In the end a factory is put up on his plot.No face in Bollywood could express the sorrow of the peasant as Balraj Sahni acting as Shambu Mahato did when his land is lost.Sahni’s face literally wrote the hearts of millions of oppressed peasants of India not only then ,but even now.
To get into the skin of the character Balraj pulled rickshaws and lived with the rickshaw pullers.Viewers could hardly feel Balraj was even acting as he was as natural as water flowing in a stream.He brilliantly exhibits feelings of hope and frustration as well as insecurity and confusion.It was one of the finest acting displays representing the opression of a common man in world cinema.Today in villages in India ,there are shortages of drinking water, suicides of peasants who are unable to pay their debts to commission agents,and forceful seizures of land by SEZ’s.Today in Balraj Sahni’s very homeland of Punjab there is still an abject monopoly of moneylenders.
The story revolves around a farmer Shambu Mahato (Balraj Sahni), who lives with his wife Parvati `Paro’ (Nirupa Roy) and son Kanhaiya (Rattan Kumar) in a small village that has been hit badly by a famine. After years of drought, the region finally gets rain, leading to the farmers to rejoice. Shambu owns two bighas (a unit of land measurement where 3 bighas is 1 acre) of land, which is the only means of livelihood for the whole family. The local zamindar (landlord) Thakur Harnam Singh (Murad) partners with some city business men to construct a mill on his large parcel of land, which in return would profit them and bring prosperity to the village. The only problem is that in the middle of Harnam singh's land lay Shambu's meager two bighas of land.
Harnam Singh is very confident that he could buy Shambu's land. Shambu has borrowed money from Harnam Singh several times in the past and has not paid back his debt. Harnam Singh calls for Shambu and proposes Shambu to sell his land to him in exchange for his debt. Shambu disagrees to sell his only livelihood and Harnam Singh gets upset. Harnam Singh orders him to pay back his debt by the next day or risk auctioning his land.
Shambu comes back home to discuss the issue with his father, and with the help of his son, they figure out that the debt amounts to 65 rupees. Shambu wants to save his land by all means and sells all his household items including his wife's gold earrings. When Shambu meets Harman Singh's accountant to pay back his debt of 65 rupees, he's shocked to know that he actually owes 235 rupees. The accountant had forged the accounts and now refuses to consider the labor provided by Shambu's father Gangu as portion of debt payoff. The case goes to court and Shambu being an illiterate, has a tough time explaining to the judge how the accountant forged the numbers and how he took accountant's word of mouth and did not demand any receipt. Shambu loses the case, however the judge orders Shambu to pay back 235 rupees to Harnam Singh in three months. If Shambu is not able to pay back his debt, then his land would be auctioned off and the proceeds would go to pay off his debts.
Shambu now struggles to get the money and he is unable to get a loan because he has no collaterals. One of his village friends gives him an idea to go to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and try to get a job to earn enough money to pay off his debt. Shambu likes this idea, but faces resistance from his wife as she's pregnant and does not want to live away from him. Shambu persuades her that he'll be gone for three months only and it would benefit his family and the new born baby. Kanhaiya wants to join his father too, but Shambu refuses and scolds him. On the train to Calcutta, Shambu finds Kanhaiya hiding and hitchhiking with him and after a brief confrontation agrees to take Kanhaiya with him.
In Calcutta, Shambu and Kanhaiya face a harsh welcome. Nobody is willing to talk with them, let alone help them. Kanhaiya befriends a street side shoe shiner named Lalu Ustad’ (Jagdeep). They hope for no prospective and even loose their last possessions while they are asleep on the street sides. Kanhaiya falls ill, and Shambu ends up renting a small room in the slums with the help of a tea vendor and the landlady's adopted grandchild rani. In order to pay the rent, Shambu works a coolie. Shambu befriends an old rickshaw-puller (Nasir Hussain), who helps him to get a license as a rickshaw-puller. Kanhaiya tries to help his family by taking up shoe shining with the help of old rickshaw-puller and Lalu `Ustad’. Back in the village, Parvati and Gangu survive on eating water chestnuts picked up from the local river. She's seeks help from Bahu (Meena Kumari) to write letters to Shambu and stay in touch.
