Yes, I was fortunate enough to find the autobiography of Balraj Sahni (probably written shortly before his death in the early ’70s). [Note, much much later: The original link supplied here disappeared, but there is another place where you too can find this, thanks to Toonfactory (who added it in comments below).]
This memoir is for the most part a quick and light read, probably more so than I expected from him. Nonetheless, Sahni certainly comes through enough times with fascinating discussion and analysis, proving once again that he was the “man of letters” that had always aspired to be. He provides some interesting intellectual material when he talks about his studies of English literature (up to a Master’s degree – which he later deemed to be useless, quite understandably), as well as when he discusses his job with the BBC during World War II, when he made the acquaintance of British writers such as George Orwell. But the intellectual content becomes most interesting when he talks about his commitment to Marxism. I found the Marxist involvements to be the most interesting not only because I do have some sympathies in that direction, but also because it’s just fascinating, coming from the very different time and place that I live in, to read about great personalities in motion pictures whose lives were so wrapped up in such thoughts. (Maybe there was some of that in Hollywood, a long time ago? But at the time when this tendency was probably at its height in Bollywood, tons of people in Hollywood were getting blacklisted for far less in the way of communist tendencies.) Anyway, for Balraj Sahni, Marxism was a huge influence, which he states in a few paragraphs explicitly:
Marx’s Das Kapital had a profound effect on me. It was as if I had found a solution to a major problem. I realise that acting is just one of the several vocations that men follow. Just as a carpenter or an engineer meets a specific physical requirement of his fellow-citizens by supplying them with a table or a machine, a playwright or an actor satisfies their psychological urge through his play or his role. Both types of work are equally useful to society; there cannot be any ‘gradation’ between them….
Those who have no idea of what Marxism is about think that it is a mere political theory. This is, of course, an erroneous idea. In effect, Marxism is a philosophy which can analyse every aspect of worldly life from the scientific point of view. An artiste is ever curious to know how much significance society attaches to his art, and he cannot help asking himself, “Do I occupy a place in society in keeping with this significance?” In this respect, it is Marxism which shows one the right way. I believe that in this modern age, the study of Marxism is as important to an artiste as it is to a sociologist.
In practical terms, the communist movement also contributed in a major way to Sahni’s career as an actor and script writer, because of the significant role played by the Indian People’s Theatre Association.
I discussed the IPTA before, right after reviewing C.I.D., because the IPTA was also significant to Dev Anand and, even more so, his older brother, Chetan. (These two brothers founded Navketan Films in 1949; their younger brother, Vijay, would join the company a little later.) Chetan became good friends with Balraj Shani, and between them they had an interesting little film-connected social circle, which apparently reached its peak of creativity during the making of Baazi. And when Sahni gets into that story, he goes well beyond the discussion of the IPTA and the Communist Party, to relate a bunch of very informative and amusing anecdotes. Some of this material was stuff I already knew, but then some was stuff that was completely new to me.
For instance, I didn’t know that Balraj Sahni was the one who gave Johnny Walker his big break in movies, by concocting a scheme to get Johnny – then known by his real name Badru – to pretend that he was a drunk and pester the Anand brothers and Guru Dutt during a meeting. Apparently, no one but Balraj knew that his friend Badru was an actor playing a role, and when the truth finally came out, they were all highly impressed with Badru’s acting skills, at least at playing a drunk (which is, I guess, how he got the name Johnny Walker).
I never knew there were actually tensions between Balraj Sahni and Guru Dutt because of the ways that Guru Dutt was stretching Sahni’s script for Baazi. (To be honest, I had totally forgotten that Balraj Sahni wrote the script for Baazi - but as he says at one point himself, a lot of people seemed to have forgotten that.)
And it was amusing to see some of Balraj’s opinions of other actors – or, especially, actresses… For instance, he didn’t exactly like Geeta Bali, at least not after having to work with her for a while… He does say that during his first meeting with her, he thought she looked “dazzlingly beautiful,” and he was impressed at how instantly she agreed to do Baazi on top of so many other projects that she was doing at the time. But Sahni also talks about how Geeta Bali didn’t like working with him as a co-star later on, especially when she felt it was the result of a decline in her own career:
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!”
By contrast, Sahni had a very positive opinion of Helen when he worked with her in Badnam, back in 1952:
Helen was then a fifteen-year-old girl. She used to look exactly like a beautiful doll. Having recently come from Burma with her mother, she knew no dancing. She did not understand Hindi, either. In fact, she was practically unlettered and yet despite all these handicaps, she was intelligent enough not to fall prey to the wolves of the film industry. As for her mother, she had only romantic notions about the film world, but Helen was more sensible. Before long, she parted company with her mother and threw in her lot with producer P. N. Arora, although he was old enough to be her father! Thereby she could keep those wolves at bay and devote herself to the study of dancing and acting. I have only respect and admiration for Helen…
There are lots of juicy tidbits about Bollywood film personalities in this book, plenty of gossip and that sort of thing – at the same time that there is this heavy intellectual discussion of Marxism, the communist groups, the revolutionary element of the Independence movement, etc. And though I would have liked to see even more of the latter stuff, I’m glad that there was as much as there was, and I really like the fact that so much social discussion could be mixed with so much breezy entertainment. That odd mixture is kind of like…you know… some old Bollywood films.
P.S. You can also find a very readable (and printable) pdf copy here.