an autobiography A revealing intimate and delightful story of the life of a great actor.
An insight into his life and into the world of films—the glamour, the romance, the secret lives and secret deals laid bare, as never before.
A highly sensitive and brutally frank inside account of the world of the film industry. The uneasy road to stardom, the torture and the glory of success and fame..
This is Balraj Sahni by Balraj Sahni, the man adored by millions.
Flash-back is an accepted technique of film-making. Unless, however, the viewers have first been made sufficiently familiar with the events that happen in the ‘present’ of the film, no flash-back is going to produce the desired effect on them.
I, therefore, invite you to share same of my ‘present’ before I start unfolding before you the flashback of my screen life.
Come along then, I shall take you to a make-up room in one of the studios at Chembur.
True to convention and tradition, the make-up man has applied a tilak to the mirror, before getting to work on my face. He has now finished his job. I look at myself in the mirror and notice that the ‘silver’ of my hair is showing rather prominently. Oh, yes, I have not used the khizab (dye) for several weeks now! I hastily pick, a dye pencil from the table in front of me and start vigorously drawing it across my temples. There, that’s better!
While I was banishing my grey hair, the dressman called at my room to deliver my military uniform and boots, polished to perfection. The pungent smell of the polish has filled this small make-up room, which is no larger than a cubicle. In fact, mine is one of the three cubicles that have been improvised out of a large room by putting two partitions in it. These make-up rooms are the creations of Bhagwan Dada, who had taken this studio on lease, ten years, ago, following the phenomenal success of his film Albela. In his time, Bhagwan Dada was the darling of the working classes. They used to go wild over his pranks. He was truly their Bhagwan, and I had personal experience of the great esteem he was held in by his countless admirers. I had once heard a taxi-driver tell his companion, ‘Let him just say, he wants my motor gadi, I’ll step down and hand over the keys to him!’ Both Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar are no doubt much more popular than he is, but they do not enjoy the kind of popularity amongst the poorer classes that Bhagwan Dada does. He never fails to evoke an instant response from them, when he appears on the screen as an unsophisticated, happy-go-lucky simpleton. Indeed they see in him their own image and what endears him to them all the more is that he, a fellow-member of the proletariat, should go and make a beauty like Geeta Bali fall in love with him!
Hindi films have always been divided into three main categories: the social, the religious and the ‘stunt’. And it is well-nigh impossible for an artiste to ‘migrate’ from the one to the other. Since Dada métiers had till then been ‘stunt’ films, he produced Albela himself. Its financial success enabled him to take this studio on lease. Though the lease has now expired, the present owner of the studio, a lady has maintained this room in the condition it was to show her great regard for Bhagwan Dada. But the studio itself has fallen on evil days. One of its two floors has been let out to a factory, where television sets are being- assembled.
As a special gesture to me, the keys of this room have been ‘borrowed’ from Bhagwan Dada, since the other two rooms have been allotted to Nirupa Roy and Lalita Pawar each. You see, two male stars can manage to share a make-up room but two female stars simply cannot bring themselves to do so—especially if they happen to be” ex-heroines!
Every film star is going to be applied the tag ‘ex’ some day. How, then, could Geeta Bali escape this fate? It is as well that she is no more now. I had seen her suffer the pangs of anguish in the evening of her film career, when the shadows of approaching oblivion were rapidly gathering around her. As luck would have it, we were then sharing the title roles in a couple of films. Once at the M & T Studio (which is now a factory), I happened to hear her complain bitterly to her saheli, ‘All I get now as .my hero is that blackface Balraj!’
Apparently, the memory of an incident of a few years ago was still fresh in her mind. She was then at the peak of her career, a queen whose word was law. She had threatened to turn down the heroine’s role in a film—whose story incidentally she had liked very much—just because she had heard that the producer was thinking of signing me for the male lead! Needless to say, the director eventually made the producer realize the folly of losing the services of so glamorous a star.
Although Bhagwan Dada has now almost retired from films, he keeps this make-up room locked. He has probably a sentimental attachment to this room.
Indeed every make-up room in a studio brings to an artist’s mind a host of memories of bygone days. An artiste does not leave merely the imprint of his face on the mirror hung on its wall. The mirror captures the reflection of his soul too!
We showmen live in a world of our own, a world so weird and strange. We make people laugh or cry with us and thereby transport them to the magic world-of fantasy and make-believe. In the process we ourselves become part of that world, which brings added joy to our admirers.
