Two towering personalities of the Bombay film industry hailed from Rawalpindi: Shyam and Balraj Sahni, Others from Rawalpindi who contributed to the Calcutta, Bombay and Lahore film industries before Partition included music director Rafiq Ghaznavi (who also an actor), Swaranlata (who acted in films in Bombay and then moved to Pakistan with her husband Nazir) and song-writer Anand Bakshi. The fabulous actress Nargis’s father, Mohan Babu, was from Rawalpindi. The great song-writer Shailendra was born in Rawalpindi and went to school there, but the family was originally from Bihar.
Rafiq Ghaznavi learnt music in Lahore. He played the lead role and scored the music in A. R. Kardar’s first talkie made in Lahore, Heer Ranjha (1932). It was also the first Punjabi-language talking film. Swaranlata was born in Rawalpindi in a Sikh family, which moved to Delhi and later Bombay. She started acting in films in 1942 but shot to fame in Rattan (1944). Her co-star was Karan Dewan (born in Gujranwala). The songs of Rattan were written by the doyen of Punjabi song writers at Bombay, D.N. Madkhok (born in Gujranwala) while the music score was by Naushad. Swaranlata married Nazir Ahmed Khan and became Sayeeda Begum. Both moved to Lahore at the time of Partition. She acted in many memorable films in Lahore. The Punjabi-language Pherey 1949 and Laarey (1950) and many other films are remembered for her sensitive acting in tragic roles.
Shyam was born as Sunder Shyam Chadha on February 20, 1920 in Sialkot, where his father – who was in the Army – was posted. The family was settled in Rawalpindi though it hailed originally from a village in Jhelum district. Shyam was a graduate of Rawalpindi’s landmark Gordon College (where I taught briefly during 1972-73). Shyam made his film debut in Lahore in a Punjabi film, Gawandi (1942). His co-stars were Veena, Manorma, M Ismail and Asha Posley. Shyam acted in many memorable films whose songs continue to haunt people. I will name only a few here: Mann Kee Jeet (1944), Majboor (1948), Dillagi (1949), Patanga (1949), Chandni Raat (1949), Meena Bazaar (1950) and Samadhi (1950).
Both Shyam and Balraj Sahni represented the best traditions of humanism and solidarity across religions and nations
Produced and directed by Mian A. R. Kardar of Bhaati Gate Lahore, Dillagi (1949) was an adaptation of the Punjabi love saga, Heer Ranjha. It had Shyam and Suraiya (Gujranwala born) in lead roles, while Amar (a Muslim) from the walled city of Lahore played the archetypical villain Kaido Langa. It was a musical masterpiece of Naushad. In the duets ‘Tu mera chand mein teri chandni’ and ‘zalim zamana mujhko’ the singer who sang with Suraiya was Shyam Kumar. It was not Shyam the hero on which the duets were filmed. Shyam Kumar was from Maharashtra. His real name was Syed Gul Hamid. The two songs of Rafi in Dillagi were all-time vintage performances, ‘Iss Duniya mein aye dill walo dil ka lagana khel nahin’ and ‘Tere Kuchey mein armano kee duniya le ke aya hon’. I remember from my early childhood a native ice-cream vender known as Mamaa Kulfi Wala, who used to roam around in the streets of Mozang and often came to Temple Road. He would sing, ‘Tere kuchey mein armano kee duniya le ke aya hon’ in a voice full of pathos. The rumour was that he was madly in love with some woman but that love remained unfulfilled. 60 year later, I can still see Mamaa Kuli Wala with the eye of my mind.
Two other songs filmed on Shyam have always haunted me. In Bazaar (1949) directed by K. Amarnath (born Mianwali and educated in Lahore) the duet, ‘Aye mahaubat unn se milne ka bahana mill gaya’ was song by Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeskhar. The music was by Shyam Sundar who hailed from Multan but started his career in Lahore. The second was also a duet, ‘Kaise baje dill ka sitar’ from Chandni Raat (1949) sung by Rafi and Shamshad Begum (born Lahore). The music was by Naushad.
