|12.11.1940 - 27.07.1992|
We have spent the last 12 months watching dispiritedly as our much-loved icons from an era long gone left us one by one. As each headline flashed, we asked ourselves, ‘who next?’, and were afraid to say the names out in dread that what we feared would come to pass. It seems as if there is this cloud of foreboding hanging over us, and I, for one, am beginning to understand what the phrase ‘Damocles’ sword’ means, if you will forgive the mixed metaphor.
In the meantime, there is one man, long dead, who has almost been forgotten. I say ‘almost’ because, ironically, one of the characters he played looms large and fresh in public memory. He lives on only in that form. I must confess that even I, movie-buff though I am, had all but forgotten the man who scared the living daylights out of me for countless years, just by appearing on screen. I talked about him, yes, but only in context of a film. Or about the ‘character’ that outstripped the real man.
Last month, fellow-blogger Cinematters wrote to me saying that it was sad that an artiste of Amjad Khan’s stature was sidelined except for the odd mention of Gabbar Singh. He asked if I could write a ‘deserving tribute’ to the actor on the occasion of the actor’s death anniversary. It made me feel ashamed that I did not even know when Amjad Khan’s death anniversary was, and so, I decided that it was time I did do a post on the man I loved to hate.
Heroism and villainy are often two sides of the same coin. For heroes to exist, there have to be villains. There have been heroes and villains from time immemorial – in our myths and legends, in our folktales and our dramas, in the tales our grandmothers told us. They have been part and parcel of our cinema, and we cringed at the villainy in darkened theatres and thrilled to its eventual defeat at the hands of our intrepid heroes.
The line that separates the two have been blurred today, and our ‘heroes’ delight in being ‘villains’, often offering it as proof of their acting credentials. ‘Look, I did a ‘negative’ role; how many actors would have done so?’ Well, the problem is that when a ‘hero’ becomes a villain, he is often given a back-story for why he does villainous deeds. There always has to be some justification for his transformation from good to not-quite-evil.
Yesteryears’ villains had no such qualms. They were villains because they wanted to be so. One can argue that the brushstrokes then, were vividly black or white, but it is not that simple. Or perhaps it is! Perhaps we needed that separation so we could channel our anger in one direction without diluting the emotion with sympathy or worse, empathy.
Today’s films have no place for such sharp demarcations. Perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps not. That is a topic for another day. However, in the context of villainy, lovers of older films will immediately recall KN Singh and Kanhaiyalal, Ajit and Pran, Prem Chopra, Ranjeet and... Amjad Khan.
Amjad Khan belonged to a film family. His father, Jayant, was a well-known character actor; his much-older brother Imitiaz was equally well-known on stage. Amjad himself took to the stage while still in college, and was a very well-known theatre artiste before working in films. It was a passion that was to last right through his film career, and before his death, he had performed the Hindi adaptation of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to sold-out shows and much critical acclaim.
Sholay fell into his lap through a series of serendipitous circumstances. The role of Gabbar Singh had been offered to Danny Denzongpa but he had committed the dates to Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma. Scriptwriter Javed, who had seen Amjad perform on stage, spoke to his partner Salim about the young man; together, they broached his name to Ramesh Sippy. It was a powerful performance whose success unfortunately typecast him.
Yet, in this quagmire of stereotypical villain, he left behind some fine performances, working with ‘alternative cinema’ stalwarts such as Gulzar and Satyajit Ray. Here, in no particular order, are some of his performances that I have loved or 'hated’.
Qurbani (1980) Inspector Amjad Khan
The film was the height of cool. Actor-director Feroz Khan packed his film with great songs, good-looking leads (Feroz himself, Vinod Khanna [to-die-for-handsome!] and Zeenat Aman), solid action, excellent villains (Amrish Puri, Shakti Kapoor and Aruna Irani). The script was taut, there was enough double-cross and triple-cross to keep the masses happy, and above all, the man had class, and it showed. (He imported, and destroyed, two Mercedes cars – one at the rehearsals, and one for the actual shot.) There was also an intelligent police inspector who channelled his inner James Bond, with humour and class (he is also a good drummer). “My name is Khan,” he says, “Amjad Khan”.