The more streamlined the car of a film star, the higher he rises in his fans esteem. Indeed, the pleasure a fan derives from looking at his favourite star’s car is more intense than the pleasure he might get from looking at his own car!
No star, big or small, can resist the temptation of scanning the pages of a film magazine to see if his own photograph adorns one of them. For him, ‘the front page news’ in a newspaper is always the advertisement of his own film. The satisfaction he gets from seeing his name prominently displayed in a film-advertisement is tremendous. For an actor, that is the acme of happiness.
Nothing pleases a film star more than an artificial thing, made beautiful. His values of beauty are distorted like those reflections you see in curved mirrors. But these ‘beautiful objects’ fade away one day and when that happens, he becomes sad and disillusioned. He comes down to earth from his world of fantasy. More often than not, life by then has become a nightmare for him. He no longer finds himself the cynosure of admiring eyes, an experience which used to be the very elixir of his life. Death might be preferable to such a life!
What a galaxy of stars must have confided their innermost secrets to the mirror here in this make-up room! I cherish fond memories of the days when this room was newly built. How beautiful it looked then! I distinctly remember a little informal party in this very room, as if it had happened only yesterday. What an evening it was and what a company of friends to clink glasses with—Radhakrishna, the incomparable comedian, Bhagwan Dada and a few other fellow-artistes! The bottle of whisky had not yet been uncorked, when Radhakrishna started to narrate a hilarious anecdote. He was in a superb mood that evening. I wish I had paper and pencil to write down all the brilliant ‘quotes’ he was uttering in that inimitable style of his! In no other walk of life have I come across so many gifted conversationalists, men full of generosity and with a zest for life, as I have in this film profession. What a pity then that all these talented men should make only third-rate films!
And as for Radhakrishna, he thought it fit to end his life the other day by hanging himself with a rope.
The entire length of one wall of this room is taken up by a diwan, whose plush upholstery is of a deep red colour. The diwan is rather like a berth in a first-class railway compartment. A square shaped mirror is fixed at the spot where there would be a window in the railway compartment. I have another look at myself in the mirror. Well, I have almost finished the job of dyeing my hair. High-powered bulbs are fixed to the four sides of the mirror. Their brilliant glow fills the entire room. You have here shelves and drawers to keep the make-up things. The wall opposite is bare, save for a metal bar to hang clothes on and a couple of small cabinets. This bare wall is an eloquent testimony to the sorry pass the room has now come to. The room has obviously been left uncleaned for ages. Everywhere there are thick layers of dust. The whole place is in such shambles that one is reminded of one of those works of modern art — a riot of colours haphazardly splashed on the canvas! All around me there are all manner of stains—of rouge, of paan, of rasgulla juice! I try not to look at them for fear of having
my stomach upset. The studio-owners no longer find film-making a profitable business. No wonder then they do not spend a penny on its upkeep. With land prices skyrocketing every day, they can easily get a fabulous price for their studios. Why would they then take any interest in films, a trade which is capable of turning a millionaire into a pauper overnight? I am sure the malkin of this studio must be eagerly looking forward to the day when those television makers would offer to hire this other floor too! She would then get an excellent excuse to dismiss all studio workers, and they couldn’t utter a word of protest.
Look, how young and handsome I am looking now, with all my hair dyed! I shall tell you a secret — all my hair has already turned grey, but what does it matter? In fact, half my hair had already turned grey when I joined films. That means, it is more than twenty years now that I have been dyeing it. Some of it had been greyed by the ear-splitting noise emanating from those exploding bombs during our London days, and the rest from the shocks and knocks I had to endure in the spring of my life. Thus, my entering the film profession is, in a way, a journey from youth to old age!
To be honest, I have had now enough of this business of deceiving both myself and the world, I tell myself, ‘Don’t you realize, you are now approaching your journey’s end? Why not spent the rest of your days studying and writing? Why don’t you take it easy, now that Shabnam is married, and Parikshit is a young man’ of twenty-seven, so strong and healthy?’ You know, he is already being chased by producers. And the knowledge he has acquired about all aspects of film-making! I had to struggle for twenty long years in this profession to know so much about films.
The dress man has helped me get into the military uniform. I have stepped out smartly into the studio premises and am now headed for the office. I am going to ring up that producer who last night had the cheek to insult me. I must settle scores with him.
