‘In England, I would have been knighted!
Pran Kishan Sikand can undoubtedly stake his claim to being counted as one of Hindi cinema’s all time legends. He was Bollywood’s villain extraordinaire, but he went on to expand his range until his repertoire included everything — black deeds, heroics, comedy, emotions and even songs. And he did each with a style, substance and sophistication uniquely his own.
This year, in particular, has been special for Pran. In January, Hero Honda-Stardust chose him as the Villain Of The Millennium, a trophy Pran specially cherishes among the hundreds which crowd his house because ‘I won it though there were so many tough competitors.’
In February, he completed 80 eventful years of his life, 60 of which have belonged to the arclights of cinema.
In March 2000, he was honoured with the Zee Lifetime Achievement Award. At the show, Pran, already a much loved, much respected artiste and human being, carved his name forever in the hearts of millions of cinema lovers. In his spontaneous, beautiful, lump-in-the-throat speech, he credited his success to his audience.
“I bow before you all!” he said, as he actually knelt down on stage and bowed to the audience. “You have made me.” The deafening applause which followed was echoed by television viewers across the world.
“I said and did what I genuinely felt. Main kisi tarah se accha bol gayaa, and people phoned me from all over the world,” a humble Pran told Dr Rajiv Vijayakar.
Many of the great actors in your time entered the profession without any training or acting background. Why is it, then, that today’s trained actors cannot match their excellence?
Training, according to me, is secondary in any art. Primarily, you have to be God-gifted in order to succeed. You can get a diploma from an institute, not talent. Any talent or skill should be within you.
But how does one know if one has a particular skill?
I never realised it because I never wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a still photographer and began training for it in Delhi. They opened a new shop in Lahore and sent me there. After dinner, I used to go to a paan shop with some friends.
One day, a man came and stood there, staring at me from head to toe. He then introduced himself as Wali Mohammed Wali, a writer for Mr Dalsukh Pancholi, the great producer and studio owner. “We are making a Punjabi film called Yamla Jat. My vision of one of the main characters fits you perfectly. Will you do the role?” he asked me.
I was 19 and cheerfully said, “Fine!” He gave me his card and asked me to meet him the next day at 10 am. Of course, I did not bother to go the next morning. On the following Saturday, I went for a matinee show at Plaza cinema and there was Mr Wali.
He actually walked across and began abusing me with choice Punjabi invectives! He had relied on me, he said, and had told Mr Pancholi not to sign anyone else! I promised him that I would come the next day. But this time he took no chances — he took down my address and came the next day and picked me up! My photographs and interview were taken and I was signed on as the villain. The film was a big hit in that year — 1940.
But you did play hero later.
Yes, I did. My third film, Khandaan, was my first in Hindi. And it was Noorjehan’s first film as heroine and my first film as hero. Noorjehan was just 12 or 13. For our close-ups together, they would actually make her stand on bricks or a stone so that she would match my height! After that, I did about seven or eight films as a hero, but I did not like playing the lead.
Why was that?
Because mujhse gaane gaaye nahin jaate the! Well, I mean those songs that are sung around trees with the heroines! If you notice, all my hit songs as a character artiste which happened later are actually scenes and not items thrust in to make the people happy.
Kasme vaade pyaar wafaa (Upkar), Yaari hai imaan mera (Zanjeer) or Raaz ki baat (Dharma) are an integral part of the story. But in the olden days, songs were composed to be sung around trees. Nowadays there are parades that go ‘1-2-3-4!’
What was your family’s reaction to your new profession?
I told them only after the release of the film! I was living alone. What else could they do but accept things? Acting had got into my blood by then.
How did you come to Bombay?
When the riots began in Lahore in 1947, I packed off my wife and one-year-old child with my sister-in-law to Indore. My son’s first birthday was on August 11, 1947, and my wife said I must come to Indore or she would not celebrate it. That’s how I reached Indore on August 10.
The next day, All India Radio announced that an inter-communal massacre had begun in Lahore. Since I could not go back, we came to Bombay. My family and I reached here on the eve of Independence, August 14, 1947. We stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the best hotel at that time.
After more than 20 films there, I thought Hindi films would welcome me, but I was wrong. Yahan to bahut dhakke khaane pade! I had no work here for more than six months. I had to sell some of my wife’s jewellery to settle the bills. We then shifted to smaller hotels!
The first film I signed here was Bombay Talkies’ Ziddi (1948), directed by Zia Sarhadi. Then, in one week, I signed three more films — S M Yusuf’s Grihasti (a diamond jubilee hit), Prabhat’s Apradhi and Walisaab’s — who had come here and became a producer — Putli.
After I signed AVM’s first Hindi film, Bahar, things picked up. Sohrab Modi gave me Sheesh Mahal and, since most of my films proved hits, my demand kept rising.
You produced Lakshman Rekha in 1992. Why didn’t you turn producer when you were at your peak?
