An unofficial survey of schools in the ‘70s revealed that not a single child had been named Pran for as many as 10 years. Hindi cinema’s premiere menace of the ‘50s and ‘60s could not have received a better compliment.
Written with the tip of a scalpel, Pran’s roles always found him deeply engrossed in one of the seven deadly sins. When he dilated his lynx-like eyes, you knew he was poaching on a forbidden territory, whether it was an uncle’s estate or the hero’s girlfriend. But unequivocally, death was his just reward — he was invariably dropped from a helicopter or a waterfall or a cliff’s edge.
The handsome Pran drifted into films when a tipsy Wali Sahib, a well-known script writer, met him at a pan shop and offered him a villian’s role in DN Pancholi’s Punjabi film Yamla Jat. A photographer’s assistant at the time, Pran accepted the film for a paltry INR50. The film’s success landed him a new role — to play the hero opposite Noor Jehan in Pancholi’s Khandaan (1942). The partition of India and the pursuit of ambition brought Pran to Bombay from Lahore. After the success of Grihasti (1948), he was cast in stereotyped villainous roles till his career graph registered an upward surge in the mid ‘50s. The title role in the Meena Kumari starrer, Halaku (1956) raised the alarm — Pran was the bad man to watch out for.
After winning attention for convincingly playing a cruel medieval kind in Halaku, Pran was convinced that costumes maketh a character. He now worked scrupulously on his appearance. His attire instantly coded him as a villain.
Pran has made memorable several depraved characters like the Zamindar lusting after the mountain maid in Madhumati, the pimp in Adalat, the imposter in Tumsa Nahin Dekh and the dacoit in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (‘60s). The ‘60s ushered in a new set of chaste and chased heroines. But Pran continued to be the sole reliable rake in most of the big budget films till Manoj Kumar reformed him with Upkar (1967). Though Kishore Kumar refused to sing the song Kasme Waade Pyar Wafa for Pran, an undeterred Manoj made the famous villain a major success as the hero’s cynical supporter, Malang Baba.
From being a simpatico, Pran turned to comedy. With Ashok Kumar, he brought the roof down in the hilarious Victoria No 203 (1972). Pran’s appeal drew audiences to Zanjeer, which helped a young Amitabh Bachchan become India’s biggest film star. After reportedly recommending Bachchan for the part, Pran teamed up with the superstar in over a dozen films.
After playing character roles for a decade (the father of Amar Akbar Anthony, the match-maker in Kasauti) Pran contemplated playing villain again, but found the competition too strong for him and could not regain his erstwhile virtual monopoly. However, he continued acting in films. “How much television can you watch and how much beer can you drink”, he elucidated.
His loud acting could have been out of step with the ‘90s but even then, a film like Sanam Bewafaa (1991) proved that Pran’s eyes could still project the archetypal rancorous malevolence.
During his illustrious career, Pran received several prestigious awards, including Filmfare’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Villain of the Millennium by Stardust magazine, Padma Bhushan and Dada Saheb Phalke Award. His biography, ...and Pran, was so named because in at least 250 of the 350 movies that he acted in, his was the last name in the cast portion of the credits, with the words “...and Pran” and sometimes “...above all, Pran”.
Bachchan in a foreword to the biography rightly summed up the genius’s star power:
“Onscreen villainy is a thankless job, which Pran accepted and carried out with such a degree of perfection that he became the actor the entire nation loved to hate.”
Pran died on July 12 at the age of 93 after a prolonged illness in Mumbai’s Lilavati Hopital leaving behind a widow, three children and a gold standard in character acting.
The writer is a fashion content/script writer and a movie buff. He is a finance advisor by profession.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2013.
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