In fact, the fellow was a great friend of mine, when we were at college together. I consider friendship a very precious relationship. That is why I always try to keep myself aloof from my friends. This friend of mine has over the years made a name for himself as a producer, while I have had a successful career as an actor. By some unfortunate twist in our lives, we .happened to cross each other’s paths again. I on my part then went out of my way to keep our friendship alive. As a loyal friend, I accepted whatever money he offered me to play a role in his films, which was in fact less than half of what others pay me. No matter how busy I might be elsewhere, I always found time to respond to his call and rush to his studio, and yet the fellow ignored me and treated me very shabbily! Well, he too is going to get something from me, I am not going to take his insult lying down! I cannot help wondering, though, why he must behave like that.
Throughout the night, I was tossing and turning in my bed, and when I got up in the morning, the sting of that insult had not lessened in any way!
Before leaving home yesterday, I had a look at my appointment book. My secretary had made an entry which said that after finishing a spell of shooting at Chembur, I was scheduled to appear in two scenes in my friend’s film, which was being shot in a studio at Dadar. The shooting, was to last from 7 to 10 in the evening.
Tired though I was, I trekked all the way to Dadar to keep the appointment. I arrived at the studio on time only to find my friend filming some other scene in which I had no part. The fellow gave me, such a look of contempt, as if I had entered his bedroom without knocking! He not only ignored me completely, but did not even have the courtesy to apologize to me for having mistakenly called me. He should have at least told me, when my shot was to be taken. Even his servants gave me the cold shoulder. I returned home in frustration.
On my way home, I thought that perhaps it was I who had made some mistake. I might have misread the date in the appointment book. On reaching home, I went straight to my study and checked the entry in the appointment book carefully. No, I had not made any mistake, nor for that matter had my secretary. The discovery made me mad with rage.
I was still fuming and fretting when I joined ray son and a friend of his at the dinner table. They were in the midst of a discussion on the life style of Russian film actors. My son was telling his friend; ‘In Russia, a film star’s salary is about equal to a professor’s or an engineer’s. He travels in buses and trains like ordinary folk. Very few film stars have cars of their own, and nobody considers them as unique personalities or their work extraordinarily important. In fact, it is the script writer or its director who is paid more than the actor.’
I could not help interjecting, ‘But you must know, there is a world of difference between our social conditions and theirs!’
My remark made my son and his friend look at me in amazement. Here in India, even in your own home, you have to put on airs to command respect from your near ones- As for the outside world then, the less said the better! For some time past, that producer-friend of mine had been dropping discreet hints to let me know that he would like me to play a role in one of his films. He had painted a very rosy picture of the role he was going to offer me, but I had not shown any particular inclination to accept it, since I was not interested in that role. He had probably interpreted my reluctance as my hauteur, or perhaps, he had thought I was angling for more money) Now I know why he was so uncivil to me! What a mean way to treat a friend of thirty years’ standing!
As I walk past the studio canteen, I see two lads leaning out of the kitchen-window. In fact, I have spotted them out from a distance and have immediately started adjusting my army hat,
‘Hello, Balraj!’ the younger one hails me, as if I were his equal in age.
‘Hello!’ I return his greeting with a smile, and continue walking at a brisk pace.
‘Dharmindra’s father!’, I hear the elder one saying. At that my pace slackens.
At this stage of my career, I find myself in an awkward situation. While in H. S. Hawaii’s film Sanghursh, I court Vyjayanthimala and Dilip Kumar as my rival, I play the role of her father in a Sham Behl film. Some producers consider me young enough to court heroines, while others would have me become their father!
Despite advancing age, my demand in the film market shows no signs of diminishing, a phenomenon which the producers must no doubt find inexplicable! Indeed, even when I was a young man, I had not played the sort of romantic roles, which I am now called upon to’ play!
Never once in my youth had any o£ my fans said in their letters that they considered me a handsome man, and now I get letters from young girls, saying, ‘How handsome you look in that white suit in Aye Din Bahar Ke! Can you send me your coloured photograph in the same pose?1 When I read such letters, I cannot help wondering whether I am the same artiste who played the peasant in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin.
It is as a young man that I appear in that film my producer-friend is making. Could it be that he has become jealous of my rising popularity and my film-youth? He is probably surprised to find another Ashok Kumar rising on the film horizon! Maybe, it is to get rid of his inferiority complex that he insulted me that evening!
Well, if that is the case, I won’t come to any harm. The thought bucks me up. A sprightliness creeps into my gait and I walk ahead, with my head held high. I lapse into day-dreaming... In Hollywood, the stars attain the peak of their profession when they reach my age. Who knows, fate may have willed that I set an example in our country a la Hollywood? But then, if that happened, where would Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand be? They are, after all, years younger than I. With me at the top, they would simply lose all interest in life itself and the pleasure they get from dining, wining and sleeping would turn into ashes!