As the three months end date nears by, Shambu becomes aggressive about earning and saving more money. One day, a man asks Shambu to chase another rickshaw that is carrying his girlfriend. Shambu is insisted to pull the rickshaw very fast for more money. The rickshaw loses a wheel and Shambu meets with an accident. Looking at the condition of his father, Kanhaiya joins a pick pocketer in order to earn quick money. Shambu gets mad and beats Kanhaiya when he comes to know about his dirty earnings. Meanwhile, Parvati gets worried since she receives no letters or money from Shambu and the Zamindar's accountant accuses Shambu that he has forgotten his family. She ends up working on a local construction site and gets devastated when she receives the news that Shambu has met with an accident. Finally, Parvati decides to visit Shambu in the city even though Gangu is on bed rest suffering of high fever.
Parvati arrives in Calcutta, and is taken by a strange man, who claims he knows Shambu and will take her to him. He takes her to his shed and tries to steal and force her. She flees from him, but comes under a car. The crowd gathers around her and they call for a rickshaw to take her to the hospital. Shambu who was passing by offers a ride, and is shocked to see his injured wife. Meanwhile, Kanhaiya not able to withstand his father's condition steals money from a lady and runs back to the slum. He comes to know about his mother's condition and rushes to the hospital. He cries after seeing his injured mother and claims that God has punished them because he started stealing money. He rips the money into pieces. The doctors tell Shambu that he has to spend money on medicine and blood in order to save his wife. Poor Shambu has no choice but so spend all his earnings to save his wife.
Back in the village the land is auctioned because Shambu fails to pay back the debt and Gangu develops a mental disorder. The land is now owned by Harman Singh and the mill construction has begun. Shambu and his family come back to the village only to see their land sold and a factory being constructed over it. He then tries to get a handful of dirt from his land, but is stopped and forced to throw away by a security guard. The film ends as Shambu and his family walks away from their land.
In Kabuliwala ,he again meticulously prepared for the role living with the abuliwalas.Although emotional he again portrayed the character to perfection . Abdur Rehman Khan (Balraj Sahni), a middle-aged dry fruit seller from Afghanistan, comes to Calcutta to hawk his merchandise and befriends a small Bengali girl called Mini (Sonu) who reminds him of his own daughter Amina back in Afghanistan. He puts up at a boarding house along with his countrymen. Since he is short of money he decides to sell his goods on credit for increasing his business. Later, when he goes to collect his money, one of his customers abuses him and in the fight that ensues Rehman warns that he will not tolerate abuse and stabs the man when he does not stop the abuse. In the court Rehman's lawyer tries to obfuscate the facts but in his characteristic and simple fashion Rehman states the truth in a matter of fact way. The judge, pleased with Rehman's honesty, gives him 10 years' rigorous imprisonment instead of the death sentence. On the day of his release, he goes to meet Mini but discovers that she has grown up into a woman and is about to get married. Mini does not recognize Rehman, who realises that his own daughter must have forgotten him too. Mini's father gives Rehman the money for travelling back to Afghanistan out of Mini's wedding budget to which Mini agrees; she also sends a gift for Rehman's daughter. The film ends with Rehman travelling back to his homeland.
