“We remain slaves to power”: Balraj Sahni

Balraj Sahni

Edited excerpts of the convocation address delivered at JNU in 1972. It remains as relevant today as it was then, 46 years back

In the last 25 years, I have worked in more than 125 films. In the same period, a contemporary European or American actor would have done 30 or 35. From this you can imagine what a large part of my life lies buried in strips of celluloid.

A vast number of books which I should have read, I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in, have passed me by. Sometimes I feel terribly left behind. And the frustration increases when I ask myself: How many of these 125 films had anything significant in them? How many have any claim to be remembered? Perhaps a few. They could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And even they have either been forgotten already or will be, quite soon.

A free man

I’d like to tell you about an incident which took place in my college days and which I have never been able to forget. It has left a permanent impression on my mind.

I was going by bus from Rawalpindi to Kashmir with my family to enjoy the summer vacation. Half-way through, we were halted because a big chunk of the road had been swept away by a landslide caused by rain the previous night. We joined the long queues of buses and cars on either side of the landslide. Impatiently, we waited for the road to clear. It was a difficult job for the PWD and it took some days before they could cut a passage through. During all this time, the passengers and the drivers of vehicles made a difficult situation even more difficult by their impatience and constant demonstration. Even the villagers nearby got fed up with the high-handed behaviour of the city-walas.

That day I saw with my own eyes the difference in attitudes between a man brought up in a free country and a man brought up in an enslaved one. A free man has the power to think, decide and act for himself. But the slave loses that power

One morning, the overseer declared the road open. The green flag was waved to the drivers. But we saw a strange sight. No driver was willing to be the first to cross. They just stood and stared at each other from either side. No doubt the road was a make-shift one and even dangerous. A mountain on one side, and a deep gorge and the river below. Both were forbidding. The overseer had made a careful inspection and had opened the road with a full sense of responsibility. But nobody was prepared to trust his judgment, although these very people had, till the day before, accused him and his department of laziness and incompetence. Half an hour passed by in dumb silence. Nobody moved. Suddenly, we saw a small green sports car approaching. An Englishman was driving it; sitting all by himself. He was a bit surprised to see so many parked vehicles and the crowd there. I was rather conspicuous, wearing my smart jacket and trousers. “What’s happened?” he asked me. I told him the whole story. He laughed loudly, blew the horn and went straight ahead, crossing the dangerous portion without the least hesitation. And now the pendulum swung the other way. Every body was so eager to cross that they got into each other’s way and created a new confusion for some time. The noise of hundreds of engines and hundreds of horns was unbearable.

That day I saw with my own eyes the difference in attitudes between a man brought up in a free country and a man brought up in an enslaved one. A free man has the power to think, decide and act for himself. But the slave loses that power. He always borrows his thinking from others, wavers in his decisions, and more often than not only takes the trodden path.

I learnt a lesson from this incident, which has been valuable to me. I made it a test for my own life. In the course of my life, whenever I have been able to make my own crucial decisions, I have been happy. I have felt the breath of freedom on my face. I have called myself a free man. My spirit has soared high and I have enjoyed life because I have felt there is meaning to life.

But, to be frank, such occasions have been too few. More often than not, I had lost courage at the crucial moment, and taken shelter under the wisdom of other people. I had taken the safer path. I made decisions which were expected of me by my family, by the bourgeois class to which I belonged, and the set of values upheld by them. I thought one way but acted in another. For this reason, afterwards I have felt rotten. Some decisions have proved ruinous in terms of human happiness. Whenever I lost courage, my life became a meaningless burden.

I told you about an Englishman. I think that in itself is symptomatic of the sense of inferiority that I felt at that time. I could have given you the example of Sardar Bhagat Singh who went to the gallows the same year. I could have given you the example of Mahatma Gandhi who always had the courage to decide for himself.

I remember how my college professors and the wise respectable people of my home town shook their heads over the folly of Mahatma Gandhi, who thought he could defeat the most powerful empire on earth with his utopian principles of truth and non-violence.

I think less than one per cent of the people of my city dreamt that they would see India free in their lifetime. But Mahatma Gandhi had faith in himself, in his country, and his people. Some of you may have seen a painting of Gandhiji done by Nandalal Bose. It is the picture of a man who has the courage to think and act for himself.

Film industry

It is not easy for me to laugh at Hindi films. I earn my bread from them. They have brought me plenty of fame and wealth. To some extent at least, I owe to Hindi films the high honour which you have given me today.

When I was a student like you, our teachers, both English and Non-English, tried to convince us in diverse ways that the fine arts were a prerogative of white people. Great films, great drama, great acting, great painting, etc., were only possible in Europe and America. The Indian people, their language and culture, were as yet too crude and backward for real artistic expression. We used to feel bitter about this and we resented it outwardly: but inwardly we could not help accepting this judgment.

The picture has changed vastly since then. After Independence, India has made a tremendous recovery in every branch of the arts. In the field of film making, names like Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy stand out as international personalities. Many of our artistes, cameramen and technicians compare with the best anywhere in the world.

Before Indepen-dence, we hardly made ten or fifteen films worth the name. Today, we are the biggest film producing country in the world. Not only are our films immensely popular with the masses in our own country, but also in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Eastern Republics of the Soviet Union; Egypt, and other Arab countries in the Far East and many African countries. We have broken the monopoly of Hollywood in this field.

But all these assets are negated by our one overwhelming fault – that we are imitators and copyists. This one fault makes us the laughing stock of intelligent people everywhere. We make films according to borrowed, outdated formulas. We do not have the courage to strike out on our own, to get to grips with the reality of our own country, to present it convincingly and according to our own genius.

Literary world

In the literary world, in which I have considerable interest, I see the same picture. Our novelists, story writers, and poets are carried away with the greatest of ease by the currents of fashion in Europe, although Europe, with the exception of the Soviet Union perhaps, is not yet even aware of Indian writing. For example, in my own province of Punjab, there is a wave of protest among young poets against the existing social order. Their poetry exhorts the people to rebel against it, to shatter it and build a better world free from corruption, injustice and exploitation. One cannot but endorse that spirit wholeheartedly, because, without question, the present social order needs changing.

The content of this poetry is most admirable, but the form is not indigenous. It is borrowed from the west. The west has discarded meter and rhyme, so our Punjabi poet must also discard it. He must also use involved and ultra-radical imagery. The result is that the sound and fury remains only on paper, confined to small, mutually admiring literary circles. The people, the workers and the peasants who are being exhorted to revolution, cannot make head or tail of this kind of poetry. It just leaves them cold and perplexed. I don’t think I am wrong if I say that other Indian languages too are in the grip of “new wave” poetry.

(This convocation address remained in circulation for many years after 1972 as the JNU Students Union used to bring it out as a booklet. And then for many years, it went out of public domain till Professor Chaman Lal – courtesy whom it appears here – then President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association, hunted it out of the archives and made it available on the JNUTA Website in 2007)

This is the first part of a three-part article that first appeared in National Herald on Sunday.

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