...with great effort, I have brought myself to come back to earth from this dream world. I tell myself, ‘Don’t go on building castles in the air. Can you ever dream of enjoying the kind of popularity and esteem these superstars are enjoying?’
I notice everywhere in the studio premises old sets and statues of gods and goddesses from long forgotten religious films. I muse, one day they might discover the rotten bones of Balraj Sahni under one of these statues!
What has become of all that adulation the public used to shower on artistes like Saigal, Kanan Bala, Pahadi SanyaJ, Jarnna, Barua and Chandramohan! As for my producer-friend, he too is going to have to accept the fate which eventually befell the artistes of the New Theatres and Prabhat Film Company. It is only a matter of time before he too goes their way!
And look at what is happening to the Bombay studios! You find them vanishing one by one. The Government is bent on constructing a road which will run right through Guru Dutt’s studio, while there is not a trace left of Central Studios. I cannot pass that spot in Central Bombay without having a host of memories come crowding into my mind. It was in this very Central Studios that I had appeared before the cameras for the last time with Yakub, who died a few days later. The late Al Nasir too bad a role in that film, which had remained on the shelf for a number of years. Finally, it was released as Akela. After all, it is the shadows which flit across the silver screen that lend reality to the lives of us film artistes. I can, therefore, never forgive those who rob our lives of this reality by pulling down film studios!
And to my producer-friend too, I am not going to show any leniency! I do not care whether he has insulted me wilfully or I am merely imagining things. I shall have my revenge and make no mistake about it! I have thought out a perfect plan to teach him a lesson. This plan of mine would have him and his unit all set for a location shooting on a Bombay street. The hour would be midday. In the fierce sun, they would all be waiting impatiently for me to arrive, since it is of me that the shot is going to be taken. And you know, where I would be then? In Delhi, having a nice time! We shall thus be quits... Here I am in the studio office, where I see a telephone on a table over there. Let me see now, what’s the number of that blighter, 343...
That will do for the ‘present’. Let’s now switch on the ‘flash-back’.
I was a boy of about eight years when I had my first experience of films. I remember the whole of Rawalpindi was then terrified of the impending visitation of the bubonic plague. And as luck would have it, mother once saw a rat playing about in the house. The same day she packed us children and fled to Bhere, an ancestral place of the Sahnis. The town had separate mullas for the Sahnis, the Sethis and the other Khatri and Khukhren clans. God alone knows how this compartmentalisation had come about.
This ‘migration’ no doubt meant that we were now safe from the dreaded disease, but it also exposed us to an atmosphere of terror and lawlessness. Bhere was more of a village than a town. There is a world of difference between the atmosphere in today’s villages and the one that used to reign in the villages under the British Raj. Things were no doubt very cheap then- and people had more financial security. All the same, the brutality and highhandedness of the constabulary had reached their limit in the villages. Their beastly behaviour towards the villagers had become the order of the day. Inevitably, this had resulted in the villagers themselves becoming cruel monsters, devoid of any sense of decency or fair play. Indeed, the whole atmosphere was so vitiated that law-abiding citizens were finding it increasingly difficult to lead a normal, peaceful life. They would naturally take the first opportunity to flee to a big city like Lahore or Rawalpindi, since the prospect of any improvement in rural conditions was nowhere in sight. With remarkable foresight, the British had started training the village folk of the Punjab in the art of cutting each other’s throats, as early as those distant days. This training stood the Punjabis in good stead, when India was partitioned in 1947.
One day it was announced in our school that all the boys would be taken to a ‘bioscope show’. A shamiana was erected for the purpose on a maidan on the outskirts of the town. As it was open to the sky, the show, was going to be performed at nightfall. Near the screen, a high machan was set up, from where an announcer used to give a running commentary on the goings-on on the screen, since Sims had not yet become ‘talkies’. (Indeed all the Alias were then imported from England.)
Even our masters and the headmaster of the school, those august personages, were going to accompany us boys to the show, to which we were being admitted at half price. Mother gave me and my brother permission to go to the show without much ado. In fact, she was pleased to do so.
The incident I am narrating here happened a good 45 years ago. Naturally, I do not remember anything about the nun except that it was not a detective film.
But the thing about that film which I have not forgotten and which I am not likely ever to forget is that in several love scenes the heroine would suddenly strip herself completely! And then the announcer would say in a reassuring tone, ‘Believe me, sahib, this woman here is not naked. She is now wearing a magic dress, which can carry her through the air anywhere she wants to go! She can see everyone, but no one can see her!’
