Jailor to Prisoner in Sixty Minutes!

The Prime Minister’s slogan of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (collective efforts, inclusive growth) warrants a review by him and his team. While India’s parameters do show an increasingly uniform society and higher standards of living, all isn’t hunky dory. On the social front, discrimination for reasons of caste is still around, even if not in great strength as it was, say in Gandhiji’s days. Intolerance too keeps rearing its ugly head now and then, and financial growth seems to be lop-sided if we are to go by a study published earlier this year. Oxfam is an independent international group driven by its mission of reducing injustice and economic inequality by highlighting it worldwide. In January 2018, it submitted that in India, the richest 1% of the population controlled about 73% of the wealth that was generated the previous year, while the bottom 50% controlled just 1% of that wealth. Phew!

It is never easy to run a country of course, especially one as large and disparate as ours. Some have compared it to stitching buttons on ice cream. Many even wonder how we are together, to begin with. This writer has marvelled at the phenomenon too but has long considered that cinema and its music have in tandem been a key social glue to bind us together. However, even as managing a nation is hard, its leaders must be told to make efforts in the right direction. Politicians can do with the help of watchdogs and inspiring narratives. Sometimes though, rulers consider such watchdogs as hurlers on the ditch, people who give unwanted and incompetent advice to others, sometimes with an intention to incite a mass rebellion. That’s when such people go to jail, which we’ll soon see.

Meanwhile, it is in the area of collective work and sab ki enjoyment of the fruits of work that the following songs were written, with visuals supporting the idea of community struggles and payoffs. Needless to add, such narratives always include a chorus:

  • Aaj sookhe kheton mein aayi bahaar (writer unknown/Dharti Ke Lal, 1946)
  • Dharti kahe pukaar ke…mausam beeta jaaye (Shailendra/Do Bigha Zameen, 1953)
  • Saathi haath badhaana (Sahir/Naya Daur, 1958)
  • Mehnatkash insaan jaag uttha (Shailendra/Insaan Jaag Utha, 1959)
  • Aao jhoomen gaayen (Anand Bakshi/Paraya Dhan, 1971)

The songs from Dharti Ke Lal, Do Bigha Zameen, and Paraya Dhan above featured Balraj Sahni, who in real life was one of society’s watchdogs. He was a member of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), a leftist organization. Through his statements and roles, he kept building that image of his, while sending out piercing messages. But for their strong leftist thoughts or criticism of the powers-that-be, people like him, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Anil Biswas were put behind bars. In fact, during the days when Hulchal (1951) was on the floors, Sahni was very much in jail. It was producer K Asif who was able to get the judge’s nod to take him under police escort for the shoots every day, a one-hour journey, and to deliver him back in the evenings. Most interestingly, Balraj Sahni was a jailor in the film!

In the same year as Hulchal, Balraj was cast in Hum Log, in the role of a have-not who during the narrative gets arrested for someone’s murder. But his roles of deprivation started as early as in Dharti Ke Lal (1946), in which KA Abbas cast him as an impoverished farmer who eventually helps improve people’s lives with his ideas of collective farming and harvesting.

It is in this spirit of criticism of an unjust society that Balraj Sahni belted out a message against the haves in Sone Ki Chidiya (1958). This movie is essentially about an actress (Nutan) who is conned by her family and later by the hero (Talat Mahmood). Over time, she becomes suicidal, when a remarkable Rafi-Sahir-OP Nayyar inspirer, lip-synced by Balraj Sahni, comes to her rescue: Raat bhar ka hai mehmaan andhera.

The film was directed by Shahid Lateef, while it was produced by his wife, Ismat Chughtai, who also wrote the story. Like Balraj Sahni, both of them were known to harbour heavily-socialist leanings. Together, these three did want to also send a leftist message in the film, and Sahir, the lyrics writer of this film, was quite up to it too. Not to forget that in the same year, he had written a remarkable message in socialism for Phir Subha Hogi: Cheeno-o-Arab hamaara, Hindustan hamaara, rehne ko ghar naheen hai, saara jahaan hamaara. Even so, the filmmakers asked a famous Red Flag House inhabitant, Kaifi Azmi, to write a scathing nazm, his only outing in the film. They even asked him to recite it, and this poem was lip synced by Balraj saab in the film.

Here’s the start of that nazm, entitled Makaan:

Aaj ki raat bahut garam hawa chalti hai

Aaj ki raat na footpath par neend ayegi

Sab uttho, main bhi utthoon, tum bhi uttho, tum bhi uttho

Koi khidki isi deewaar mein khul jaayegi…

(Scorching winds are afoot tonight, a time when sleep won’t come to those on the pavement. Let us all rise and open up our windows to let such underprivileged in).

