A poll posted on March 4 by CNNGo, a division of Cable News Network (CNN), listed Guru Dutt, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Pran and Amitabh Bachchan among ‘Asia's 25 greatest actors of all time’. China’s Zhou Xun, Pakistan’s Mohammad Ali, Sri Lanka’s Malini Fonseka; Korea’s Ahn Sung-ki, Thailand’s Petchara Chaowarat and Malaysia’s P Ramlee are some of the other actors to make it to the elite club.
Talking about Pran, the poll says, “So great is his notoriety as a villain that some Indian parents dare not name their sons Pran.” The comment brought back memories of an interview with the actor over a decade ago. I had arrived at his bungalow after months of cajoling, to be greeted by a volley of barks. Ferocious canines strained at their leash as I tentatively stepped in to meet the ‘khalnayak’ (villain) I had grown up fearing. He looked frail and far-from-fearful after his recent illness.
‘Will you act in my movie?’
At one point I was ready to bring the hour long interview to a premature end after he almost run out of breath. He waved me back into my chair and after a short break, continued to sketch his incredible story that began in Lahore outside a ‘paan’ shop when a stranger walked up to the lowly assistant in a photo shop and offered him a role in the Punjabi movie he had written.
The man was Wali Mohammed Wali, a leading script, dialogue and lyric writer. “After a few drinks every person imagines himself to be Wallia (Urdu for the ‘enlightened one’).” Pran Kishen Sikand told himself, and dismissed Wali’s request to turn up at Pancholi studio the next morning. “But the following Saturday, when he went to the Plaza theatre to catch a movie, he ran into Wali again in the foyer and was cursed loudly for not keeping his appointment.
The next morning, Wali himself turned up to escort Pran to the studio. The same evening, he was playing the villian’s role in Yamala Jat.
Goodbye Lahore, hello Mumbai
Yamala Jat was a superhit. Twenty-two more films followed, including Khandaan opposite Noorjehan. On August 11, 1947, Pran arrived in Indore for his son’s first birthday. “The next day, the massacre of Hindus in Lahore began and I never went back,” he flashbacked.
The actor relocated to Mumbai and with films like Apradhi, Kashmir Ki Kali, Rajkumar, Mere Sanam, Dil Diya Dard Liya and An Evening In Paris became Hindi cinema’s most-hated bad man who whenever spotted was greeted with taunts like, “Arrey badmash,” “O lafange”, “Abe goonde harami..” He shrugged off the jeers till one day, his daughter told him quietly, “Daddy, why don’t you do some decent films for a change.”
Suddenly, he realised that his screen image was becoming a matter of embarrassment for his family. He needed a change and Manoj Kumar gave him the chance to turn good with Upkaar.
Malang chacha is coming
Soon after the film’s release, the actor was invited to Om Prakash’s daughter’s wedding. The mandap was a good 400 yards away from where he had parked his car. As he tentatively stepped out, a whisper reached him, “Malang chacha aa rahen hain (Malang chacha is coming). Make way for him.” And to his wonderment, the assembled mob respectfully parted.
“I still marvel at the almost overnight change in people’s perception of me,” Pran smiled, recalling how vehemently music directors Kalyanji and Ananmdji had protested when told that one of their best songs would be picturised on him. Today, ‘Kasme vaade, pyaar wafaa…’ is synonymous with the one-legged soldier. Another popular song from his portfolio is Zanjeer’s qawwali, Yaari hai imaan meri yaar meri zindagi… When director Prakash Mehra informed Pran that his first shot for the film would be for a song, a furious Pran reacted saying, “You haven’t sent me my lines or even a recording and you expect me to be ready for a song. Go find another actor, I’m not doing your film.”
Keep the song
Mehra somehow convinced Pran not to opt out of his film that starred a struggling actor, Amitabh Bachchan, and give the mahurat shot on the condition that he would edit the song immediately and show him the rush print. “If you don’t like the song, we’ll scrap it,” the director promised.
The next day, Sher Khan took centrestage. And after the mahurat was flooded with complimentary calls from friends and colleagues. When Mehra called to invited him for a preview of the song, he was told, “I’ve seen it already, through the eyes of others. Keep it, it will be a hit.”
Twenty-seven years after Zanjeer, Pran took centrestage again at one of our award functions. The octogenarian actor was being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to over 350 films.
Tears and cheers
Dashing in a checked jacket, sprightly despite his recent illness, Pran bent down and touched the stage with his forehead in a gesture of gratitude to his fans who had helped shape of one Bollywood’s longest and most successful careers. And the 5000-plus audience stood as one to give him a standing ovation, some wiping away emotional tears.
The tears turned to amused twitters as Pran, smiling brightly, announced that he would keep his speech short and sweet kyunki hum bolega to bologe ki bolta hai.., quoting a line from his Kasauti charttopper.
As he was making his way back to his chair, Rekha stood up and respectfully touched his feet. As he blessed her, it struck me that yesterday’s much-maligned Bad Man had metamorphosed into a much-revered Good Man. His daughter would have no complaints today.