Shyam’s closest friend in Bombay was the writer Saadat Hassan Manto in Bombay. The two shared an apartment for quite some time. Shyam was also a close friend of another great Urdu writer, Krishan Chander. In the aftermath of the partition when Manto moved to Lahore the two kept in touch. Shyam visited Lahore once and a function was held at the Capitol Cinema on good old Abbot Road. Later Shyam and his Lahore friends went to the Heera Mandi to enjoy mujra but Manto declined the invitation to accompany them. He was already in a state of depression as shifting to Lahore had not proved all that beneficial to him despite his leaving India to be in Muslim Pakistan. On the contrary he ran into trouble with the authorities for allegedly writing obscene stories. That put him in dire financial straits. Shyam kept track of what was happening and sent him some money.
Shyam’s links to Lahore were rooted in deep love as well. He had married Mumtaz Qureshi, better known as Taji. During the shooting of Shabistan Shyam fell off the horse he was riding and died of the injuries he sustained. It plunged film lovers into deep grief. Both Manto and Krishan Chander wrote heartfelt obituaries in which they came to the same conclusion – that Shyam was not only a large-hearted man and sincere friend but also a most enlightened and compassionate human being.
Shyam and Taji had two children together. Their daughter, Sahira, was born while Shyam was alive, while their son Shekhar (later renamed Shakir) was born posthumously, two months after his death. Taji’s elder sister Zeb Qureshi acted in a few films in Bombay. Both sisters returned to Lahore after Shyam’s death. Shyam’s daughter Sahira became a noted Pakistan television artiste and later married a colleague, Rahat Kazmi.
While researching Shyam’s life, I succeeded in getting touch with a nephew of Shyam, Vikram Chadha, in Pune, Maharashtra. Vikram is a lawyer. Later, I got in touch with another nephew of his, Bimal Chadha. In 2011 when I visited Delhi, I met him and Shyam’s younger brother, Harbans Chadha. They earnestly wanted to get in touch with Shyam’s children but there was no interest from them in reconnecting with their relatives in India. However, as a result I have become a family friend of Bimal Chadha and always visit them when I go to Delhi. He has promised to write the story of his uncle and I hope he keeps his word. The mystique of Shyam continues to attract people after all these years. I keep receiving emails from all over the world from people who have read my two articles published on Shyam.
Balraj (real first name Yudhishthir) Sahni was born in Rawalpindi on 01 May 1913 into a well-to-do business family with a strong Arya Samaji commitment. The Sahnis hailed originally from Bhera, which is now famous as the bus junction where Lahore-Islamabad buses always break journey. (By the way, tragic heroine Meena Kumari’s father Ali Bakhsh was also from Bhera). He studied at Gordon College and then Government College Lahore from where he did an M.A. in English. Sahni was an intellectual about whom his teacher, famous educationist Petras Bokhari, said that when Sahni was not in the class he felt half the class was absent. In the late 1930s, Sahni and his wife left Rawalpindi to join Rabrindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in Bengal. He also worked with Mahatma Gandhi in 1938 and then joined BBC-London’s Hindi service. He returned to India in 1943 and went to Bombay where he joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Balraj and his wife had joined the Communist Party and Marxism remained a constant intellectual reference in his life. Khawaja Masud, the famous educationist of Rawalpindi, who was also a leading light of the Communist Party in Rawalpindi, told me that once Sahni took part in a study circle in Srinagar in 1946 which comrades from Rawalpidni had arranged.
Balraj Sahni started his film career in 1946. In Dharti ke Lal (1946) Balraj was in the lead role. It was based on the famine of Bengal. The story was by Krishan Chander and script by Khawaja Ahmed Abbas. In Humlog (1951) he played a rebellious but helpless, unemployed man. He was in jail for Marxist activism but was allowed to take part in the shooting of Hulchal (1951) in which he played a side role. However, it was Do Bigha Zameen (1953), a classic directed by Bimal Roy in which Sahni’s profoundly realistic portrayal of an impoverished peasant won him acclaim for his histrionic dexterity. It was based on a story by the doyen of progressive fiction, Munshi Prem Chand. It won an international prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In Kabuliwala (1961) Sahni played the Pathan chowkidar. It was based on a famous Rabindranath Tagore’s story. It too is considered a classic.