At that tender age, I thought. Perhaps the man is telling the truth.’ What was unique about her nakedness, however, was that only her face used to remain white. From the neck downwards, her whole body would turn black! It was either due to a black make-up applied to her bare body or probably she was made to wear a close-fitting black dress of the sheerest material! Anyway, no one from the audience, least of all our headmaster, uttered a word of protest against this indecent exposure. Since it was not then the practice to admit women to cinema shows, why raise a hue and cry over something which everyone was obviously enjoying? After all, the announcer had given his solemn assurance that the woman was not naked! Innocent that we were, we children accepted his explanation in good faith. That absolved us of any sense of sin too! It was possible, though, that some member of the audience’ may have thought of rising from his seat to voice his protest, but nothing of the kind happened. Probably he thought it wiser to keep mum, since everyone else in the audience was an accomplice pi the act of watching that scene. A parallel from the film industry would be the acquiescence of many of the film actors in the conversion of ‘black’ money into ‘white’, much against their will. One more parallel comes to mind.
In 1947, people preferred to watch in silence young girls being raped by hundreds of men at marketplaces. The surrounding atmosphere exerts a powerful influence on men’s minds. This is especially true of the Punjabis, which explains their moral degradation.
I do not quite remember whether that scene had awakened any sexual passion in me. All I remember is that, being on the threshold of youth, the close-up, of the women’s bare breasts used to be a source of secret pleasure for me when I was alone! I am in no position to say how much mental or physical loss I suffered from this ‘day-dreaming’ of mine! I am sure, however, that I was not a gainer by any means!
A few days later, I had occasion to see a film which was even more wicked. Our cook had taken me to that shamiana on the maidan and both of us climbed a tree behind the shamiana.
Apparently, they were going to show a special film, for which, however, we had no money. Although our tree was at some distance from the shamiana, from our perch we could see the screen clearly. The show started and in the very first scene a man and a woman started copulating the way dogs do! I was terrified since I had no idea what they were up to. I started howling at the top of my voice and pulling the cook’s legs, who was sitting on a branch higher than mine. He told me to shut up but when he saw that I refused to be pacified, he had to come down eventually and take me home.
That spectacle had then induced in me only nausea but as r stepped into adolescence, I began to find it attractive too! In fact, I took to admonishing myself for having spoilt the fun of that cook of ours! It was probably after ages that the poor fellow was enjoying an outing!
. This was my first encounter with films. This first film in my life had affected me profoundly, since I had seen how a woman is made to serve as a mere tool to satisfy a man’s passion!
Now-a-days, it is not possible to show such films openly in our villages (Incidentally, they are mostly imported clandestinely from abroad). But townspeople have other more sophisticated means at their disposal today to corrupt the simple village folk. They can do so with impunity mainly because the urban intelligentsia has remained indifferent to the interests of the villagers, which was what the Britisher’s had been doing in their time. If only our educated men and women would establish a rapport with the villagers, the unscrupulous urban riffraff would not dare to exploit them. That would also enable us to save our folk-music and dances from extinction, but who cares?
For several years after this incident, I did not see any films. Rawalpindi did not have a picture-house then. There were several theatres in the town, though, which were regularly frequented by the citizens. My, school-mates used to narrate many interesting anecdotes about these theatres, but I could not go anywhere near them. My father was a staunch Arya Samajist, and there was simply no question of my defying any of his orders. That period of my life can be properly described by the epithet ‘religious’. Indeed I used even to dream of gods and paramatmas. In one of these dreams, I saw Bhagwan himself sitting on the steps of the staircase in our house. I remember he was wearing one of those caps the pun bias wear.
I was now in the 10th standard and we had to read a novel entitled Rupert of Hentzau for our English language course. One day our class was agog with the news that the headmaster was going to take all the boys to a function arranged to celebrate the inauguration, of Rawalpindi’s first picture-house, the Rose Cinema and, as luck would have it, it was going to show a film based on the novel Rupert of Hentzau!
