Memories of a misfit
Ready for the Mumbai launch, veteran actor Balraj Sahni's son Parikshat discusses the painful process of writing a book on a parent
Balraj Sahni — at the peak of his acting career in the late '50s — entered a high-society party in Delhi looking like, what his son Parikshat recalls, a fish out of water. While the men were suited up, he made an entrance in a lungi-kurta and chappals. One woman burst into a tirade about how Indian films are trash. He agreed and asked her if she had seen Do Bigha Zamin. She hadn't. Instead, she replied saying she only watched English and European movies. And the woman also never missed a single French film. Sahni then asked her if she had seen Academy Award-winning Hiroshima Mon Amour. She hadn't.
What happened next defines the title of Parikshat Sahni's memoir of his late father that launches in the city tomorrow — The Non-Conformist (Penguin Random House India). The veteran actor gently broke down the opening sequence of the French movie; vividly describing a naked man and woman that was taboo to the ears of the guests present.
Parikshat and his father in Pavitra Paapi, 1970
Ask the author today about when he put pen to paper for this title and he says, "Madam, many, many, many years ago." A few minutes of conversation is enough to tell you how much the 75-year-old loves writing, even more than acting. But he still thought of writing a book on his father to be a pipe dream. "I didn't think of becoming a writer, but I used to write. I've always had a diary. The journalist Ali Peter John encouraged me to write about my dad. He kept badgering me and so did Tolstoy when he said, 'You write a book and then it starts writing itself,'" he says.
The book also includes some articles that Parikshat had written years ago, now woven in as chapters like The Bourgeoisie, where he details his father's experiences at Santiniketan and Sevagram, and the roots of his Marxist beliefs. But he presents an engaging and honest account, jotting down words from his lived experiences and not delving into an analysis of the roles he played. As Parikshat maintains, "This is not a biography. It is to reflect on what sort of a guy he was apart from being an actor. I am not glorifying him." Parikshat follows larger themes across geographies. Shuttling between Rawalpindi, Srinagar and the Soviet Union, he unabashedly delves into political ideologies. Recalling the summers spent in Srinagar, which remains close to his heart, he ponders over the state of the Valley today. "I feel like my father is lucky that he's not here to see what has happened," he says.
Bisham and Balraj Sahni in Moscow in 1957 during the youth festival
Although he tried hard to, the writer doesn't shy away from his pain in the narrative. Some chapters were particularly difficult to write. Ikraam, the last chapter named after the now dilapidated house his father built in Juhu, is an unfolding of the last years of Sahni's life. Though it became a "hub" for the members of the Indian People's Theatre Association movement, it is also associated with the bitter memories of his daughter Shabnam passing away in it. "That house was a paradox. He was forced into buying it. Writing this was cathartic. I feel guilty about not having spent as much time with him. I didn't even see him for the first five years of my life. But I know he loved me like hell," Parikshat shares.
Balraj Sahni as Shambhu in Do Bigha Zamin, 1953
Being identified as Balraj Sahni's son has never been burdensome. Yes, he admits that films came by because of it, but not because his father pressured him into it. "He once told me it is better to be a first-rate Parikshat Sahni than a third-rate Balraj Sahni. Don't try to copy me," he shares. Sahni passed away in 1973 at the age of 59, soon after dubbing for Garam Hawa. Parikshat has come to terms with the void in his life. "When he died, I thought I wouldn't survive. He was like a banyan tree under whose shade we all lived. I took to sleeping pills, tranquilisers and alcohol. Then, I overheard someone saying I wouldn't survive and I thought, 'Balraj Sahni ka beta... he can't go like that.' And I pulled myself together."
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