Film_Companion-balraj-sahni-book-The-nonconformist

Written by: Parikshat Sahni

Pages: 260

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Balraj Sahni, actor of the yesteryears, had written an autobiography, which was published in 1979, six years after his death. A few years later, in 1981, his brother, noted writer Bhisham Sahni, wrote a biography of him titled ‘Balraj, My Brother’. 

Almost four decades since the publishing of these books comes Parikshat Sahni’s ‘The Non Conformist: Memories of my Father Balraj Sahni’. Parikshat, an actor in his own right finds himself in his late seventies, confronting memories of his father which are getting choppier and more distant with the ageing years. 

Dad is always written with the first D capitalized, much like how, as children, we were told to write God, even mid-sentence, with the G always capitalized. This makes sense – there is a looming God-like presence through this book. “It was as if the air around him came from a different world,” Amitabh Bachchan writes in his foreword. A sense of infallibility- stuck in storms floating in the sea, braving the ravages of time, distance and destruction. 

Even his death is written as if Sahni knew it was coming all along; he knew he was going to die, so he insisted on finishing the dub of the movie, Garam Hawa, the same day before leaving the studio. (Parikshat writes that it was this film that killed Sahni. The director of the film, MS Sathyu, recounts in guilt, how he added a scene of a daughter dying later, knowing Sahni could relate, having just lost his daughter. Haggard and worn out, Balraj inched closer to his mortality)

One of the most painful moments of the book is when Parikshat sees his father, a lifelong Marxist, in the fading years of his life, reeling from the death of loved ones, renouncing Das Kapital for the Guru Granth Sahib. He finally succumbed to the opium of the masses, religion.

A flip side of this deification, is that Balraj Sahni, the icon, does not feel human at all. His vulnerabilities, faults, and contradictions are all wrapped in gossamer. Nostalgia tends to do this, and if it is your father that you are nostalgic about, all the more so. 

There is a hurting quality to time. I visited the beach he writes about, the desolate, calm shores of Juhu have now descended into a polluted cesspit, the bungalow of his father in ravages, the street in decay, potholed and pockmarked, the Kashmir of his father’s memory in the talon like grip of an indifferent state. Nostalgia is not just about the sepia filtered beauty of the past, but the grainy ache of being in the present. Both are felt, not necessarily articulated. One of the most painful moments of the book is when Parikshat sees his father, a lifelong Marxist, in the fading years of his life, reeling from the death of loved ones, renouncing Das Kapital for the Guru Granth Sahib. He finally succumbed to the opium of the masses, religion.

The book is organized in chapters that talk about facets of his life as opposed to phases. So there is a chapter on Sahni the Marxist, Sahni the actor, Sahni the parent, and so on, as opposed to Sahni in the 50s, 60s. His capital-lettered personality is constant and unchanged, and so it makes sense that the memories of him too come not as the progression of time, but as merely decoding a personality. The function of time in most lives is evolution- people evolve through time. But here, from the moment we are introduced to Sahni, we see him as an evolved character. 

An overlong book, the edits are sloppy, sentences are repeated, accounts are contradicted, and the timelines baffle. But then again, this book is not about the craft, but about nostalgia.

Literarily, this book is a bit of a puzzle. The foreword written by Amitabh Bacchan makes it clear he wrote it before the book was completed. (‘And as Parikshat sets about putting pen to paper to narrate his father’s life, I send him my heartfelt best wishes…’) Even the blurb has artists writing about Balraj Sahni the actor, and not about how the book frames this man, more than four decades after his death. It is not interested in Parikshat the writer as well. An overlong book, the edits are sloppy, sentences are repeated, accounts are contradicted, and the timelines baffle. But then again, this book is not about the craft, but about nostalgia. It is neither about the writer nor the written. It is merely about the personality. It is remembering a father, and an actor entrenched in the imagination of a now ageing  audience in the autumn of their lives.

The first I, a thoroughbred millennial, had heard of him was during a game of Antakshari. The elders descending into songs of the 90s, 80s… The sound Ae was to be used to start a song. My father began mouthing the lyrics of a song from his 1965 movie, Waqt. People joined in slowly, the young ones were wide eyed, unaware of the words, the tune, or the time.

Ae mere zohra jabeen
Tujhe maloom nahin
Tu abhi tak hai haseen
Aur mein jawaan. 

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