He’s 90 now and easily the greatest villain that Hindi cinema has even seen. Such was his impact as the baddie that a survey among Indian schools in the 1970s showed there were no children named Pran! One has been totally taken in by his performances in several films – Afsana (1951), Bahar (1951), Halaku (1956), Madhumati (1958), Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), Kashmir ki Kali (1964), Upkar (1967), Zanjeer (1973) and Bobby (1973) and countless others. So, naturally one jumped at the opportunity to meet the most well-known ‘bad man’ of Hindi filmdom.
Though Pran is not directly connected to a project I’m working with friends, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (Shivi) and Arwa Mamaji, on the golden age of Hindi cinema, we still try to meet as many luminaries and personalities of that era as we can, being great admirers of Hindi cinema of that period and of the people who worked in them. With each such meeting, our biggest regret always is why were we not around to make films then??? Anyway, thanks to Shivi’s persistence, he and I were finally able to meet Pran at his residence in Union Park, Bandra last month.
Though obviously needing support to walk now, Pran’s memory is still razor sharp. We were regaled with stories of Lahore in the 1940s, where he did his initial filmwork, where you got the best lassi there, his experience of being Noor Jehan’s hero in Khandaan (1942), Saadat Hasan Manto taking him to Bombay Talkies for work post the Partition of India – his first film in Post-independent India was the Dev Anand – Kamini Kaushal starrer, Ziddi (1948) made by Bombay Talkies, his initial days of struggle in India and living in various types of hotels as per his financial condition then – a difficult period considering he was a reasonably popular artist, both as lead man and villain in Lahore, his initial meeting with Raj Kapoor, where he was most offended that Raj Kapoor himself drank a large peg and Pran was made a small one so he actually initially turned down Aah (1953) saying Raj Kapoor was a kanjoos! Of course the large-hearted Kapoor made up for it and we got to see Pran doing some of his best work for him in Aah (cast against type as a good doctor), Jis Desh Mein Ganaga Behti Hai and Bobby. He gave us an insight into the working of filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and BR Chopra, his one regret being that he never worked with Guru Dutt. He couldn’t stop laughing recalling Om Prakash, a former colleague from Lahore, bungling his lines in Bahar (1951). When Om Prakash was given his dialogue, he dismissed it overconfidently saying he had remembered them only to fluff up take after take!
Leave aside the nuggets and anecdotes of making films in that era, Pran made some pertinent points as he told us he never left the sets once the shooting began for a scene. If it was a two character sequence, he would stay and watch the other actor’s solo shots as well. “If I haven’t seen what the other actor has done, how would I know how to react when my solo shots are being taken?” he observed. Yes, this is something our stars of today, who immediately run back to the luxury of their make-up vans following every shot, could well learn from. He recalled that when he was cast against type in Upkar (1967), the composers Kalyanji – Anandji were horrified that their composition Kasme Vaade Pyar Wafa would be picturised on Pran. They tried to reason with Manoj Kumar but he was adamant. When they finally saw the song on screen, they were the first to apologize to Pran for doubting him! Even more amazingly, he remembered various dialogues from his films down the years. Telling us how he had to learn ‘shudh’ Hindi for his role in Adalat (1958), he has us riveted as he went through the entire scene where dressed as a Pandit, he offers the heroine, Nargis, a job as a music teacher – dialogue by dialogue, including hers! He also graciously signed photographs and song booklets of his films for us, something I obviously value a lot.
As we were leaving, I thought to myself – bad man, Pran? Nah! He was a villain no more for me.