In Garam Hawa,his acting championed the cause of secularism ,when his acting portrayed the character of Salim Mirza ,who refuses to yield to communal forces and migrate to Pakistan. Displaying no exaggeration in his acting and a natural style Balraj won the hearts of the Indian masses a little after communal riots had taken place in Mumbai.This film is of immense relevance today when the world opinion is pitted against the Muslim community . The Mirzas are a Muslim family living in a large ancestral house and running a shoe manufacturing business in the city of Agra in the United Provinces of northern India (now the state of Uttar Pradesh). The story begins in the immediate aftermath of India's independence and the partition of India in 1947. The family is headed by two brothers; Salim (Balraj Sahni), who heads the family business, and his elder brother Halim, who is mainly engaged in politics and is a major leader in the provincial branch of the All India Muslim League, which led the demand for the creation of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. Salim has two sons, the elder Baqar, who helps him in the business, and Sikander (Farooq Shaikh), who is a young student. Halim's son Kazim is engaged to Salim's daughter, Amina. Although he had publicly promised to stay in India for the sake of its Muslims, Halim later decides to quietly emigrate to Pakistan with his wife and son, believing that there was no future for Muslims in India. Salim resists the notion of moving, believing that peace and harmony would return soon, besides which, he has to care for their ageing mother, who refuses to leave the house of her forefathers. This puts Kazim and Amina's marriage plans on hold, although Kazim promises to return soon to marry her. Halim's stealthy migration affects Salim's standing in the community. In the aftermath of partition, the sudden migration of many Muslims from Agra left banks and other lenders deeply reluctant to lend money to Muslim businessmen like Salim Mirza, who had previously been held in high esteem, over fears that they would leave the country without repaying the loan. Unable to raise capital to finance production, Salim Mirza's business suffers. Salim Mirza's brother-in-law, formerly a League supporter, now joins the ruling Indian National Congress in an attempt to get ahead in independent India while his son Shamshad unsuccessfully woos Amina, who is still devoted to Kazim and hopeful of his return.
Halim's migration to Pakistan makes the family home an "evacuee property" as the house is in Halim's name and Halim did not transfer it to Salim Mirza. The Indian government mandates the take over of the house, forcing Salim Mirza's family to move out of their ancestral home, which is very hard on Mirza's aged mother. Salim's wife blames him for not raising this issue with his brother Halim before he left for Pakistan. Mirza resists his wife's hints that they also move to Pakistan and his elder son's calls for modernizing the family business. Mirza finds it difficult to rent a house, facing discrimination owing to his religion and fears that a Muslim family would skip out on rent if they decided to leave for Pakistan. He finally succeeds in finding a smaller house to rent, but his business is failing and despite his son's exhorting, refuses to change with the times, believing that Allah would protect them. Salim Mirza's passiveness and disconnection from the outside world leaves his wife and son frustrated. The Mirza family house is bought by a close business associate, Ajmani, (A.K. Hangal) who respects Mirza and tries to help him. Despite growing troubles, the family is briefly buoyed by Sikander's graduation from college.
Amina and her family have almost given up on her marrying Kazim after Halim breaks his promise to return soon from Pakistan. Kazim returns on his own, and reveals that his father had become opposed to his marrying Amina, preferring that he marry the daughter of a Pakistani politician. Having received a scholarship from the Government of Pakistan to study in Canada, Kazim desires to marry Amina before he leaves, but before the marriage can take place, he is arrested by police and repatriated to Pakistan for traveling without a passport and not registering at the police station, as is required of all citizens of Pakistan. Amina is heart-broken, and finally accepts Shamshad's courtship. Sikander undergoes a long string of unsuccessful job interviews, where the interviewers repeatedly suggest that he would have better luck in Pakistan. Sikander and his group of friends become disillusioned and start an agitation against unemployment and discrimination, but Salim prohibits Sikander from taking part. Despite his political connections, Salim Mirza's brother-in-law ends up in debt over shady business practices and decides to flee to Pakistan. Amina again faces the prospect of losing her lover, but Shamshad promises to return and not leave her like Kazim. Salim Mirza's reluctance to modernize and cultivate ties with the newly-formed shoemakers union results in his business not receiving patronage and consequently failing. Disillusioned, his son Baqar decides to migrate to Pakistan with his son and wife. Salim's aged mother suffers a stroke, and through his friend, Salim is able to bring his mother to her beloved house for a final visit, where she dies. While Salim is traveling in a horse-drawn carriage, the carriage driver, a Muslim, gets into an accident and a squabble with other locals. The situation deteriorates into a riot, and Salim is hit by a stone and suffers injuries. With his business and elder son gone, Salim begins to work as a humble shoemaker to make a living. Shamshad's mother returns from Pakistan for a visit, leading Amina and her mother to think that Shamshad would also come soon and their marriage would take place. However, Shamshad's mother merely takes advantage of Salim Mirza's connections to release some of her husband's money, and reveals that Shamshad's marriage has been arranged with the daughter of a well-connected Pakistani family. Shattered with this second betrayal, Amina commits suicide, which devastates the whole family.
