The Activist Artiste

1Balraj Sahni in a still from Do Bigha Zameen

As a farmer struggling to save his meagre plot from a greedy landlord in Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Balraj Sahni earned appreciation from critics and fans alike. In 1954, the film won the Best Film at the Filmfare Awards. "But he felt his performance was very wooden," recalls 67-year-old Kalpana Sahni, his niece. "He never wanted to be an actor. Somebody once remarked that he resembled Clark Gable on screen. What they actually meant was that he was stiff on camera," she adds, sitting at her Central Delhi apartment, browsing through old portraits of her uncle on her laptop.

On Balraj Sahni's birth centenary, Kalpana Sahni, her cousin Pariskhit Sahni, and other family members will gather to celebrate his contribution to cinema at the annual Habitat Film Festival at India Habitat Centre, which opens on May 11. Kalpana fondly recalls her uncle as someone who was humble, adventurous and jovial. But since she was mostly away at boarding school at The Lawrence Scool, Sanawar, she could only spend holidays with him in Mumbai.

Sitting next to a portrait of her father, Bhisham Sahni, she remembers the bond the brothers shared and their commitment towards the national struggle. "While cinema gave him (Balraj) work, it also gave him a new insight. Rather than pontificating about life from an arm chair, Balraj wanted to involve himself with the masses," she says. And in the early '40s, at the height of the nationalist struggle, Balraj's wish found resonance through the Independent People's Theatre Movement (IPTA).

In Maharashtra, tamasha was a popular theatre form and Balraj made friends with its patron Anna Bhau Sathe to carry forward the message of political activity. Soon, he became the general secretary of the Bombay branch of IPTA. "My uncle returned from the UK in 1944 with his wife Damayanti. It's at this stage that both of them were searching for a way to be part of a larger cause. Instead of joining active politics, he felt art and politics could be fused together for greater good," says Kalpana. An impactful film from the cultural movement was Dharti ke Lal (1946) starring Balraj, Zohra Sehgal, Anwar Mirza and Hamid Butt, which dealt with the Bengal famine. It was the only film produced by IPTA and is one of their most significant contributions. "Groups from Bengal would perform plays about the famine across the state," she says.

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