Balraj Sahni was born on 1 May 1913 in Rawalpindi, British India. He studied at Government College University (Lahore), Punjab, British India. After completing his master’s degree, he went back to Rawalpindi and joined his family business. Soon after he married Damayanti Sahni.
In the late 1930s, Sahni and his wife left Rawalpindi to join Visva Bharti University in Bengal as an English and a Hindi teacher. It is here that their son, Parikshit Sahni was born. He also went to work with Mahatma Gandhi for a year in 1938. He was elected as the first president of All India Youth Federation. The organisation was a huge success and strong presence was noticed by other political groups and the senior communist leaders everywhere. The next year, Sahni, with Gandhi’s blessings, went to England to join the BBC London’s Hindi service as a radio announcer. He returned to India in 1943.
Sahni was always interested in acting and started his acting career with the plays of the IPTA. He started his film career in Mumbai with the film Insaaf (1946), Dharti Ke Lal & Door Chalein in 1946, and other films. But it was in 1953, with Bimal Roy’s classic Do Bigha Zameen, that his true strength as an actor was first recognised. The film won the international prize at the Cannes Film Festival. He followed it up with an encore in the 1961 classic Kabuliwala penned by Tagore.
Sahni’s wife Damayanti died at a young age that same year. Two years later, he married his first cousin, Santosh Chandhok, later known as an author and television writer.
Sahni’s acting was very well liked and appreciated in all his films. He acted in films such as Bindya, Seema (1955), Sone Ki Chidiya (1958), Sutta Bazaar (1959), Bhabhi Ki Chudiyaan (1961), Kathputli (1957), Lajwanti (1958) and Ghar Sansaar (1958). His character roles in films such as Neelkamal, Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani, Do Raaste and Ek Phool Do Mali were greatly appreciated. However, he is perhaps best remembered by the legendary song “Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen” from the movie Waqt(1965). He also starred in the classic Punjabi film Nanak Dukhiya Sub Sansar (1970) as well as the critically acclaimed Satluj De Kande.
His role as the angst-ridden, but stoical Muslim man who refuses to go to Pakistan during partition, in his last film Garam Hawa, has often been called his best performance by critics. Balraj, however, could not see the completed film to rate his own performance, as he died just the day after he finished dubbing work. The last line he recorded for the film was “Insaan Kab Tak Akela Jee Sakta Hai?” which can be translated in English as: “How long can a man live alone?” Balraj Sahni died on 13 April 1973 of a massive cardiac arrest, less than a month before his 60th birthday. He had been depressed for some time by the untimely death of his young daughter, Shabnam.
“Punjabi Kala Kender”, founded in 1973 at Mumbai by Balraj Sahni, gives away the annual Balraj Sahni Award.
His notable songs are –
Aei meri zohra zabi…. (Movie : Waqt)
Tu pyar ka saagar hai…. (Movie : Seema)
Aei mere pyare watan…. (Movie : Kabuliwala)