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Zanjeer would not have been made without Pran,says Salim Khan

Even if he has gone over to the dark side,the villain completes the hero.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | New Delhi |
May 5, 2013 2:09:00 am

IT was all in the eyes. Their menace had the ability to make the man of medium height seem taller and more intimidating. It made him stand up in defiance as Sher Khan in Zanjeer (1973) against the six-feet tall,long-legged Amitabh Bachchan. In Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960),as the dreaded dacoit Raka,he had a gang of bandits scrambling for cover. As the wealthy and rather stylish Sunder in Azaad (1955),his far-from-loving gaze made Meena Kumari wilt in fear as he sat on a chair blowing smoke rings. The eyes made Pran the most dreaded villain that Hindi cinema has seen.

Last fortnight,the 93-year-old actor received India’s highest film honour,the Dadasaheb Phalke Award,a recognition that perhaps comes too late. Pran had a successful career spanning over six decades,and his contribution to Hindi cinema extends beyond his role as an actor. Zanjeer would not have been made had it not been for Pran,says screenwriter Salim Khan who co-wrote the film with Javed Akhtar. “Prakash Mehra had signed on Pransaab for the role of Sher Khan but he didn’t have a hero. Pransaab set up a meeting between Prakash and Dev Anand after Raj Kumar and Dharmendra refused the role. When Devsaab also turned the film down,it was Pran who suggested that Bachchan play the part,” Khan says.

A relatively new face,Bachchan was not the actor who could be banked on to draw in the crowds. The film was sold to distributors on the basis of Pran’s credibility. The audience that famously left having discovered an actor who would dominate the industry for the next two decades had arrived at the theatres rooting for Pran. “To have him as a part of their film’s cast,even as a villain,was considered an asset by producers and directors,” Khan says.

Born Pran Kishan Sikand on February 12,1920,into a Punjabi family in Delhi,he aspired to be a photographer when he met screenwriter Wali Mohammed Wali,who convinced the 17-year-old to shift to Lahore and play a key role in his Punjabi film Yamla Jat (1940),which also featured Durga Khote in the lead and Noor Jehan as a child artiste. The latter became his leading lady in Khandaan (1942),his first film as a romantic hero. It was a blockbuster,and it propelled Pran’s career. He did a number of films before Partition forced him to shift to Bombay.

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In Bombay,however,the roles seemed to have dried up. Friend and author Saadat Hassan Manto helped him get a villain’s role in Shaheed Latif’s Ziddi in 1948. The film launched Dev Anand’s career as a romantic hero and established Pran as a successful villain,an image he cultivated over the 1950s with several memorable films such as Devdas (1955),Azaad,Halaku (1956) and Madhumati (1958). Through this period and up till the mid-1970s,Pran enjoyed unparalleled success. He would command a higher price than the leading men of his films. The producers would oblige too,but keep the information under wraps.

Unlike most villains who once aspired to be heroes,playing villain on screen was a matter of choice for Pran who didn’t enjoy the song-and-dance routine that came with the hero’s territory,and opted for performance-driven roles instead. “Few people notice that the hero’s strength is determined by how tough a villain he defeats; it is the antagonist who makes the hero look good,” says actor Prem Chopra,a reigning villain in films made in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Pran,Chopra enjoyed the characters he played,which were quirkier than the straight-jacketed do-gooder hero. “In Bobby (1973),my entry is marked with the line ‘Prem naam hai mera… Prem Chopra’,which is delivered with the same nonchalance as James Bond announcing his name but with a hint of evil,” says the actor.

The ones who go over to the dark side,the bad guys who break the rules,and who define the hero’s worth by their implacable opposition,are also the more intriguing characters. For writer Salim Khan,a villain’s character allowed more room for experimentation. He could be evil and absurd,whereas the good guy had to subscribe to a code of conduct. “Not just their looks and mannerisms,we could even play with their names. For instance,Amjad Khan’s character in Sholay is called Gabbar,which doesn’t mean anything,but it has since come to be a word that signifies evil,” Khan says.