How clever these businessmen are! This impending visit of our class put my father in a dilemma—to let or not to let me see the film! The new age had arrived and it was knocking on the doors of his house. Should he open the door? Finding himself in two minds, he decided to consult our headmaster. As the two pondered over this problem in Father’s study, I stood outside the door listening! The headmaster was saying, ‘Don’t be so old-fashioned, Lalaji! Films are not made merely to entertain people. They educate them too and moreover making films is an art. And as for this particular film, it is based on the text-book which we have prescribed for your son’s class. How can it possibly do any harm to the boys? In fact, boys of the 10th standard from other schools of the city are going to see this film; and they will pay only half the usual rate. If anything, your son will be a loser if you don’t let him go!’ Father could not refute this argument. I got his permission to join my classmates.
The inaugural function at the Rose Cinema was truly a spectacular event. It was graced by the presence of the English Deputy Commissioner of Rawalpindi and several Rai Sahibs and Khan Sahibs. But the film itself was practically useless from our point of view, since it had hardly anything in common with the plot of the novel we were supposed to study for our examination. That apart, the thing which impressed us most was that two men with identical faces would kiss the heroine every now and then! No doubt this must have embarrassed our headmaster to no end, since he too was as staunch an Arya Samajist as Father, and there was absolutely no reference to any kissing in our text-book!
I had now a ready means at my disposal to get Father’s consent whenever I wanted to see a film. All I had to do was to tell him that the film was based on a novel with a highly moralistic plot! Naturally this ruse did not work always, but by then 1 had learnt the art of going to the pictures on the sly!
The Rose Cinema-house was right in the heart of the town. Eventually, it started showing Hindustani films. Once in awhile, however it screened English films too, such as the Elmo Lincoln serial. Two films which had impressed me very much in those days were Heer Ranjha and Anarkali. In, the former, I had liked the man who used to beat his drum to attract the villagers. All of them would then go and sit under the tree to listen to his story of Heer.
I was literally swept off my feet by the beauty of Sulochana who as Anarkali haunted my dreams for months. And that last scone, where poor Anarkali was shown being buried alive brought tears to my eyes. I had lost nay heart to the girl and could not bear to see Akbar’s officers applying the last brick to the wall of the coffin which finally enclosed her beautiful face! It was an’ outrage which had left me grief-stricken. I was then in such a mood that if someone had told me it was all a cinema trick and that no brick had actually been applied to Sulochana’s face, I would have slapped him! As far as I was concerned, Sulochana was dead, and I had now no interest left in life!
But, of course, Sulochana is very much alive and in several films she has acted with me. Whenever I tell her about my calf-love for her, she only laughs it away! 1 am now a film star myself and so can well understand what lies behind that laugh of hers. And yet I cannot banish from my mind the thought of telling her some day that it was not merely a silly infatuation on my part, but my first real experience of falling in love!
Let me narrate to you here an incident which happened recently. We were proceeding to Ladakh In a jeep to take some shots for Haqeeqat. En route we made a night-halt at a place called Daras, whe”re our troops were stationed. The Commanding Officer, a colonel, made us welcome and invited us to come and stay at the Officers’ Mess. He threw a small party in our honour later in the evening when all the officers of the unit were present. We had with us Dharmendra, and those two beauties, Priya and Indrani Mukherji. As the party got going, our middle-aged colonel spotted Sulochana sitting all by herself in a corner. He could not bring himself to take his eyes off her. He appeared to be trying to remember where he had seen her. Gradually, his eyes lit up and the whole expression on his face changed to one of joy and pleasure—he had realised that it was the dream-girl of his youth, who was sitting opposite him! All the other artistes in the hall then ceased to exist for him. For the rest of the evening, he relived with the queen of his heart those sunny days of his distant youth!. As a fourteen-year-old lad, I myself had fallen victim to her charms, and here was a fifty-year-old army colonel undergoing the same emotional experience!
I would ask those learned men, who turn up their noses at films, to give a serious thought to how intensively the cinema can affect fill sections of society!
I was now a college student. Having left behind my school days, I discarded pyjamas and took to wearing trousers. As a reward for passing his matriculation examination, the young student got a bicycle from his parents, and that brought all the cinema houses of the town within his easy reach!
Rawalpindi of those days had no other claim to glory except as a cantonment town of the British Indian Army. The people too were a dull lot on the whole. Though residents of the old city, the educated classes lived mentally in the cantonment or in the clean, quiet and genteel environs of the Civil Lines, these classes rather looked down upon everything swadeshi—dress, food, in fait, the whole swadeshi way of life! You rose in their esteem to the extent that you had outgrown the swadeshi heritage. And as for college students, they simply followed in the footsteps of their professors.