Years later was made a film called Garam Hawa, whose title was taken from the first line of this poem, and which film also starred Balraj Sahni. It gets juicier when you realize the film was based on a short story by Ismat Chughtai again. It is also interesting that while the words garam hawa (scorching wind) were expressed by Kaifi Azmi to underline the privileged vs the underprivileged, Ismat Chughtai’s story highlighted the Hindu-Muslim divide in the wake of the partition.

As we saw above, Sahni was a key member of IPTA, which was hounded out by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government. “The group was dispersed by the Indian National Congress government using police violence and repressive measures in 1947”, says Wikipedia. In the light of this fact, how ironical that Jawaharlal Nehru University, established in the Prime Minister’s name by an act of Parliament, is itself a base of left-wing activities!

In the late 1930s, when Balraj Sahni was in his mid-20s, the top 1% of Indians earned 21% of the country’s total income, a figure that came down to around 10% when he passed away in 1973, to touch a low of 6% in 1983, and then to rise gradually to where we are now. One wonders what Balraj Sahni would have thought of the current inequality, were he alive today, in the absence of sensitive filmmakers such as Bimal Roy, K Asif, Hemen Gupta and Shahid Lateef. In fact, in a world populated by the likes of Bhansalis and Johars, there may well be someone with Balraj Sahni’s temperaments and talents among us even now. Sadly, no one can deliver alone, not in films. Not even in a country.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 20 May 2018, page 13, http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2018-05-20

Featured image: Balraj Sahni in Garam Hawa

13 thoughts on “Jailor to Prisoner in Sixty Minutes!

  1. Although I was born in the Rawalpindi district and in my youth took a chauvinistic local pride in Balraj Sahni as a fellow ‘Pindian, my pride gradually grew into a wider and deeper admiration for his transcendent gifts as a story teller and actor. In projecting realism and naturalism, he and Motilal were the very best in their time although many others followed later under the rubric of art cinema. (Even Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar, whom I also held in high esteem, never quite overccme their penchant for the dramatic). After all, a film is a human contrivance and to make one feel, as Baraj Sahni especially did in Do Bigha Zameen and Garam Hawa, that we were witnesses to the anguish of real lives to the end, has to be the ultimate compliment to an actor. Whether he was speaking or conveyed the required feelings and moods silently, Balraj Sahni took one’s breath away in his contrived spontaneity– though that expression might look like an oxymoron at a superficial level . Thank you, Manik Premchand, for this piece today for reminding us of Balraj Sahni, but also for all the other points you make about our old music and our old cinema. I concur wholeheartedly.

    1. Your observations need to be preserved for all to see, VC Mago sir. Obviously you know a lot, understand a lot. Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar have been my favorite actors, but I do see you point about their penchant for the dramatic. Perhaps that’s why they are generally held in higher esteem than Motilal and Balraj, or am I imagining things? Whatever the case, your remarks are wonderful, I am delighted you shared them _()_ 🙂

      1. I appreciate your generous response to my two cents, Mr. Premchand. Look forward to reading more of your essays.

        1. Two cents? Your thoughts were priceless! Btw, The United States bought Alaska from Russia for two cents an acre, but look at the valuations now 🙂

  2. Manek Premchand… You are a Deep Sea Diver… what depth and clarity. Unbelievable. Keep it flowing Sir Thanks.

  3. Am at a loss to classify your essays any more. Each week I think, this is better than the last! Thank you, Manek. For opening the portals of closed minds, for creating links where none seemed to exist. But most of all, for always, always bringing everything back to the music.
    Stay blessed. Stay writing.

    1. Aabhaar Monica. The links are there in many cases, and you do a great job yourself when you get down to it. I just have more time on my hands to dust things off 🙂

      Waise, just today, Anuradha has informed me of a collective farming song featuring Balraj Sahni, Aao jhoome gaayen. I salute all of you who know so much _()_

  4. Very gripping article ! Balraj Sahani was such a mature actor,a dignified personality.He delivered his dialogues firmly & yet softly. He had a very commanding voice.We have no one like him.And our lyricists of those days were deep thinkers & wrote passionately . Your research is so deep & honest. Manek you get 100/100 marks for this one. Congratulations!

    1. Meenu aapse 100 on 100 mil gaye to kya baat hai…kanjoos teacher jo thehri 🙂 Grateful 🙂

      Yes, a commanding actor, with character in his persona too…

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