Mai wo bala hoon jo sheeshe se patthar ko todta hoon.
(I am the one who breaks stones with mirrors.)
One of Bollywood’s most iconic actors, Prem Chopra redefined the big screen bad guy – a sneering, leering villain who commanded as much screen presence as the highly glorified heroes of his time.
In the Capital to attend the third edition of the Urdu festival, Jashn-e-Rekhta, the 81-year-old actor talks about how he got an entire nation to loathe him, his iconic dialogues, future projects and more.
How did you end up being India’s most recognised villain?
Like most actors, I wanted to be a hero when I started. Initially, I played the lead in a couple of Punjabi movies, which did well. But the Hindi movies in which I was the hero or one of the central characters were not as successful. You do not get many chances in this industry if your films flop. I was then offered negative roles, which I took up and they worked magic.
You worked at a time when the on-screen image of actors was taken very seriously...
Yes, men would hide their wives when they saw me. I would often go talk to them and they were always surprised when they found out that I was just a regular guy, as good as any of them.
The audience back then really thought that I was as vicious as the characters I played. But I always took it as a compliment. It meant that I was doing my job well.
You have primarily played the bad guy in your 50-year-long career. Was it a conscious choice?
People in those years were not as emancipated as they are now. The audience today has started to differentiate between the character and the actor. And they appreciate a good performance for what it is. Earlier, it was very difficult for an on-screen villain to play a good guy or a hero to be a negative character. People did not accept it.
But if you look at my last few films, you’d see that I have been doing positive roles for quite some time now. They have all been appreciated, which means people, of late, have accepted me as an actor.
What is the story behind your iconic dialogue ‘Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra’?
We were shooting for Bobby (1973) in Pune. The moment I reached the set, Raj Kapoor, who was directing the film, gave me the dialogue. I thought that if the film did well, the dialogue would be a hit too. So while it was being shot, I added my laughter and other histrionics to make it more interesting.
The film, as you know, became a major blockbuster and the dialogue has been with me ever since. It has become my landmark, so much so that everywhere I go, even after all these years, people want me to say it just like I did in that movie.
You’ve worked with almost every major actor of your time. Who did you admire the most?
Dilip Kumar. Among heroines, Hema Malini, was very nice to work with. She was cooperative and professional.
What do you think has changed in the portrayal of villains in Hindi cinema over the years?
In our time, the story was built around three pivotal characters — the hero, heroine and the villain. That no longer holds true.
Back then, the villain was not given any backstory. There would be no mention of how or why he turned out like that. He would be bad just like it. Now heroes play villains. They are given a detailed background. The way revenge is planned and executed these days is also very logical.
Which projects are you currently working on?
A couple of my films are ready for release. There’s Patel Ki Punjabi Shaadi, which also stars Rishi Kapoor and Paresh Rawal. Then there’s Udanchhoo and Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai.
The author tweets @sneha_bengani
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