Amidst these problems, Salim Mirza is investigated by the police on charges of espionage over his sending plans of their former property to his brother in Karachi, Pakistan. Although acquitted by the court, Mirza is shunned in public and faces a humiliating whisper campaign. Mirza's long aversion to leaving India finally breaks down and he decides in anger to leave for Pakistan. Sikander opposes the idea, arguing that they should not run away from India, but fight against the odds for the betterment of the whole nation, but Salim decides to leave anyway. However, as the family is travelling towards the railway station, they encounter a large crowd of protestors marching against unemployment and discrimination, which Sikander had planned to join. Sikander's friends call out to him, and Salim encourages him to join the protestors. Instructing the carriage driver to take his wife back to their house, and the film ends as Salim Mirza himself joins the protest, ending his isolation from the new reality.
Other films where Balraj portrayed compassion to the common man were ‘Seema’ ,’Garam Coat’and ‘Anuradha’.In the former he takes up the cause of a rebellious and volatile orphan and superbly justifies how the society is responsible for her .
In ‘Anuradha’ he plays a doctor who is a crusader in saving the lives of the common man. Anuradha Roy (Leela Naidu), a noted radio singer, dancer and daughter of a rich man, falls in love with an idealistic doctor, Dr. Nirmal Chowdhary (Balraj Sahni). She decides to marry him against her father's will. Nirmal, whose mother died of illness, has decided to serve the poor in the distant village of Nandagaon. He asks Anuradha to not follow the hardships his life has but to live the life her father plans. But she still insists to follow her love. She rejects the wedding proposal set by her father with the London-returned Deepak (Abhi Bhattacharya). Deepak wishes her well and promises her to help in future if she ever needs any.
After the marriage and a daughter, Anuradha realizes the gravity of the choice of living in a village. Taking care of the family, doing all household chores she quits singing, the singing that once was her life. After many years one day her father comes home to visit them and reconcile. Seeing her poor condition her father asks them to come and stay in the city with him. But due to his patients Nirmal rejects the offer and promises to move after sometime.
Deepak while travelling with his girlfriend meets a car accident and is hence rushed to Dr. Nirmal. Nirmal does successful plastic surgery on his girlfriend. Deepak gets to stay with Anuradha for some days and realizes her hardships. He requests her to leave Nirmal and move to city and pursue her passion for music. It is then she has to decide between her love for husband and music. The clinching moment is when Dr. Nirmal concedes to her desire to leave him and restart her life in the city. At this point she asks him: "Can't you ask me to stay back?", and then decides to stay back with her husband.
