To father, with (so much) love!

Updated: Sep 11, 2019, 07:41 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Actor Parikshat Sahni's poignant, adorable book on his father, doyen Balraj Sahni, 46 yrs after his death, is a unique piece of memoir-writing

To father, with (so much) love!
Balraj Sahni

Mayank ShekharMaman (or mom/mother) died last night," is arguably the best-known/loved opening sentence for a book in modern lit. Almost chilling in its stoicism; thus starts Albert Camus's The Outsider — introducing us to its narrator/lead-character Meursault. And, thereby, his bouts of absurdist existentialism that, if you aren't adult enough to handle, could screw your brains in mysterious ways.

Of all, why did I think of The Outsider (L'Estranger) reading actor Parikshat Sahni's ode to his dad, through the recently published memoir, Non-conformist: Memories Of My Father Balraj Sahni? Maybe the fact that over a 260-page account of his superstar father, Parikshat, 75, makes at best a passing mention (maybe a line or two), of his own mother's death (he calls her by the nickname, Dammo-ji), delving not even into why, or how, she passed away.

This is strange, although partly explained by the fact that Parikshat was never close to her. In his early years, he was raised at his grandparents' house in Rawalpindi, while his parents moved to London, where Balraj briefly worked as radio announcer with the BBC. The woman he calls 'Mummy' is Balraj's second wife.

The recently released Non-Conformist: Memories Of My Father Balraj Sahni by Parikshat Sahni
The recently released Non-Conformist: Memories Of My Father Balraj Sahni by Parikshat Sahni

Given how poor our documentation of people and times from any era is, Balraj's life is already quite well-archived, in comparison. For one, he was a writer himself. Having mastered in English literature from Lahore's elite Government College, he wrote in Punjabi, upon the insistence of his mentor, Rabindranath Tagore, who felt literature is best embraced in the language of one's birth. He did leave behind his autobiography, Meri Gair Jazbaati Diary (My Unsentimental Diary). Also, his brother, the legendary Hindi writer Bhisham Sahni, wrote a book, Balraj My Brother. Pop Internet has most famously kept Balraj's writing relevant through a "radical" convocation speech he delivered at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 1972, which circulates on social-media every other day, fetching newer fans.

Balraj (1913-73) was a sworn Nehruvian Marxist, a stage-actor and activist, closely involved with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), who entered films only much later, with the sort of gravitas and realism that had no parallels in its time — with films such as KA Abbas's Dharti Ke Lal (1946), Bimal Roy's Cannes winner Do Bigha Zameen (1953), or Hemen Gupta's Kabuliwala (1961), that deserve top-shelf space in annals of world cinema. Yash Chopra's Waqt (1965) and the song, O Meri Zohra Jabeen, of course, continues to keep him alive in a world of chartbusters.

What is it about actor Parikshat's account that draws you in, in newer ways still? The fact that he looks at his father, from the distance of time — 46 years after death — primarily through the lens of a son. There is much catharsis.

It appears he didn't appreciate his father enough, while growing under the shadow of such a colossal banyan tree.

Parikshat, in his own words, at the book's launch with Amitabh Bachchan, called himself a brat, "like most star-sons are". Having graduated from Delhi's St Stephen's College, he left for Russia to study film, and returned to Bombay as a Russian "misfit." What follows is a unique sort of memoir that tells you as much about the author (all writings do), as the subject.

In part poignant and adorable, the portrait that emerges of Balraj is of a soft-spoken free-spirit, who enjoyed nothing more than taking pot-shots at elites — sitting down with the Punjabi server/waiter at a posh house-party once in Delhi, just so he could annoy the shit out of the snooty crowd around him.

Or a consummate nature-lover, who would drag Parikshat down to the choppy waters, deep inside Juhu's sea-front, with crowds gathered at the beach, wondering if they'll survive the high-tide, while he hummed a song, and asked the son to simply float, or ride the tide, rather than fight it. He refused to take a boatman's help. And they eventually came back to the shore. He did this to teach the son an important life-lesson — that the tide always goes away!

As geographical memory, what survives of Balraj is a street named after him in Juhu, and a massive, dilapidated, haunted villa, Ikraam (near Hotel Sun-n-Sand) that, as Parikshat describes it, ate up his family once they moved in — basically a series of deaths, starting with the maid, cook, grandmother, and eventually his sister Shabnam, who committed suicide, post depression.

Balraj himself couldn't survive the pain of that last tragedy. He devoted himself to work as necessary distraction. This is when he shot M S Sathyu's, seminal, Partition masterpiece, Garm Hava (1973).

He was dubbing for the film at Rajkamal Studio, when the director asked to finish the left-over portions the following day. He insisted on finishing it in the same sitting.

"I am tired of living in this stifling condition," is the protagonist Mirza Saab's last line in Garm Hava. Also the last line Balraj ever dubbed.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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