Dad believed in ‘socialist realism’ which meant ‘method acting.’ He took incredible pains over every role he enacted. He always looked for and found a model in real life for the character he was to portray to give a third dimension to art and experience the joy of creation. And then he studied the mannerisms, the manner, the intonations, the gait, the laughter and also the background of his model.

After the film Hum Log, Dad began to be recognized and acclaimed as an actor. This, however, did not deter him from visiting public places, keeping close to the masses and mingling with common folk. He would put on a false plastic nose and moustache (a popular children’s toy) and sit on the railway station for hours, noting down people’s looks, walk and their way of talking.

It was his ability to get into the skin of each role that made him an actor and not a star. For instance, Dev Anand remained a star. Even when he sported a moustache in Hum Dono, in which he had a double role, people saw him as Dev Anand, not as the army man he was portraying. This was because his personality and mannerisms were so popular and endearing for the audience that they did not want to see him as anything other than his natural, suave and handsome self. With Dad, audiences never saw Balraj Sahni; they always saw the farmer, the businessman, the rickshaw puller, the Kabuliwalla, the detective or whatever role he was playing.

Balraj Sahni and Rattan Kumar in Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Courtesy Bimal Roy Productions.

Dad played the famed role of Shambhu in the legendary film Do Bigha Zamin, which had originally been earmarked by Bimal Roy for Ashok Kumar (popularly known as Dadamoni). For Do Bigha Zamin (as for Hum Log), he researched with painstaking thoroughness the character of the poor and downtrodden farmer he was portraying. In preparation for this film, he visited a colony of milkmen in Josgeshwari, a Bombay suburb, to not only understand their work, but to imbibe their spirit. He watched farmers at work and became friendly with some of them. He went to their homes, ate with them, sat with them, listened to them and studied their mannerisms very carefully.

When the film Do Bigha Zamin was being shot in Calcutta, Dad met a rickshaw puller, whose life was parallel to the story of the film. From him, Dad learned a lesson in acting. He wrote in his autobiography:

The theory of acting be damned! The peasant, down-and-out, miserable and meek, whose life I was supposed to portray on the screen appeared from nowhere, and stood before me in flesh and blood. This was the chance of a lifetime, for which I should thank my stars. In a flash, I saw the role as a challenge to my acting ability, a responsibility I had to fulfil by exerting myself to the utmost. Come what may, I must not shirk it. That would be only cowardice, a sin, I told myself. I simply stopped thinking about the academic theories of acting, Instead, I entered into the soul of that middle-aged rickshaw-wallah, which was why I was so eminently successful in playing the role. I do not think any book on acting could have taught me what that unlettered villager did! I learned a lesson that day. It is only a character, straight out of real life, who can serve as a model for an actor, if he is to achieve any success in his career.

Dad ran barefoot on the burning asphalt of the city’s roads, practicing how to ply the rickshaw. He developed blisters on the soles of his feet! It very nearly killed him.

Parikshat Sahni and Balraj Sahni.

His role in Do Bigha Zamin reminds me of what happened in the mid-seventies when I was shooting a serial I had written for Yashraj Films.

I was to write and direct this TV serial, which I had named Doctor Sahib. It was based on the life of a real-life doctor and a dear friend of mine. All the episodes were based on the stories he would relate to me about his patients. There was one particular incident during the shooting of one episode that I can never forget. I had asked Hangal Saheb to play the role of a poor, old Muslim cart-puller in the first episode of the serial. In the very first shot, I had the camera placed at a height on the third floor of a building and Hangal Saheb was to come down the road pulling a handcart with a small fridge strapped to it. It was a heavy load for a man of his age to carry. I suggested we use a duplicate for the shot, since it was a ‘long shot’ and the camera was at a considerable distance and would not ‘catch’ the face.

It was mid-day and the asphalt was burning hot. It had melted in some places. Hangal Saheb insisted on doing the shot himself. I told him to wear chappals (slippers) for the shot and promised him that there would be no retakes. But when, perched up on the third floor balcony, I shouted ‘Action’, I was shocked to see Hangal Saheb walking down the road barefoot! I asked the cameraman to cut the shot immediately and told my chief assistant to run down and stop Hangal Saheb from walking any farther. But the cameraman reminded me that we were only allowed five minutes on the balcony and so there was no possibility of stopping in the middle of the shot and re-taking it.

I forgot all about the shot and ran down three stories shouting, ‘Cut the shot!’ but before I could reach Hangal Saheb, the shot had already been ‘taken’. I ran up to him and helped him to our indoor set across the road. He was in great pain. ‘I told you to wear chappals, Hangal Saheb!’ I chided him and turned to my assistants, ‘Why did you allow him to walk barefoot?’ I shouted at them.

‘We implored him to wear chappals, sir, but he flatly refused.’

I looked askance at Hangal Saheb. There were painful blisters on his feet. He smiled and said, ‘If my friend Balraj could run for a week on the boiling asphalt of Calcutta, this is the least I can do in his memory for his son!’ I had tears in my eyes as I announced ‘pack up’ for the day.

Excerpted with permission from The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni, Parikshat Sahni, Penguin Random House India.