The cinema-houses in the cantonment were clean and had imposing facades. They showed English films; which were patronised mostly by the British. If it was one of your lucky days, the occupant of the seat next to you might be a ‘white’ beauty. The atmosphere in those cinema-houses matched the romantic nature of the actors and actresses you saw on the screen. How passionately those shapely, white women used to surrender themselves to their lovers’ embraces, without the slightest inhibition! How eagerly they would look forward to being kissed! Every time I saw a vilayati film, its wonderful spell would last for days together!
Dolores Costello was a glittering star of that era of silent films and, with John Barrymore, she would make a fine pair. In a number of films they had acted together, and their love scenes used to be particularly exciting. To wit: Dolores, the princess, is fast asleep in her palace. The night is dark and still. Suddenly the sky becomes overcast and there is thunder and lightning. The princess wakes up with a start. She runs out of her bedroom in panic, clad only in a sleeping-gown. Her hair is dishevelled and she is beside herself. In the balcony outside, John, the gallant officer of the court, and a swashbuckling swordsman, is waiting for her. When she sees him there, so handsome and brave, she forgets that in the afternoon she had vowed never to see his face again! She cannot but surrender herself to his embrace and as the camera comes closer, John plants a passionate kiss on her eager lips! That long, vigorous kiss still lingers in my memory. Several film periodicals like The Picturegoer used to carry copious articles, describing in detail John’s love-technique. We college boys would read and discuss them with great relish. To our parents, however, we would give the impression that these films were based on works of great authors such as Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas and Walter Scott. We would tell them that since the pictures on the screen were also accompanied by subtitles in English, seeing films served as a useful aid in our study of English literature.
Our parents would take these yarns of ours with a pinch of salt. They just could not bring themselves to believe that something which entertained you could be so harmless!
Romance, however, was not the only aspect of films which thrilled us. There was also a good deal of daring horsemanship and sword fighting. In the film The Cossacks, John Gilbert had achieved incredible feats in both these arts and the Russian fur-cap he had worn for his role became overnight a fashion amongst Rawalpindi’s college students. You came away from these films, full of plans for doing something similar, but all you could do was to pick up your bicycle and pedal away as fast as your strength allowed!
A visit to a picture-house in the Cantonment to see a Barrymore or a Gilbert film was by no means all fun and enjoyment. At the end of the show, everyone had to stand up and remain still while ‘God Save the King’ was being played. This was as if you were ordered to slap your own face, in the presence of your fellow-countrymen! Once a friend of mine was a little slow in rising from his seat. Smack landed an English officer’s baton on his head! Such insults had become the order of the day for us Indians!
I had become very fond of that Russian cap. My friends were of the view that I looked exactly like Gilbert in it, and this view was also shared by my mirror. I had recently seen another of Gilbert’s films in which he had repeated those daring feats, this time with the ski. I was, of course, totally unaware then that the hero of a film never actually rides a horse or skis at that terrific speed. He appears only in a close-up shot which is taken in the safe precincts of a studio. A real horseman or a skier then substitutes for him as a ‘dummy’ in ‘long’ and ‘medium’ shots and even he need not expose himself to unnecessary risks. All that is done is that the camera is run at a slightly reduced speed when shooting those dare-devil riders and skiers. This little manipulation with the speed of the movie-camera (which is known as a ‘trick-shot’ in film-parlance) makes those horses gallop at thrice their actual speed, when you see the scene on the screen!
Anyway, I was cycling that day a la Gilbert on Pindi’s Mall Road. I had almost reached a busy square, when I saw a motor-cycle approaching it from the opposite direction. I jammed on the brakes and got off the bike, chewing the chewing gum, nonchalantly, again a la Gilbert. The motor-cycle-rider had the entire road at his disposal to drive past me, but the fellow, an arrogant Englishman, started abusing me in vilest language. Since a mem sahib was riding on the pillion, the sting of that insult became all the more unbearable to me. I had a feeling, though, that as they rode away, the fairy-princess smiled at me sympathetically. If my cycle had an engine, I would have followed that blighter and paid him in the same coin. But all I could do was to stand there, fuming and fretting!
Even the great Rai Bahadurs and Khan Bahadurs had often to put up with such insolent behaviour. We, the students or our professors, were after all small fry! Everyone had his own special way of dealing with these cads, but no thought of taking revenge on them ever crossed his mind.
On the contrary, every Indian of standing was forever trying his best to turn himself into an Englishman. His one ambition in life was to make himself acceptable to his white masters. He looked forward to the day when they would do him the honour of admitting him to their brotherhood!
