Veteran actor Parikshat Sahni created his own identity in the film industry despite being the son of Balraj Sahni, the iconic actor known for classics such as Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Kabuliwala (1961) and his swan song Garm Hava (1974). But he says, in a candid conversation with Giridhar Jha, it was not easy for him because everybody expected him to be like his inimitable father. Excerpts from the interview:
You have just come out with a biography of your father called Non-conformist: Memories of My Father. What prompted you to write it after so many years since his demise?
A few years ago, a lady editor had told me that I must write a biography of my dad but I could not do so at that time. It was only about a year and a half ago that my journalist friend Ali Peter John insisted that I must do it. He said that he had read my articles and a short story, which I had written for The Illustrated Weekly. I told him that I did not have time but he kept on persuading me. Finally, I decided to give it a go-ahead. Then, of course, there is a US-based writer called Harshi Syal Gill, whose doctor-brother happens to be my old friend. They helped me a lot in finishing the book.
This biography is an honest account of Balraj Sahni, the man behind the iconic actor. How difficult was it for a son to write an objective account of his father’s life and times?
It was difficult because I had to resurrect a lot of memories. He had died more than four decades ago in 1973 but once I started thinking about all those moments I had spent with him, it all came back to me. The more I thought about of them the clearer they became. It was a labour of love for me, very exciting and cathartic.
Did you succeed in presenting him exactly the way he was? You did not try to portray him a demigod of sorts?
There is no point in writing if I am not being truthful. You have to be truthful. I have tried to be as truthful as possible to my memories. I did not want to glorify the man. He was a great man but there were sides of him which were very human. I tried to be as objective as possible as a writer.
In the foreword to the book, Amitabh Bachchan writes that his father, the late Harivansh Rai Bachchan, had advised him quite early in his career to be like Balraj Sahni. “He is in the industry, yet out of it,” he has been quoted as saying in the foreword. What exactly did he mean by that?
He meant the simple thing: Be a non-conformist that my father was. He lived as he wished and did not become part of the glamour world. He was a Marxist and believed in simple living and high thinking. He was an intellectual and a writer. After studying at the Government College, Lahore, he lived with Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) at Santiniketan and also stayed with Gandhiji at Sevagram. He spent five years in England while working for the BBC. He was a well-read and a rounded personality. Films were not the sole purpose of his life. Though he had mastered the craft, he did not conform to the norms of the film industry. He did what he felt like doing all through his life.
From Do Bigha Zameen to Garm Hava, he gave remarkable films but after reading the book, one gets the feeling that he was given a raw deal by the industry.
The industry did not take him that seriously because he did not conform to its established norms. He did not move around in a big car or showed up in fancy suits at film parties. He lived entirely on his own terms. Somewhere down the line, he did not want any publicity for himself. Many people criticised him for that. I have written how one great writer a friend of mine once called him a fraud. I still don’t know why did he say that. But after he passed away, his fame has grown manifold. People have realised that he was far ahead of his time.
Balraj Sahni is often ranked among the top three actors from Bollywood along with Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan but he remained a confirmed Marxist all his life. Did his anti-establishment, political ideology affect his career in any way?
Absolutely. An actor has to do what is asked to do. If he played a poor peasant in Do Bigha Zameen, he also played a very rich man in other films like Talaash and Ek Phool Do Mali (both in 1969). His job as an actor was to metamorphose himself on screen as per the script. But in his real life, his sympathies lay with the common man.
You have written about your close bond with your dad, reminiscing about the days when you used to accompany him for swimming in the sea in Mumbai (then Bombay) or diving deep into a frozen lake in Kashmir and on other adventure trips with him. Was he quintessentially a family man?
Oh, yes. He was a family man who loved every member of his family. Love was the basic tenet of his life and he managed to bind the entire family together with love.
But you have also mentioned about your stormy relationship with him?
In adolescence, you happen to be a rebel. Every young man is. I was sent off to a boarding school and I blamed him for that for many years. But he wanted me to get educated first before joining the film industry. Most of the star sons in the industry live under the shadow of their fathers and get spoilt. But I did not get a chance since I was in a boarding school before joining St Stephen’s, one of the best colleges in the country. I also went to Europe. He insisted that I get good education and that is why I was able to write this book.
How was your father’s relationship with his younger brother, the noted Hindi writer Bhisham Sahni?
I spent my early years with Bhisham ji. He was a great writer who has authored Tamas and many other excellent books in Hindi. Both brothers were like buddies who loved and stood by each other throughout their lives. They discussed everything. It was amazing to see their bond. I have written a chapter on their relationship in this book.
You had gone to Russia for training in film direction and screenwriting but you found yourself to be in front of the camera as an actor on your return? Being Balraj Sahni’s son, was it pre-destined?
It looks like it.
You must have been under pressure to live to the people’s expectations at the time?
I was under no pressure as such because my father told me very early in my life that I do not have to copy him. He told me to be myself and not try to become a third-rate Balraj Sahni. But the job I found most exciting was, of course, writing. I went on to write many scripts later under my company, Balraj Sahni Productions. I also wrote serials for television. Acting comes to me quite easily because I was on the stage for many years but I never aspired to be a big star. The acting has never been the be-all, end-all of my life.
But you started off with a bang as an actor, delivering a hit, Anokhi Raat (1968) with a new screen name (Ajay Sahni), which was followed by Pavitra Paapi and Samaj Ko Badal Dalo (both in 1970) …
True but after my father’s demise, there was a big downfall. I was offered many roles of a hero but I did not know what to do. I was educated in Europe and was, therefore, ill at ease with the Hindi cinema. Now it’s different but in those days, I was thinking about what I was doing, singing and dancing around the trees. My heart was not into it. I actually wanted to be a director.
And then, you returned after a break with Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie with your original name …
As I started growing old, I started getting interesting character roles. Shortly before his death, my father had asked me as to why did I change my name? So I reverted to my original name, which he had given, in deference to his wishes.
Post-Kabhi Kabhie, you became a prolific actor in the industry and carved a niche for yourself, away from the shadow of your illustrious father.
I don’t know. He told me to do my best in whatever I do and believe in that. That is what I do. Nobody can be like him. I still don’t understand how he worked and how he did he do even an ordinary scene in such an inimitable way.
Is it true that he once forced you to spit on his face during the shooting of a film?
He said you must do it since the script demands. I was terribly upset and I kept spitting on the ground, to his left and right but he kept reiterating that I had to spit on him. I finally did it but I was very upset. After the shot, he took me to the make-up room and told me that he was not my father but a character in the script and I had to do whatever was written in the script. I almost cried but he told me that an actor has to be like that.
Your book is replete with many interesting episodes. You also recall an encounter with Giani Zail Singh on a trip to Russia, long before he became the President of the country.
I think I did not write the book; the book wrote itself. I did not plan it and whatever I could recall I wrote. My father was with Giani Zail Singh as part of an official delegation to Russia. Nobody had heard of him and I was his interpreter. But my father had sensed that he would go far in his life. He used to say that this man makes profound statements and is very knowledgeable. Many years later, when Giani ji took oath as the President of India, I remembered my father’s prediction and cried to realise how he had made such an accurate prediction about him.
I feel that there are still many chapters from your life which are still waiting to be told. Can we expect an autobiography from you in future?
My life is not that interesting. The episodes narrated about my life in the book happened by the way. Actually, my father had written a brilliant autobiography. Who would be interested in my autobiography today? Naseeruddin Shah has written a beautiful autography. Amitabh can also write a great autobiography because he is an institution; he is a mahapurush and a tremendous man and actor. I don’t come in their category.
It is only in the fitness of things that Mr. Bachchan not only wrote the foreword to your book but also released it at its launch in Mumbai the other day?
The release was successful mainly because of him. Actually he has gone to the wrong place for the launch because he was not given the right information. But he called me up, turned his car and reached the venue late by about 20-30 minutes. It shows his upbringing. He is the son of a great man and he is great himself. My father used to say that an actor has to have three D's - dedication, discipline, and determination. He has all of that. That is why he is where he is. He is a legend now.