With the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s most respected actors just around the corner – May 1 is the date – I came across an amusing little anecdote about Balraj Sahni. In his biography Balraj: My Brother, Bhisham Sahni recalls a Bombay producer saying the young Balraj resembled the Hollywood legend Gary Cooper. “Balraj took this as a compliment, but it was meant to convey that he had grown too lean and thin for the role of a hero in Hindi films; the Indian audiences preferred chubby and round-faced heroes.”
There were other ways in which Balraj would confound expectations of the Indian movie star in the 1940s and 50s. Having trained as a BBC announcer in England, and also being familiar with a relatively “realistic” stage tradition – compared to the Parsi theatre that gave Hindi cinema many of its florid conventions – he had a knack for understatement that recalled the best work of such American star-actors as Spencer Tracy … or Gary Cooper for that matter, of whom Orson Welles once said: “You’d see him working on the set and you’d think my god, they’re going to have to retake that one! He almost didn’t seem to be there. And then you’d see the rushes, and he’d fill the screen.”….
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