This kind of situation, however, is not new to the Punjab. From time immemorial, the Punjab has been the gateway to India, through which the white races such as the Aryans, the Greeks, the Turks and others had invaded the country. In the process there has been a lot of intermingling of races in this area. Consequently, you find here extraordinarily handsome men and women, fair and endowed with classical features. Witness the countless number of stars, the Punjab has given to the film industry— Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Raj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Dev Anand, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor,—the procession Is endless! And it is to the. Punjab that producers and directors keep turning in search of new talent.
In the course of his film career, this humble writer too has often been compared with Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, Humphrey Bogart and Anthony Quinn. And everyone, of course, knows that Dev Anand has been called the Gregory Peck of India.
The rest of India followed Gandhiji to preserve their self-respect, but the Punjabis found it more profitable to ape the Englishman. Even in independent India, they have not given up this habit of theirs, and if truth be told, Indians from other parts of the country too have now started behaving like the Punjabis, abandoning the Gandhian path.
There was a time when men of our film industry too had been inspired by the thoughts of Gandhi and Tagore, as a result of which institutions like the Prabhat and New Theatres had come into existence. But thanks to the decisive influence the Punjabis have come to wield in this profession today, our films too have become artificial.
Surely an eighteen-year-old lad could not have remained unaffected by all that deceit his own people were practising on themselves. No sooner I returned home from an English movie, than I would run to my mirror and ‘admire’ myself from every possible angle. And every time my image used to ‘tally’ exactly with the face of the hero of the particular film I had seen that evening. I used to wonder at this strange phenomenon, which made me look like so many different heroes of Hollywood! I used to stand rooted in front of the mirror till finally I heard the admonishing voice of my father or mother! And I always had some excuse ready for them to explain away my coming home late that evening.
This practice of mine of telling lies virtually made me incapable of telling truth. I know, I am not lacking in self-respect Indeed no son of a gun has ever been able to humble me, no matter what his status! And yet, whenever I have to meet someone, socially or otherwise, I feel like a culprit in his presence, a culprit who is hiding a secret! Even the success and the fame I have achieved as a film actor appear to me as some kind of a crime I have committed! People often make mention of my courteous demeanour, Actually, this self-effacement on my part is largely the result of a sense of guilt, which in turn comes from the low opinion my parents had of films. They had always impressed upon me that film acting was no profession for gentlemen.
My own childhood coincided with the ‘childhood’ of the film industry. Very early in my life, I had found myself drawn to films and I was by no means alone in this. My entire generation had found the attraction of films irresistible. I still remember the day when Prithviraj Kapoor and Jagdish Sethi had come to Koh-Muree (a place near Rawalpindi) to bid good-bye to their friends, before leaving for Bombay to join films. I was then much younger than they, and so could only make a mental note of what was happening around’ me. The alien rulers had closed all avenues of progress to the irrepressible young men of the Punjab. But their indomitable spirit was something which no one could deprive them of! And films were the one profession, where young Punjabis could indulge themselves to their heart’s content, which they could not do in their everyday life!
Hariram Sethi was one of our fashionable and enterprising young men. It was he who was the first man to set up a commercial film company in the Punjab. It was Rawalpindi’s ‘Punjab Film Company’ and the first film to be produced at its studios was Abala. Tilak Bhasin, Baba Bhishma Singh and several of my friends had acted in it. The director had ‘imported’ a young man from.’ Bengal for the hero’s role. All the young men of Rawalpindi had taken unkindly to this act and we would roam about in the premises of the studio, when the shooting was on, just to show him that every one of us was far more handsome than he!
Ramautai, the corpulent film comedian, had run away from home in Rawalpindi. The late Pralhad Dutt was, in his time, the most versatile and talented cameraman of the Bombay film industry. His film technique had won acclaim even in Europe and America. I remember several outings made in the company of Dutt and Tilak Bhasin. At ‘Kashmir Point’ and ‘Pindi Point’, we would discuss ‘situations’ for a two-reeler comedy! Dutt was once arrested for uprooting the pole in the compound of an Englishman’s house, bearing his name plate. Apparently, Dutt was looking for some hidden treasure there. Later Dutt went on to invent a special type of movie-camera, whose fame had spread all over the country. If I am not mistaken, he had even made bombs for Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary party! His colleague Harbans Bhalla is still working in the Madras film industry. He has his own laboratory there.
One more incident I remember from those Rawalpindi days is Jaykishen Nanda’s (Maker of that memorable film Ishara) ‘bolt’ to Germany to become a film-hero! Our R.C. Talwar was already in Hollywood. Thus there were any number of fellow