Pran: Life of a villain

Legends of Indian Cinema


Actor Pran celebrates his birthday

Keen observers of film acting consider Pran Kishan Sikand, now in his 90th year, one of Hindi cinema’s all-time greatest talents. Be it black deeds, heroics, comedy, emotions or even songs - Pran excelled with a style and sophistication uniquely his own. He is Hindi cinema’s ‘Black Gold’, the man who has no competition as the iconic bad man. He is also the only ‘villain’ to have a website and an official biography.

The gentleman smiles when asked why today’s trained actors cannot match up to earlier celluloid greats who came in minus training, an acting background or even the intention to take up an acting career. “Training is secondary. In any art, you have to be God-gifted.

You only get diplomas from an institute, not talent!” says the actor adding, “Sometimes, like me, you do not know that a skill lies within you. I wanted to be a still photographer.

While working in a shop in Lahore, I used to frequent a paan shop. One day, a man came and stood there staring at me. He introduced himself as Wali Mohammed Wali, a writer for Dalsukh Pancholi, the great producer and studio owner, and said, “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?” Says Pran, “I was 19 and agreed cheerfully. He called me to his office the next morning but I did not bother to go. A few days later, Wali met me and began abusing me with choice Punjabi invectives! He had relied on me, he said, and had told Pancholi not to sign anyone else! I promised him that I would come the next day. But he took no chances, took down my address and picked me up. My photographs and
interview were taken and I was signed as the villain. The film was a big hit.”

But while that 1940 film was in Punjabi, Pran’s third film, Khandaan (1942) (also the first film of actor-singer Noorjehan) was his first film as hero and in Hindi. “Noorjehan was just 13. For our close-ups, they would make her stand on bricks or a stone to come up to my height! After that I did about seven or eight films as a hero, but I did not like playing the lead, because I did not like singing songs around trees with heroines.”  Strangely enough, Pran was to have a hit-parade of songs later. But he says, “If you notice, all my songs later are actually scenes and not items thrust in. Kasme vaade pyar wafaa (Upkar), Yaari hai imaan mera (Zanjeer) or Raaz ki baat (Dharma) are integral to the stories.”

Pran actually revealed his career to his family after Yamla Jat released, “They had to accept it!” he grins, adding that acting had seeped into “my blood by then”. The aftermath of the post-Partition riots saw Pran landing in Mumbai. “After more than 20 films in Lahore, I thought Hindi films would welcome me, but I was wrong, yahan to bahut dhakke khaane pade!” he smiles. “I had no work for more than six months. The first film I signed was Bombay Talkies’ Ziddi (1948) directed by Zia Sarhadi. Then in one week, I signed three more films - S M Yusuf’s Grihasti, Prabhat’s Apradhi and Putli made by Wali, who had now come here and turned producer.”

The major breaks came with Sohrab Modi's Sheesh Mahal (1950) and AVM’s Bahar (1951). Pran quit acting in the late ‘90s after he started developing a fear of crowds and difficulty in memorising dialogues. “I did not want to cheat my audiences by giving less than 100 per cent,” he says simply. He even did a few episodes of a television serial.

The hits came in a deluge. The crème-de-la-crème included Azaad, Chori Chori, Halaku, Tumsa Nahin Dekha, Madhumati, Jis Desh Men Ganga Behti Hai, Kashmir Ki Kali, Shaheed, Khandaan, Milan, Upkar, Ram Aur Shyam, Brahmachari, Sadhu Aur Shaitan, Nanha Farishta, Johny Mera Naam, Purab Aur Pachhim, Parichay, Zanjeer, Victoria No 203, Bobby, Dharma, Majboor, Dharam-Veer, Amar Akbar Anthony, Don and Karz. Pran's last film was Ek Hindustani (2003).  As a villain, Pran was so effective that people were scared of him in real life too. Smiles the actor, “If I went to someone’s house for tea, ladies were whisked away. Like with Ravan from Ramayan, a survey revealed that almost no newborn was named Pran from the ‘50s.” But things changed after he did a good man’s role in Upkar - once again, Pran’s impact saw people address him as Mangal chacha and treat him as a venerated elder! Pran always tried to get into the skin of the character and to add new shades and novel nuances. “I would cut photographs from a newspaper if I thought I could use a hairstyle, moustache, or expression in any future film. I stored observations from people I interacted with or see around. By and large, I was allowed a lot of freedom.”

Political connections

Like Dev Anand, Pran never cultivated political connections necessary to get national honours. “I have written just one article in my entire life, a strong anti-government piece against the Emergency. Now since it is the same party that has 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!” he laughs.  Pran spends his time watching Sports channels on TV and quips, “I also watch my own films, because I would never attend premieres!” And while Yakub was his favourite villain, he respects Amrish Puri and Paresh Rawal among his juniors - names that like him interestingly moved away from villainy to become versatile.

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