Book: The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni
Author: Parikshat Sahni
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Price: Rs 599
In the first-ever biography of one of the legends of Indian cinema, Balraj Sahni, his son and actor Parikshat Sahni through his ‘cathartic experience’ pays tribute to him, his life and his craft with untold stories and unseen photos. The book is an intimate portrayal of an iconic star and offers an insight on the man as one of the finest, most natural actors, husband, friend, parent and patriot, told from his son’s point of view.
To highlight Balraj Sahni’s non-conformism, while at the same time justifying the book’s title, the author citing an anecdote says: At an elite Delhi party, dad had come dressed in his traditional Punjabi attire. It was his way of asserting his patriotism and distaste of bourgeois servility. A woman behaved in a condescending manner and asked him, “What trash are you working in nowadays? Indian films are trash, aren’t they?” Needless to say, the author’s father gave the woman a suitable response. Later he sat on the floor, drinking whisky, and began chatting with a waiter asking him about his family, and about how and when he came to Delhi. That was Dad — the non-conformist, rebel and free thinker. He stood on the side of the proletariat and the working class. Some might consider such behaviour boorish, crude and unbecoming in polite society. But one must remember that Dad had lived in England for four or five years, was well-versed in etiquette and knew how to behave in polite society. In this case, he was put off by the insulting and impolite remarks of the woman and also by the fact they were his own countrymen, behaving like their departed masters and aping them, rather than being proud of their own roots.
About his simplicity, he writes: In his personal habits, although he began to earn a sizeable amount of money, he disdained a bourgeois lifestyle. The good life was thrust on him and he was expected to live like a filmstar – drive limousines, attend film parties, etc – but he lived modestly, insisting on driving an old Ambassador without a chauffeur, wearing simple clothes and going around like a working-class man. He ate frugally, did his own make-up and rarely went to film parties. He did not just profess ‘simple living and high thinking’ but was himself a living example of it.
Regarding his political leanings the author writes, “His Marxism was a kind of vague humanism. He loved the poor, the hungry and the underprivileged and felt genuine, heartfelt compassion and empathy for the people around him. For him class conflict meant justice for the poor and the downtrodden.”
Regarding his desire to deliver nothing but the best, he recounts how during a film scene the author’s dad had said, “This is holy ground for me. Our job 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. Remember, for me, this is a place of worship.”
While the colours, art work and Balraj Sahni portrait on the book’s cover are reminiscent of the technicolour era, the deeply personal narrative reveals that it is also moored to current reality by saying, “He would have been sorely dismayed at the divide that has appeared between the different religious groups.”