At a time when cinema wasn’t as demystified as it is today due to over-exposure to stars,the audience believed what it saw on screen. The leading men and women became objects of adoration,while the actors who played villains induced fear. Women would gasp and children hide when they spotted Prem Chopra on the street. Danny Denzongpa and Shakti Kapoor evoked similar reactions. Khan recounts how his role as Gabbar made Amjad Khan an overnight star but also made him a man the audience liked to keep a distance from. But it was,again,Pran whose reputation as a villain preceded him to the extent that parents stopped naming their children after him. “It may sound ridiculous today,but a few years ago,Pran’s family announced a hunt to find people born in the 1950s and 1960s called Pran,but found hardly any,” says Shakti Kapoor.

That complete identification of the character with the actor also ended up stereotyping the actors,hindering their transition to character roles despite repeated attempts. With characters such as Kaancha Cheena (Agneepath,1990),dressed in white,fitting suits with hair slicked back,Denzongpa gained the reputation of being a suave antagonist whose style inspirer the audience. But off the screen,he would argue with friends Amitabh Bachchan and Manmohan Desai over drinks at the former’s residence in favour of multi-dimensional characters over simple stories of good versus evil. “I was a Film and Television Institute of India graduate and my exposure to world cinema had me yearning for complex characters. But it is an image the audience hasn’t accepted even today,” he says,adding that his National Award-winning indie film Frozen (2010) was hardly seen by the audience.

Kapoor adds that the closest he came to experimenting was with comic roles. “But appearing in boxer shorts with the nada hanging (Raja Babu,1994) was also limiting. I was offered roles of a village bumpkin over and over again. Once the audience is tired of watching you in a certain image,they will reject you. The only way an actor can rescue his career is by establishing himself as a character actor,” he says.


In the late 1960s,Pran,had faced a similar dilemma,as younger villains like Prem Chopra and Shatrughan Sinha were in demand. But Manoj Kumar wanted to cast Pran as Malang Baba,a war veteran bitter about the state of the country,in his film Upkar (1967). Kumar’s well-wishers discouraged him — Kalyanji,the film’s music composer,pleaded that the song Kasme vaade pyaar wafaa not be picturised on Pran.

“He was a hard-working,dedicated actor who contributed not only to his own characters but also to the script. His hold on Urdu also helped. Having watched his films since the 1940s,I was convinced of his versatility,” says Kumar. Upkar was a hit and Pran was soon back in demand,this time as a character actor and went on to do memorable roles such as Sher Khan in Zanjeer,Rana in Victoria No 203 (1972) and Jasjit in Don (1978) among others. Later,other noted villains such as Amrish Puri and Amjad Khan would also follow the same career path.

While Pran started out as a hero and chose to turn villain later,Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna are two actors in Hindi cinema who managed the reverse. Sinha,who made an impact with his powerful dialogue delivery and booming voice,as a villain in the superhit Khilona (1970),established himself further with Gulzar’s Mere Apne (1971). But his devilish swagger made him so popular that the audience did not want to see him go down fighting to the hero. “When the makers of Rampur Ka Lakshman,directed by Manmohan Desai and produced by AA Nadiadwala,realised it,they changed the ending of the film,” says Sinha. They gave him a back story that would make him not an outright evil guy, but one whose character would evoke sympathy. “From a villain,I became an anti-hero,” says Sinha. And then a leading actor.

The trend of the anti-hero,which first started in the 1970s — Amitabh Bachchan made it hugely popular as the Angry Young Man in Deewar (1975),Trishul (1978),Satte Pe Satta (1982) and several other films — has since stayed. In the last two decades or so,top stars have experimented with grey characters: Sanjay Dutt in Khalnayak,Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar and Darr,Hrithik Roshan in Dhoom 2,Abhishek Bachchan in Yuva and so on – to deliver some of the finest performances of their careers.

“Leading men realise the scope that a negative role offers. It is,after all,more challenging and exciting,” says Chopra. “In our time,there was no explanation as to why a bad man was that way. Today,a villain is reinterpreted – his character is explored to see why he became who he did. This adds layers to the character,making it more real and closer to life.”