In Garam coat he brilliantly portrays a postal clerk desperate to get a coat .The film was depiction ofsocialist realism. Girdhari (Balraj Sahni), a generous, honest friendly soul, who works as a money order clerk in a non-descript township, finds it difficult to make ends meet with his wife, Geeta (Nirupa Roy), two daughters and a son. In the discharge of his duties one day, he forgets to collect money from an irate customer, but eventually manages to recover it by paying the guy a visit after being severely reprimanded for his behaviour and returns home with his salary slickly avoiding co-workers, Sher Khan (Jayant) and Munnilal (Rashid Khan) with whom he had planned a drinking bout. While trying to buy gifts for the family he once again manages to lose the 100-rupee note and that sets in motion a series of predictable events: the house rent, the electricity bills, insurance, and other deliverables. Unable to retrieve it, he tries to commit suicide, but having missed the train he tamely returns home and confides the truth to his doting wife. Failing to cope with domestic needs and work pressures, including part-time jobs – depicted through a dramatic sequence – and borrowing, he is unable to pay even ration bills. Finally he makes one last desperate bid at dishonesty by pocketing the balance amount erringly left behind by a customer.
A confrontation follows, leaving doubts and suspicion about his behaviour even in his friends. But pricked by his conscience he goes and returns the money to the customer who eventually testifies in his favour and saves Girdhari's job. Unable to cope with mental pressure he starts making mistakes at his work places.
Wife Geeta tries to come to his rescue to make ends meet by quietly taking up part time jobs.
Tired and frustrated he returns home one night to find the kitchen stacked with necessities. One evening he finds the door locked, his wife missing, and his children playing outside.
When she returns he questions her about her movements, and finding some money in her hands, which she tries to hide, he assumes she has taken to prostitution.
Unable to control his rage he tries to strangle her and then rushes towards the railway track onto a speeding train but is rescued by the hefty Sher Khan, and the liliputian Munnilal who refuse to buy the story of Geeta's infidelity and bring him back home. Ultimately, he finds the missing 100-rupee note in the lining of his coat's pocket.
Balraj combined both the Brechtian and the Stanislavakian methods of acting.His acting revealed great depths of sensitivity and emotion but also contained powerful elements of being detached from the actual character.No actor ever in the history of Bollywood could exhibit the oppression of the common man with such skill and natural acting style.Balraj Sahni is simply an icon for Marxist cultural workers. He literally wrote the character which he played.
Where Sahni drifted was that inspite of being morally so drawn to the left he showed great sympathies toward Nehru and Gandhi and stood by the C.P.I,during the great Debate,failing to demarcate from the revisionism of the then U.S.S.R..He also acted in ‘Haqeekat’ a film about the Indo-China in the 1962 war which virtually treated China as the villains or culprits and glorified India’s cause.He failed to unite with the leftist forces who opposed the Sino-Indian war,taking no concrete stand opposing India’s role in the war.Sahni never fully recognized the reactionary character of Indian ‘Independence’ and of Gandhi and Nehru.
Nevertheless his good outweighed his negative points by far. Today revolutionary cinema could learn a lot from Balraj Sahni’s techniques.His art contained more realism than any Indian actor enacting the oppressed common man.Today although a flourishing industry Bolywood is selling itself to the imperialist culture and represents the lackeys of the Ruling classes and imperialists .Major stars basically represent the capitalist classes and imperialist culture.. It is significant that in this very day and age section still idolize his work and see it’s significance.
Several critiques rate Balraj Sahni,amongst the 3 finest Indian Bolywood actors of all time.This is a tribute to the ideology of Marxism.-Leninism.Communist revolutionary ranks of today appreciate the work ofSahni.The late revolutionary playwright,Gursharan Singh compiled a series of works of Balraj Sahni and launched the Balraj Sahni Prakashan.Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ranks could imbibe many a lesson from Sahni’s even if he did not publicly uphold Maoism.Let us remember this legend like a spark lighting in our hearts .It is of significance that even the bourgeois media and writers acclaim ‘Do Bhiga Zameen ‘ amongst the 5 best Bolywood films of all time.(I am sure even Marx,Lenin and Mao would have greatly admired it) We should re-incarnate ‘Do Bhiga Zameen’,in the context of the modern era of globalization,with the onslaught of the S.E.Z’s .This new version would have to place more emphasis on the imperialist onslaught.
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