Screen, April 1998


"Destiny, that the deciding factor. What has to happen will happen. Even God cannot change your taqdeer," says Pran with the complete conviction of a fatalist. Looking frail and weak as he recuperates after a heart-attack which landed him in hospital for the first time in 78 years, Pran details the last few frightening months following an excruciating chest pain only hours after he'd waved his son home to London. "Initially, I thought it was just a about of indigestion and popped a couple of ayurvedic pills my wife offered. It as only later that we discovered that one of the valves had failed and I had to undergo surgery. Today I'm so afraid to step out of the house. This illness has resulted in a phobia which is so hard to shake off," he sighs looking suddenly old and tired despite his vibrant green kurta.The attack couldn't have come at a worse time. After years,

But I've assured Priyadarshan, a man I've yet to see, that I won't quit the world without doing at least one film with him." Taking a sip of his beer, Pran meanders off on a trek down memory lane. To his early childhood spent with his mother taking on the dual responsibilities of parenting because his father who was into road construction, was always on the road. Taiji had decided early on that this kind of a gypsy life was not for a growing boy. "Because of his job I got to see my father very rarely during my growing up years," Pran confesses sadly. His years in UP also meant that he never learnt to speak Punjabi with the distinctive accent of Punjab da puttar and almost got thrown out of his first film, Yamala Jat. "But my mentor Wali Mohammad Wali intervened and convinced the director to try me out a little longer. I stayed on to complete the film, a jubilee hit, and went on to make more movies," he smiles.

Startled by the man's avid curiosity, Pran shot back, "Why are you so interested in me?" That was when Wali Mohammad Wali introduced himself and told the wide-eyed teenager that he was writing the script for a Punjabi film, Yamala Jat and thought that there was a role going in it for Pran, "You look just like one of my characters. Would you be interested in making a movie?" he quizzed the boy who was still looking at him suspiciously. "No I wouldn't ," murmured Pran. The scriptwriter was not deterred by the rebuff. He insisted than Pran still drop in on him the next day at the studio. "This is my address," he said pushing a piece of paper into Pran's reluctant hands. The next morning dawned clear and bright and in the clear light of the morning Pran remembered the stranger from night before and dismissed him and his stranger offer off in minutes.

But Mr. Wali was not taking any chances this time. He insisted on taking Pran's address and the next morning turned up himself to escort him to the studio. Pran was signed as the villain of Yamala Jat at the princely salary of Rs. 50 per month. However, he had managed one concession. He would be at the studio when any of his scenes were being shot but when he wasn't needed he would be free to work at his photography shop. Pran couldn't continue at his shop for too long though. After the success of Yamala Jat he was signed for another Punjabi film directed by Shaukhat Hussain. Khandaan was the legendary Pakistani singer, Noorjehan's first film as a heroine and Pran's only film as hero. Though the film was a super hit Pran shied away from signing any more lead roles. "Running around the trees after my heroine was something I was never comfortable with.Everytime I had to run after my heroine I'd run away," he confesses with a grin.

To return to Pran's story, life in pre-partition Lahore was carefree and content for a promising young actor. A thriving film center and the pioneer of gent's fashion, You could see men in smart English style suits and every half a furlong there was a bar. Lahore was one place you could get a glass of whisky even after midnight at the rail canteen. And then of course, there was Heera Mandi, the cultural center of the town where all young men flocked to hear beautiful girls sing. Pran who had married and had become the proud papa of a son, would have probably made Lahore his home for life if the partition hadn't happened. Since the beginning of 1947, Pran had seen the communal fires sparking off and in August fearing trouble, he packed his wife and son off to relatives in Indore. Soon after, his wife called to ask if he was coming down for their son's first birthday.

For Ziddi Pran remembers that he had been paid Rs 500. Soon after he was called to Pune to clinch the deal for Apradhi. "How much will you pay me?" was one of Pran's first question. "Rs 500," he was told. "then I'm not interested," he shot back thinking that his price had to increase, even marginally , with each new film he signed. There was a lot of wheeling dealing because Ram Singh, the film's hero opposite Madhubala, was also being paid only Rs 500. "How can we pay you more than the hero?" Pran was asked " Well, in that case I'm not doing your film," he told them with a stubbornness which was amazing given the circumstances. Eventually, it was decided that Pran would be paid Rs 100 more. The deal was clinched at Rs 600. "But don't ever let the hero know," he was told pleadingly. After these four big films more offers followed and Pran's silsila with show business continued.

Pran was mystified. "But I did ask if you were hurt?" he reminded her. "Sure, I worry about you but I don't see any reason to worry about the car. God had given us the car, now he's taken it way. May be he wants us to have a bigger car." They did buy themselves a bigger car, a Crysler, with the money he got from Bahar. "Had I waited two weeks I could have got it for Rs 2000 less but I was in hurry. I wanted to take my wife to the premiere of Bahar in a big car, and I did," he smiles at the memory. After Bahar Pran signed Sheesh Mahal with Sohrab Modi. That was another mega hit.Modi, Bimal Roy,SS Vasan and Raj Kapoor were among the very few big directors Pran worked with. Most of his films were with new stars, directors and producers. "I did Nadiadwala's first film, Inspector which incidentally was Shakti Samanta's first film as director.

Pran released immediately that her school friends had been talking to her about her daddy. "those days whenever I came on screen kids would hide their faces in their mother's lap and keep enquiring, 'Mummy gaya who, can we open our eyes now?' There was one particular film, Kab Kyon Aur Kahan in which I play a dead man who returns back from the dead, his pupils dilating horribly and giving the little ones ( and some of their parents too)the jitters," Pran recalls. But despite the shivers he sent down many spines, Pran loved playing the villain. " Playing the hero was so boring, there was no challenge in such roles," he tells you. But how did he convince his daughter? After much thought he called her to him and asked her, "Tell me at the end of 18 reels when bad men like me have been killed and the hero and the heroine walk away into the sunset what do you do? Pat came the answer, "Return home. The movie is over."

A few days later Pran met Manoj on another set and Manoj asked him why he had refused the role. "If you don't do it I'll write the character out of the script . It won't be a hassle because he is not a part of the story. But if you do it and I know only you can play the role , then I can assure you that it will leave a lasting impression," Manoj who had scripted Shaheed told Pran. Pran was so touched by Manoj's touching faith in him that he assured him that he would now definitely do the film. And he did. Today that bit role of Kahar Singh in Shaheed is among his memorable roles. After Shaheed Manoj returned to Pran with another interesting offer. This time he wanted Pran to play a one legged soldier,Malang chacha in Upkaar. It didn't take him very long to convince Pran. And he was so impressed with Pran's on- the-sets histrionics that he decided to picturise one of the film's best songs on him.

Specially since the song had involved so much hard work. "I had Manoj put the song on full blast when we were shooting for it and mouth the words along with me singing the number jor shor se," he reminisces. Monoj, he remembers, as a brilliant director, Meticulous and hardworking. There was one shot in Upkaar which involved a complete 360 degrees turn. They were shooting at a small gaon near Delhi and Manoj was adamant that in this shot he wanted the focus on Pran alone, there should not be any person or any paraphernalia to be seen in the backdrop. The set was meticulously cleared of all wires and gadgets the previous evening and at 6 am the next morning Manoj canned the shot to his satisfaction. "That was the only time in the day when we wouldn't have curious gaonwallahs crowding the sets for a peek," Pran explains.

After Upkaar Pran was flooded with appreciative fan mail. One of them was from a young bhatija who addressed him as "Mere pyare chacha" and went on to say that perhaps he didn't know this nephew of his but since the day he had seen Upkaar he had been thinking only of Pran. "I think the way they called out erstwhile prime minister Chacha Nehru, you should also be addressed as Chacha Pran." The bad man had become a good uncle. Another memorable role was in Raj Kapoor's Jis Desh Maie Ganga Behti Hai. Raj Kapoor was always one of Pran's favorite directors. He's still awed by the way RK would enact every scene for his artistes complete with a high-pitched female voice when it was the heroine he was instructing. Pran has played a daku in countless films. What made the dacoit of Jis Desh… different was that he was a lover and of course that mannerism of buttoning his shirt right upto the collar and running a finger around the coller while speaking.

The money is his for the taking, he's told, but what was he thinking of offering as zamaanat. The director wanted Pran at this stage to pull off his pagdi and offer it as his guarantee. But Pran refused to wear a safa. He insisted it wasn't necessary. "Then what will be Sher Khan's zamaanat?" Mehra asked him. " His mooch ka baal," he was told. A Pathan's moustache is his greatest pride. How did that idea come, you wonder. From a story he's heard years ago. A certain nawab sahab had issued the dictate that no one who worked within his premises could have a mouche whose ends twirled up. That was the nawab's privilege alone. Anyone who disobeyed his orders had to pay a fine of Rs 100. No one dared disobey except for a Pathan who would walk in every morning, his mouche's ends twirled up, pay the Rs 100 fine and then get down to work.

"I'm not your uncle here. I'm a criminal and you're a cop. So let's get some real action, real anger." Before Zanjeer Amitabh was a nobody and when he arrived in Calcutta without Pran the public was irate. "Where's our hero?" they demanded of Prakash Mehra. "the evening of the premiere he was a different man. The next morning he was different. A real hero. Never again did the janta ask, "Where is our hero?" Pran says with a smile. Today, two decades later, Zanjeer is remembered as much for its angry young man as it is for its still foot-tapping quwwali,Yarri hain imaan. Shooting started with that song. When Prakash Mehra informed Pran that his first shot for the film would be for a song which they were picturising the very next day he was told by his most significant character actor that he was opting out. "You haven't sent me my lines nor a cassette of the recording and you expect me to be ready," Pran thundered. "You can forget about starting your film tomorrow." Mehra was in a fix.

One of them was Majboor which is still remembered for that frisky Goan song, Michael daru peke danga karta hai. Pran remembers that the firsat scene they shot for this film was the climax, his death scene. And as he lay there taking his last breath, he noticed the director visualizing the camera angle of a shot through the circle of his thumb and four fingers. Pran told him, "Why don't you do that with both hands?" and the image of the binocular was born, an image with which the film opens and which is used all through the film. Like Amitabh, Pran also formed a hit pair with Dadamoni, Ashok Kumar. Their punch lines in Victoria No. 203 are unmatched. "We shared an almost telepathic rapport. Whenever any director would go to Dadamoni with the dialogue sheet he'd wave it away saying, 'Whatever Pran does I'll do.' Most of the lines of Victories No. 203 were improvised on the sets. Dadamoni would start a sentence and I'd complete it or vice versa.

Even our netas because once when Kanwar Natwar Singh was asked on Aap Ki Adalat if he resented being referred to in an interview as KN Singh (KN Singh being another of our menacing khal-nayaks) the politician had shrugged nonchalantly, "Why should I be upset? What's in a name. Pran may be the most feared villain in reel life but in real life everyone knows he's a gentlemen, very sharif." That was quite a compliment considering that during the Emergency Pran had taken on the establishment

Pran was suddenly very excited about a role.It was for a Priyadarshan film being produced by the Nadiadwalas. Pran had got his advance and committed dates till June when Randhir Kapoor approached him with another interesting offer. Rishi Kapoor's Aa Ab Laut Chalen was an offer Pran didn't want to turn down even though the dates were clashing with those he'd allotted to Priyan. "I've worked with four generations of the Kapoors, from Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj, Shammi, Shashi, Randhir, Rishi, Rajiv, the bahus, Babita and Neetu and now little Karisma," he smiles fondly. Discussions with Priyan followed and it was agreed that Pran could fly down to Delhi for a couple of days in March. "Everything was working out just fine when this attack happened and put me out of action," he says regretfully, adding quietly. "It's destiny. Que sera sera, whatever will be will be.

It was destiny, Pran insists, which brought him to the notice of Wali Mohammed Wali, a leading script, dialogue and lyric writer of the time and a regular at Pancholi Studio, Lahore. Pran who frankly admits that he was never the studious sort, quit school after his matriculation and always interested in photography, joined a photo shop in Delhi. Soon after the shop opened a branch to Shimla and Pran was transferred to the hill station where he spent a blissful 12 months learning the tricks of the trade. After a year another branch opened in Lahore and Pran shifted residence once again. He didn't mind. Lahore was an exhilarating place to be for a young teenager and he had soon made himself at home there. One night he strolled to a paan shop for anafter dinner paan and found a man there.A stranger who kept staring for him for long minutes before asking him boldly, "what's your name?"

"It was quite obvious that he'd been a little high when I had bumped into him. And in the darkness of the night, under the influence of daaru you make so many promise you have no intention of keeping the day after. I thought that movie offer too was once such promise and decided not to waste my time rushing off to a studio. I dashed off to my shop instead," Pran continues with his narrative. The following Saturday he had gone to the Plaza theatre to see a movie and in the foyer bumped into Wali Mohammad Wali again. He recognized Pran immediately and started cursing him loudly. "I told my boss, Mr. Pancholi that I had found the perfect boy for his film and then you embarrassed me by not turning up," he growled. Releasing that the man was serious, that the man was serious, Pran promised him that he'd be there at the studio the next morning.

However, though Pran wasn't too keen on romancing Noorjehan on screen, off it they were very good friends. He's known her since she was a 10-year-old kid, playing the younger sister of the heroine in Yamala Jat. In Khandaan she was a 12-years-old pretty poppet who so enchanted the film's director that he married her two years later and after the partition she stayed back in Lahore. She was coaxed to make a visit to India years later, the special guest at a musical bonanza which brought together several living legends and happily for Pran fell on his birthday. "It was an evening to remember and Noorjehan who had been so nervous about the trip, calling me at least 8-10 times before she boarded the plane to be reassured that I'd be waiting for her at the airport with a special bus, was so thrilled that she'd been let herself be persuaded to make that visit to Mumbai," Pran exults.

When he told her it may not be possible, she told him that in that case they wouldn't celebrate the lil' one's birthday. Not wanting to disappoint her, Pran packed a week's luggage which included a couple of suits, and hurried down to Indore to be in time for his beta's Big Day. On August 11 he reached Indore and the next day the massacre of Hindus in Lahore started. He never went back to Lahore. "Not once in all these years though there have been so many invitations. I don't want to go back to the place from where main nikala ja chuka hoon ," he says firmly. From Indore Pran and his family moved to Bombay which was another thriving film centre at the time. For 4-5 months he was jobless and was reduced to selling his wife's gold bangles to pay the hotel bills. And then in a span of just three days he landed four films - Bombay Talkies' Ziddi, Prabhat's Apradhi, SM Yusuf's Grahasti which went on a celebrate a golden jubilee and Wali Mohammad Wali's own production Putli.

One of the films was AVM's first Hindi film, Bahar. Vyjayanthimala 's first film and Om Prakash and Rajendra Krishan's debut too. Pran remembers that only months before the premiere of this film he had a small car and one day when his wife was driving around town, the car was knocked up in an accident. Pran was at home when his wife's frantic call came. Those days he was living at 2, Pali Hill in a ground floor apartment. He had to trudge up two flights to receive a call because he didn't have a phone at home. When his wife called to say she'd been in an accident his first query was, "Are you all right?" She assured him she was but the car wasn't. " Then why did you drag me all the way up. You should have just filed a complaint and come home," was his reply. An hour later his irate wife returned home. "What kind of man are you?" she thundered. "You seem to be not the slightest bit concerned about me."

Then there was Munimji, Subodh Mukerji's first film, Tumsa Nahin Dekha, Nasir Husain's debut, Upkar, Manoj Kumar's first film as an official director (before that he had unofficially directed Shaheed), Manmohan Desai's first film Chhalia and Zanjeer, Prakash Mehra's directorial debut," Pran ticks off reminding you that these were just some of the debutantes he worked with. "There were so many more." Manoj Kumar's Upkar was the turning point of his career. Before this film he'd been cast as the bad man in film after film and Pran remembers that whenever he was spotted on the roads he would be greeted with taunts like," Arrey badmash"' "Hey Lafanga"' "O goonde harami," He shrugged off these jeers easily and they left his wife too unperturbed because she released that he was only doing a job. But one day his daughter did ask him quietly," Daddy why don't you do some decent roles for a change?"

"So you see you're only interested in the film till I'm around. Once I make my exit you make your too," he reminded her and that ended the argument of him playing the hero. But perhaps his daughter's wish to see him in "decent roles" remained at the back of his mind because soon after he signed a Raj Kapoor's Aah which had him playing a good man for a change. Butm the film didn't do well and Pran realised that for him bad was good and continued to murder and molest. Till Upkaar came along. Pran and Manoj had already done three films before Upkar including Shaheed which Manoj ghost directed and in which Pran played a small but significant role. When Kewal Kashyap,the film's producer, had approached him with the role of a revolutionary prisoner in jail who is eventually hanged, Pran had turned down Kewal's request to be a part of the patriotic saga because he couldn't pay Pran his price.

Kalyanji-Anandji were distraught when they heard that one of their most sensitive songs was going to be sung by Pran. "He'll ruin our song," they wailed. But there was nothing they could do about it but complain relentlessly. However when Manoj approached Kishore Kumar to sing the song he refused and not even a personal request from Pran himself could get him to change his mind. No one had anticipated that the song would be such a big hit and all because of Pran. The first card of appreciation came from Kalyanji. "I have to admit that we were the ones who were most vehemently opposed to you being spotlighted in the song but now after seeing the first print, we have to admit that most stars sing our songs with their lips. You're the only one who's sung it from the heart, with all the feeling you could put into your voice." Pran was delighted with the compliment.

Weeks before the film was released Pran remembers being greeted with hoots of "badmash" and "harami" wherever he went so when he drove down to Om Prakash's daughter's wedding in Delhi and was told that he would have to leave his car a good 400 yards away and walk the rest of the way to the mandap, Pran was petrified. Stars who'd proceeded him to the function had been grabbed and mauled by star-crazy fans as soon as they stepped down from the car. "God, what will they do to me?" Pran wondered. Shivering he stepped out and was greeted with a reverent silence. Someone whispered, "Malang chacha aa rahen hain. Give him some space", and miraculously the crowds moved back, clearing a path for him to walk down, gazing at him with new respect in their eyes. "I still marvel at the almost overnight change in people's perception of me," he beams.

Pran proudly admits that that was his idea and it was much appreciated. In fact, he remembers a journalist walking upto him after a screening and telling him, "Wah, Pran sahab that gesture ensured that this character will live forever." Pran smiled and asked the man quietly, "Do you know what that gesture meant?" The man had to admit that he was befuddled. "Well, he's a daku and he knows that one day he will either be hanged or his throat will be cut. That explains his preoccupation with his neck," Pran explained and left the man even more awe-struck. That's the kind of profundity, Pran admits, that slip by the public but that hasn't stopped him from thinking about and analyzing the fears and fads of every character he plays. He remembers that during Zanjeer Prakash Mehra had narrated a scene to him which required the self-respecting Pathan to go to a Lala for the money to bail out his inspector friend.

The nawab was aware of what was happening but there was nothing he could do about it since the man was paying the fine. Then one day the Pathan walked in looking unusually despondent, the ends of his moustache drooping down. The nawab was worried . What had happened? Was the Pathan in financial trouble? Being a benevolent employer he called him and asked him what the matter was. "Kal ghar mein ladki paida hoyee. Now my moustache will always be drooping." he was told by a very disappointed father. Pran remembered that story and put it to good use during the making of Prakash Mehra's first film as producer-director. Zanjeer made Amithabh Bachchan an overnight superstar. Amit was Prans's son's friend. A well behaved,soft-spoken young man. When they met on the sets Pran was still his uncle and when a scene required him kick a chair, he found it difficult to do the scene convincingly till Pran reminded him,

If he didn't have the muhurat the next day his distributors were going to ditch him. He dashed over to Pran's and convinced the veteran not to let him down. "We'll do the song tomorrow. I'll edit it and show you the rush print. You don't like it. We'll scrap it," Mehra told Pran. Mollified Sher Khan agreed to take centrestage the next day. Days after the muhurat he started getting calls from friends and colleagues who'd managed to get a sneak peek at the rushes. "It's brilliant, you're brilliant," they raved. A couple of days later Mehra called Pran to come and see the print. "I've seen it already," he was told. "When? Where?" Mehra asked him bemused. "Through the eyes of people who have," Pran quipped. "If so many people have liked it there's no need for me to review it now. Retain it. It'll be a hit," he predicted. And he was right. After Zanjeer Pran and Amitabh made a successful team and worked in as many as 11 films together.

That was an exchange you'd never seen on screen before and it worked wonderfully," Pran beams. Fifty seven years in the industry and a whole gallery of different roles with different actors. It's been a long innings for one of Hindi cinema's most hated bad man. According to a survey done in colleges of Maharashtra, UP and Punjab in the' 60s not a single school or college going student was named Pran. "It was pretty understandable," the villain grins. "You wouldn't want to call your child Raavan, would you?" Not likely, you answer him with a grin and wonder which of his heroines he terrorised and most. "None," he admits sheepishly. "In fact, heroines like Mumtaz who was a real firebrand would laugh, 'How will he frighten me when he can't even grab me properly.'" He may have been a bad man on screen but off it everyone knew that he was a good man.

and paid for a full page in Indian Express where he gave vent to his frustration and anger with the government's malpractices. An article for which he'd received a letter of appreciation form Georage Fernandes smuggled from jail and got invited to breakfast with LK Advani later. Today in the 50th year of India's independence Pran is still as disenchanted with the system. Ask him what he thinks about the future of the country and he says : Hum hain sab beimann phir bhi kehte hain hamara desh mahaan. Touche.

Interview by Roshmila Bhattacharya