Prem Chopra: Evil pays

Bollywood’s bad guy: Actor Prem Chopra

I mention this to him and he chuckles — this time those oval glares are not worn for nefarious purposes but to protect from a transient conjunctivitis virus. Obviously, villains can be victims too.
Prem (love) for his work has kept Prem Chopra going strong for 400-plus films and almost five decades. He’s had a sustained good time for someone who’s made it his speciality to be loathsome, lecherous or Lucifer’s emissary on screen. Of course, Prem has been doing other things too, especially in the last 15 years. In the TV serial Andaz and some other shows he essayed key roles.

“I did my first serial because it was a central role and had no intention of doing TV regularly. But then I found that TV is no longer something infra-dig. Rajesh Khanna and Shah Rukh Khan have done TV in their own ways. So why shouldn’t I do them?”
His film Daddy Cool releases this week, in which he plays a character called Uncle Murphy. “Indra Kumar had given me an important comic cameo in Dhamaal and I liked working with him,” says Chopra, who was also seen in Delhi-6 and is now doing a couple of films. He played an old man neglected by his children in Umar, the jolly doctor in Chupke Chupke and a Muslim cleric in Dil Pardesi Ho Gaya in the last few years.

Prem Chopra hails from Shimla. “We were five brothers and one sister,” he says. “My father told us that he would take care of our education but after that, we would have to find jobs by ourselves. I did dramatics in college and so I decided to try my luck in films here. With my basic degree, I got a cushy job with The Times Of India’s circulation department which involved lots of travelling and a fun life. Side by side, I would look for film openings, and my first break came with the Punjabi film Chaudhry Karnail Singh. My first Hindi film was the Manoj Kumar-Vyjayantimala film Dr Vidya, but the good times began with Woh Kaun Thi?, Shaheed and Teesri Manzil.”
In his struggling phase, he did a couple of films as a hero (“I was quite good-looking!”) like Kunwari. “I was promised Rs 2000 — a great amount then for 30 days’ work. But the film got stretched for three years, flopped, aur producer 500 rupaye bhi khaa gaya!”

“This is where my job became a source of comfort and security,’ says Prem. “After my first three hits, I began to get a lot of films, as there was a vacuum with Pran-saab trying out character roles. But I left my job only after we were halfway through Upkar, for which incidentally I won my second National Award after getting one for my first film, Chaudhry Karnail Singh.”
He reveals that after Upkar he even got offers as a hero, but decided to remain a character actor. “Heroes have a smaller innings unless they are really good, in which case they too shift to character roles to sustain!” he says.
He goes on with a broad smile, “People are still tolerating me for only one reason — I am honest to the core in my work. Dedication, devotion and discipline keep me going, and I was never involved in chamchagiri or camps. I have been honoured and awarded so often. There have been so many Lifetime Achievement awards and even international recognition.”

Prem Chopra has a surprising side to him — he would be in demand for shows. “People loved watching me perform. I would sing and dance and also recite my famous one-liners, like ‘Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra’ (Bobby), ‘Nangaa nahaayega kya aur nichodega kya’ (Dulhe Raja) and ‘Main woh balaa hoon jo sheeshe se patthar ko todta hoon” (Souten). Not many know that I even recorded a fairly popular song ‘Haye hungama, loot gaya mama’ in a small film called Mera Muqaddar with Kavita Krishnamurthi. And I gave its small-time music director the tune too!”
About differences between yesterday and today, he says, “We focussed a lot on the story. Everyone was involved and made suggestions to the director. The story was the hero, and even today it is the story that runs! The present generation is much more emancipated and knowledgeable, but they are not open to suggestions, and the older writers had higher literary standards and would also work at infusing novelty into the same old story and situations.”

He recalls suggest embellishments like a wig, a one-liner or a get-up in many films, like the glass eye in Kaala Sona. “Mohan Segal celebrated the huge success of Raja Jani (1972) with a party and in his speech openly credited me for the super-hit song ‘Kitna mazaa aa raha hai’. I had suggested that Hema Malini sing to me as I am in love with her and she wants to pretend to love me too to make the hero feel jealous. The writer, Mohan-saab and the producer had felt that a romantic song between a heroine and a dancing villain would not work, but it turned out to be the highlight of the film.”
He particularly remembers Kati Patang, Do Raaste, Purab Aur Paschim, Do Anjaane, Kranti, Aas Paas, Aap Aye Bahaar Ayee, Beimaan, Prem Tapasya (a positive role of a doctor), Farz Aur Kanoon (a comic positive role) and of course Bobby from his long innings.
 “Sometimes I accepted brief roles for certain reasons and they gave me tremendous mileage. Raj Kapoor-saab was my brother-in-law. Mrs Prem Chopra and Mrs Raj Kapoor are sisters, and he promised me that I would never regret doing the small cameo. It gave me the kind of mileage and popularity that I would not have got even after spending millions of rupees in self-promotion.”

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