Some of the finest songs of Manna Dey (a singer who never got due recognition) were filmed on Balraj Sahni. In Do Bigha Zameen the chorus led by Manna Day and Lata Mangeshkar, ‘Dharti kahe pukar ke’ was written by Shailendra while the music was by Salil Chowdhary. Then in Seema (1955), ‘Tu pyaar ka sagar hai, teri ikk boondh ke pyase hum’ the lyrics were by Shailendra and music by Shankar Jaikishen. In Kabuliwala, ‘Aye mere pyare watan’ was written by Prem Dhawan (born Chakwal), the music was by Salil Chowdhary. In Waqt (1965), ‘Aye meri zohra jabeen’ was written by Sahir Ludhianvi and the music was by Ravi. In Khalid Latif and Ismat Chughtai’s Sone ki Chirriya (1958), Mohammad Rafi sang for him one of the greatest revolutionary songs of Sahir Ludhianvi, ‘Raat bhar kaa hai mehmaan andhera, kis ke rokey ruka hai savera’. The music was by the idiocyncratic Lahori, O. P. Nayyar.
One of Bollywood’s greatest films on the Partition, Garam Hava (1973), was based on a story by Ismat Chughtai and had Balraj playing a Muslim, Salim Mirza – owner of a thriving shoe-making business. While many of his family and friends leave for Pakistan he steadfastly refuses to migrate. The film shows how forces in Hindu society opposed to the Muslim presence in India make things difficult for him – to the point that he is reduced to penury and himself decides to leave. Just then a procession of workers shouting slogans against exploitation passes by, Salim Mirza decides to join them instead of take the train on the way to Pakistan. The last line he recorded for the film was “Insaan Kab Tak Akela Jee Sakta Hai?” (“How long can a man live alone?”). Sahni died on 13 April 1973. Garam Hawa was released after his death. It is considered his best performance.
Balraj Sahni was a writer as well. He visited Pakistan in the early 1960s and wrote his travelogue ‘Mera Pakistan ka Safar’. He visited Government College Lahore where legendary principal Dr Nazir Ahmed received him with great warmth. He went to his native Rawalpindi but was followed by the CID wherever he went and was refused a room in a rest house on grounds that only Pakistani nationals could live there. Many years later in 1972, I met the taxi-driver whose cab Sahni had hired upon arriving in Rawalpindi. Both recognised each other immediately since they belonged to the same mohalla before the Partition. The taxi driver told me that the Hindus and Sikhs of Rawalpindi were good, God-fearing people and Balraj was always a gentleman. Sahni also went to Jhang and met his cousin who had become a Muslim and could hold on to his land.
Balraj Sahni was always a great champion of Punjabiyat. He used to spend time in Preet Nagar, a colony established before the partition between Lahore and Amritsar by leftist writers and poets. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Upendra Nath Ashq, Kartar Singh Duggal, Amrita Pritam, Balwant Garg and many others used to live there and in 1946 all of them went to Lahore to watch ‘Dharti ke Lal’. During 1960-73 he used to come and live in his small house in that colony. He wrote in Punjabi and acted in some Punjabi films such Nanak Dukhiya Sub Sansar (1970) and Satluj de kande (1964).
The late Asghar Ali Engineer, who has written a lot on Islam and won the Stockholm Right Livelihood Award in 2004, told me that whenever communal riots took place in Mumbai and other towns in Maharashtra, he would go to Balraj Sahni for help. Balraj would spend days and weeks with Engineer on the spot, trying to help restore peace and communal harmony.
Both Shyam and Balraj Sahni were great sons of Rawalpindi whose public lives were not only devoted to cinema but in their own ways they represented the best traditions of humanism and solidarity across religions and nations.
Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University; Visiting Professor at the Government College University, Lahore, and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore