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Book extract: Balraj Sahni and the pursuit of excellence

On the great actor's birth anniversary, son Parikshat recalls a lesson he was given early in his career on the need to take his work seriously.

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A legend among actors, Balraj Sahni’s talent, grace and refinement remain unparalleled in Hindi cinema. Sahni, who was known to be true to his principles, was a simple man who worked tirelessly for the less fortunate. As an actor beyond compare, he appeared in some of the definitive films of his era — Dharti Ke Lal (1946), Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Garam Coat (1955), Kabuliwala (1961), Haqeeqat (1964), Waqt (1965) and Garam Hawa (1973), to name a few.

In the book The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni, actor Parikshat Sahni recalls an incident that took place on the sets of a film which exhibited his father’s dedication to his profession. A young actor at the time, Parikshat recalls the shooting of Pavitra Papi (1970). As the 'hero' of the film, Parikshat was expected to know all his lines but found that difficult as he was not fluent in Hindustani. He mumbled his lines initially, hoping to pass it off as following in the footsteps of Hollywood star Marlon Brando!

The shooting of a song sequence brought him some respite as he had to just sit around while the dancers sang and danced around him. A junior dancer caught the young man's fancy and he started flirting with the girl, much to the director's horror! That was when his father approached him and asked what he was up to. The son recalls the following conversation in his book:

"I have nothing to do. I am looking forward to taking this girl out in the evening."

"An actor never has ‘nothing’ to do on the set, son. If that was the case, you wouldn’t be in the scene in the first place. Do you understand the significance of the song?"

"No. It’s just some song-and-dance number like in all Hindi films. It’s silly. No such singing and dancing in European cinema."

"It’s not just some song-and-dance number. You are supposed to be in love with the heroine and the song is being sung to celebrate her impending marriage to another man. It is a painful situation for you. Aren’t you supposed to react to it?"

"Oh, it’s nothing serious, Dad. This is not a film by Truffaut or Fellini!"

"Is that what you learnt in the film institute in Russia?"

"Oh come on Dad! It’s only a song!"

"Who are you? Why are you here? When are you here? How are you here? Where are you?"

These questions bewildered me.

"I am your son! I am here because the director cast me in this film. It’s eleven in the morning and I came with you in the car. That’s how I am here," I answered his questions literally, amused at his line of questioning.

"Wrong! You are not my son here. You are Kedar Nath. You are here because I hired you as a watchmaker and you are living as a paying guest in my house. It is not eleven in the morning. This is a night scene. And you did not come here with me in a car. You walked from the railway station. That is what your role demands."

"Oh," I said. "You are talking about the character I am playing... I see. But why are you telling me all this?"

"Listen, son, this is not a film set. For me this is holy ground. I am not religious. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in god. I don’t go to temples or churches or gurdwaras. This is a place of worship for me. For me, work is worship. Whether it is a Hindi film or a Hollywood film, whether the scene is long or short, I have to give my best every time I am in make-up and come to a set."

I stared at him in silence as he continued, "After shooting hours, do what you wish. Get boozed up, go to the red-light area and pick up a tart if that’s what you want. You are a man now. This is not the age for me to teach you what is wrong or right. You are mature enough. But do me just one favour. Don’t sully the temple where I worship. As I said, this is holy ground for me. Our job in life is to strive for excellence. If you take up any task, do it to the best of your ability, or if you can’t, then avoid doing it altogether in the first place."

He pointed to the camera in the distance and said, "This thing called the lens is a real monster. It can see through everything. It picks up on your innermost thoughts and moods. And if you are fooling around and are insincere, the camera lens will pick up each thought and enlarge it a thousand-fold on the screen. The camera never lies. So my suggestion is, either walk out of the film right now, or if you wish to continue, then take your work seriously. The producer can easily replace you and reshoot the scenes with some other artiste; you have only shot for a few days. I don’t know what they do in Russia, but don’t defile the atmosphere here. Don’t flirt on the set. We are here to concentrate on our work."

As he began to leave, he turned to me and repeated, "Remember, for me, this is a place of worship."

This was a gentle but very persuasive slap across my face. I was reminded of the time when he told me that all art should have a premise. I realized how serious his contention was when he said that one was on holy ground when creating art.

Excerpted from The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni, by Parikshat Sahni. With permission from Penguin Random House India. To buy your copy, click here.