Penguin, in collaboration with City Book Leaders, recently organised the book launch of the noted actor Parikshat Sahni’s biography on his father and legendary actor Balraj Sahni titled ‘The Non-Conformist, Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni’ at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. The foreword of the biography is written by Amitabh Bachchan who has been a great admirer of the Do Bhiga Zameen actor all his life. When Bachchan was starting out in the film industry he had gone to see Sahni in order to seek his blessings. According to Parikshat’s account, his stalwart father had advised Bachchan, “Be like a lotus flower. Be in the film industry and yet stay clean and don’t let anything dirty your insides or exterior.” The highlight of the launch was a lively discussion on the life and times of Balraj Sahni. The panellists were Parikshat Sahni, Deepti Naval, and the National Award-winning film critic Giridhar Jha who also moderated the discussion.
Writing a book about his father wasn’t an easy task for Parikshat. It proved to be a long and painful process that ultimately took years to finish. “The idea had been with me for a long time. In fact, some of the chapters were written 15-20 years also. About 7-8 years ago I was approached by a few publishers to write a book on my father but I couldn’t realise it because I found it extremely difficult to write about dad. Then a film critic friend of mine threatened me to a point where I wasn’t left with an option to avoid writing the book anymore,” chuckled Sahni.
Deepti Naval, like so many other actors over the decades, sees Balraj Sahni as a role model. In fact, it was a childhood encounter with Sahni that hugely impacted her life. “As a child I met him in Amritsar. I was only a little girl and he has been my idol since then. I think I was about 10 years old. I have no qualms about revealing my age because I want to be given credit for it rather having to hide it. My dad was an art enthusiast and he took me along to play titled ‘Kanak Di Balli’ wherein Balraj Sahni was performing. I remember I couldn’t see him perform very clearly because tall men were sitting in front of me. All that kept me hooked to the play was his voice. When the play finally got over somehow my father picked me up and pushed me through the crowd and that’s how I managed to get the autograph from him. It’s such a special memory in my life that I have even written a story about the experience in my collection of short stories,” recollected Naval.
On being asked by Jha about a particular adventure mentioned in the book wherein Parikshat was taken along by his father to swim in the deep sea, Parikshat recollected how he at one point of time feared for his life: “We lived close to the sea and everyday my father would swim for at least two miles by the coast. I used to just sit and watch because I didn’t like the water very much. Occasionally I would take a few strokes and then come back but I never ventured any further into the sea. Now, during the monsoons the sea becomes very rough and during one such rainy day, dad asked me to join him. I was greatly frightened but it sounded like a challenge and so I went for it. I still remember the tide that day was unbelievable and soon we were thrown into the deep sea. I thought that this is the end. I still shiver when I think about it.”
It got tougher and tougher with the waves growing stronger than ever with each passing minute. “One moment we were down in the trough and next we were up on the crest of the wave and then down again. And suddenly dad started singing revolutionary songs and I thought then he has gone mad. Seeing us in distress an English boatman approached us and offered to help but dad refused to get into his boat. But I clung to the boat as soon as I could but dad asked me to leave it at once. The boatman got furious and left us all alone. Seeing me in great panic, dad told me to take it as a lesson. He warned that there will be lots of days like this in your life when you feel helpless against the tide but one must not give up. The key is to ride the tide and not fight it because the tide always turns and it did turn that day also after about an hour or so and we safely managed to return to the shore,” added Sahni.
‘The Non-Conformist, Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni’ highlights several aspects of the Garm Hava actor’s life including his early struggle, collaboration with Chetan Anand, relationship with his younger brother Bhisham Sahni, and his lifelong affiliation to the Marxist ideology, among other things.