My son, Sunil, who was assisting Manmohan Desai, was keen on directing a film. He had directed Farishta in 1984, but that had not done well. He had also announced a big film with Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan in the ’70s, which did not take off. So, I co-produced a film with Satyen Choudhury only for him.
Which was your last film as actor?
Saawan Kumar’s Salma Pe Dil Aa Gayaa. There are three old assignments still to be completed, one of which is Ek Hindustani. I had a minor problem with my heart three years ago. After that, I have developed a phobia of crowds and have some problems with my memory. I find it difficult to memorise long dialogues. When I cannot give 100 per cent of myself, why should I cheat the audience?
I also did three episodes as a detective called Dangerous in a television serial called They Call Me Dangerous. But I did not relish their style of working. The pace was very fast and they would even expect me to say my own lines instead of providing me with the dialogues.
Your career was basically negative role-oriented. But you shifted to positive roles with Upkar. Why did you feel the need to do positive roles?
As a villain, I was so effective that people were scared of me in real life! When I went to someone’s house in Delhi for tea, his young sister was whisked out of my sight! My friend later phoned me and said his sister had fought with him for bringing a bad man into the house!
Some journalists conducted a survey in schools and colleges in Bombay, Delhi, Punjab and UP and found that not a single boy was named Pran after the ’50s, just like no one has ever named his son Raavan!
But after Upkar, I remember the late Om Prakash’s daughter’s wedding was being held in Delhi where all the film artistes had come. People there were actually harassing them by grabbing their hands, clothes and so on. But when I reached there, the same public actually cleared a path for me saying, “Malang Chacha aa gaye, hat jaao, unhein jaane do!”
This was a great change from people calling me “Badmaash, Daku, Aye 420!” on the streets! One boy wrote me a letter where he addressed me as Malang Chacha, saying that just as everyone remembered the late Nehru as Nehru Chacha, the whole country considers you Malang Chacha. Besides, I had brought in all possible variations and variety to villainy. I wanted a change.
How much would you work on the roles? Or would you leave it all to the director? How much freedom did you get?
I always tried to get into the skin of the character and to add new shades and novel nuances. It was I who suggested to Rajsaab (Kapoor) that I run my hand across my neck repeatedly for Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, in which I played Raaka, a dacoit. I told him a dacoit’s greatest fear was that of being hanged and this could be subconsciously reflected by such a mannerism. Rajsaab was delighted! The trait made an impact only because it was used for a dacoit.
I even would cut photographs from a newspaper if I thought I could use a hairstyle, a moustache or an expression in any future film. I stored observations from people I interacted with or saw around me. By and large, I was allowed a lot of freedom. Of course, some directors were not open to suggestions.
The powers-that-be never awarded you. Doesn’t it rankle?
I have never cultivated the political connections necessary to make me eligible for such recognition! I have written just one article in my entire life and that was a strongly anti-government article against the Emergency. Now, since it is the same party which ruled for most of the time after that, how can I expect them to honour me? In England, I would have been knighted and my name pronounced as Sir Prawn!
Could you share your favourite roles with us?
Halaku is one of my all-time favorites. It was a negative role, but the film was named after the character — I was Halaku. The make-up, costumes and character were very well researched and fantastic, considering the facilities available those days. The dialogues too were fabulous.
I also loved my roles in Madhumati, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hain, Dil Diya Dard Liya, Shaheed, Upkar, Zanjeer and Victoria No 203.
Shaheed again stands out because my character was not part of the main screenplay. I initially turned the film down but, later, Manoj Kumar, who wrote the film and ghost-directed it, said if I did not accept it, they would scrap the character. That was a compliment I could not resist and the convict I played enhanced the impact of the script. We shot the scenes in a real jail. What was amusing was that, after its release, most of the learned film critics criticised the ‘fake-looking jail!’ They were so used to the conventional studio jail set!
I also loved small roles like Majboor, where I enter in the 10th reel and, after that, my character dominates the film.
How comfortable were you with your songs?
For Upkar, I told Manoj that I was very scared of songs. I requested him to play the song at the loudest possible volume. Then I told him he too should enact the song with me and in front of me!
Kasme vaade pyaar wafaa was an outstanding song in every aspect. Kalyanjibhai tried to persuade Manoj “ke Pransaab ko yeh gaana mat dijiye! Iss gaane ka satyanaash ho jaayega! Public pasand nahin karegi!” But after the song was picturised, Kalyanjibhai was the first person to call me up and praise me, and to apologise for trying to rob me of this song! And he said, “Aap pehle artiste hain jinhonein munh se nahin, gale se hamara gaana gaaya hai!”
How do you spend your time these days?
Most of the time I watch the Sports Channel on television. I have also begun to see my own films! In my time, I would never attend premieres!
Who are the villains you admire?
Amrish Puri and Paresh Rawal are very good. Yakub was my senior whom I admired. But I must say that I was the one who brought sophistication to villainy.
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