The anti-hero may have taken over,but like all good things,Bollywood’s villains are making a comeback too. Big-budget action entertainers,such as Ghajini,Dabangg,Singham and Rowdy Rathore have ensured that evil is restored to its original fame,in broad-brushstroke characters. Denzongpa,who will again play a baddie on screen in the Salman Khan film Mental and Bang Bang,explains,“The masses like simple story lines,like fables,which end with good winning over evil.”

His colleagues insist that among them,Pran will always stand out. “He closely observed people and their mannerisms to use them with the appropriate character whenever it would come by. These became the source of his many famous dialogues or trademark gestures,be it running his finger along the collar in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai or puffing a cigarette,inhaling snuff and then saying,‘Kyon? Theek hai na,theek?’,a trait he borrowed from a friend’s uncle. He would come up with a distinct look for each role and work on these with his make-up and hair artistes. There is no other villain and actor like Pran,” says Manoj Kumar.

My Journey with Sher Khan



You have co-starred with Pran in as many as 19 films. What,according to you,are his most striking qualities as an actor?

As an actor he has the ability to devise a different characterisation (sic) for almost all the roles he has played. A gesture,a particular style of speaking,his appearance,were all done to perfection. He improvised to make his character look different from others that he had played. He was the first to arrive on set. I never saw him complaining or debating any sequence with his colleagues. He just did his job and left.

You have known him well,off screen too.


He is a soft-spoken,quiet and a most affable person,and a thorough professional.

When did you first meet Pran?

It was before I had joined the industry. I was visiting Mumbai as a tourist and I had wished to see a shooting in progress. It was at the RK Studios. He was sitting out in the open,his feet up on the chair,without any airs about him. When introduced,he was polite and friendly,did not speak much and was pleasant. Later,of course,we met officially when I started working,during the films that I did with him.

Was there something he conveyed to you when you were new in the industry that has stayed with you till date?

His demeanour and his acts were elaborate enough for a newcomer to emulate. He never interfered in what others were doing. He followed the script and the director; sufficient pointers for us to imbibe and keep as examples of professionalism.

Which is your favourite performance of Pran and why?

Most of the roles he played as a villain were exceptional,but when he first switched to character roles,he did some remarkable roles. My favourites would be his role of the revolutionary convict in Shaheed (1965),the film on Bhagat Singh made by Manoj Kumar. Also his role in another Manoj Kumar film Upkar,perhaps the first time he played a character role.

Of the films that feature both of you,which is your favourite?

I would say all our films together,but if you were to push me for specifics,I would think Zanjeer and Sharaabi (1984) would rate high.

Is there something the world doesn’t know about Pransaab,that you would like to tell us?

That he has a remarkable memory and a repertoire of Urdu poetry,shayari and couplets. He would delight us with them during breaks on our outdoor shoots.

Men in Black

Amrish Puri as Mogambo in Mr India

A peroxide-blonde villain with in-house acid pools and a life-sized map of India at his feet,the exact reason behind Mogambo’s desire to rule India remained unclear. But his glittering eyes and bellowing voice saying,“Mogambo khush hua” has passed into Bollywood lore

Amjad Khan as Gabbar Singh in Sholay

He is the most spoofed villains of all time but nothing compares to the original Gabbar Singh. Whether he’s laughing his heart out or smacking to death a little fly on his wrist,the truth is that,“Jab meelon door raat ko bachaa rota hai toh maa kehti hai so jaa nahi toh Gabbar Singh aa jaayega”

Ajit as Loin in Zanjeer

This smooth-talker,who never stopped mispronouncing his name,was a villain with flair. He never did much,there were Robert,Mona and Lily to do his deals and the dirty work. All he had to do was hold a glass of whiskey,puff a cigar and say,“Saara sheher mujhe Loin ke naam se jaanta hai.”

Prem Chopra as Prem Chopra in Bobby

One who can spot a pot of gold in any avatar,Prem Chopra is a street-smart ruffian,but not an uncouth one. He has his own style. Even when he borrows a James Bond dialogue,he makes it his own

Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Maharani in Sadak

One look from the eunuch with that big red bindi on his forehead was enough to make one believe his words: “Yahan ka raja,is jism ke bazaar ka maharaja,aur naam,Maharani” Amrapurkar pulled off a chilling portrayal of evil in the film

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First published on: 05-05-2013 at 02:09:00 am

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