In a film that was filled with so much masala goodness, one would think a mere police inspector would be forgotten. But, no. Amjad Khan’s chewing-gum chewing, wisecracking police inspector was as crucial to the film’s success as anyone else. One of the most famous scenes involved him, after his car has gone over a cliff, coming up, spitting water out of his mouth, and phoning in his position to the police control room. “Inspector Khan speaking. Position, underwater; I repeat, underwater,” he says, as nonchalantly as you please.
Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) Nawab Wajid Ali Shah
Satyajit Ray had signed him for Shatranj Ke Khiladi after watching him in Sholay. A near-fatal car accident had thrown the film’s schedule out of gear, and Amjad Khan had offered to step out of the movie. The legendary filmmaker preferred to wait, and what he got in return was a powerful performance from Khan. Pitted against Sir Richard Attenborough (as the British agent who is in Avadh to dismiss the Nawab) and Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar (as the nobles who play chess while the British move the pawns), Amjad Khan turned in a virtuoso performance as Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the profligate and hedonistic Nawab of Avadh, who preferred his wine, dancing women and kite-flying to his royal duties.
Love Story (1981) Havaldar Sher Singh
The launch pad for Rajendra Kumar’s only son Gaurav, and Sulakshana Pandit’s younger sister, Vijeyta Pandit, the film was the usual teenage love story – youngsters in love caught in the crossfire of deadly enmity between the parents, lovely locales, nice songs, good-looking leads, and a comic side plot. What made the usually trite comedy bearable was Amjad Khan’s excellent timing. He plays Havaldar Sher Singh, the bumbling police constable whose only ambition is to be promoted to Inspector. Unfortunately for him, he messes up every opportunity that he gets, and is destined to be yelled at by his superiors.
Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978) Dilawar
A tragic villain, Dilawar’s villainy is a result of misunderstanding in this melodramatic love-hexagon. No, I kid thee not. Amjad Khan loves Rekha who loves Amitabh who loves Raakhee who loves Vinod Khanna – thankfully, the buck stops there, because Vinod Khanna loves Raakhee too. Besotted by Zohra Bai (Rekha), Dilawar, who has just been released from jail for petty larceny and thuggery (he keeps bashing up other baddies and then turns himself in), is furious to learn that she is enamoured of Sikander (Amitabh Bachchan). He goes in search of Sikander, and is roundly thrashed by the latter for his pains. He swears to get even, and when Zohra commits suicide, dying dramatically in her Sikander’s arms, Dilawar is made to believe that the latter killed her. So he extracts vengeance, not realising until it’s too late that Sikander never loved Zohra in the first place.
Loosely based on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the indigenised version included all the necessary ingredients for a proper masala entertainer. Amjad Khan’s Ranjit Singh dotes on his wheelchair-bound niece, Seema (Ranjeeta), to the extent that he has hired her friends to be her lifelong companions. When they are kidnapped by Ravi (Amitabh) and his six brothers, Ravi’s wife, Indu (Hema) forces Ravi to take the girls back. Ranjit Singh is struck by Ravi’s resemblance to Babu, and a plot is hatched.
Amitabh’s drunken scene, a highlight of the film, was an improvisation between him and Amjad Khan. The two, good friends in real life, had been given only the bare outline of the scene, and the dialogues between them were off the cuff.
Utsav (1984) Vatsyayan
He was the sutradhar, the narrator, who introduces characters in Girish Karnad’s wonderful adaptation of Mrichhakatikam. He also donned the persona of the irreverent and humorous author of Kamasutra, who visits brothels, an assistant in tow to take down his dictation, in order to better write down the disparate ways of making love - all in the pursuit of duty, of course. He has his ears to the ground, and knows what is happening on the political front. He provided the comic side plot without going over-the-top. It was a pleasant surprise to see a man known for his villainy in a role that was so divergent from the stereotype.
Yaarana (1981) Bishan
Amjad Khan made a great pair with Amitabh Bachchan, a close friend of his, often playing villain to his hero. In this film, however, Amjad plays a friend who, despite his wealth, does not forget a childhood friendship and in fact, teaches his (poorer) friend what friendship really means. The two turned in powerful performances, and Amjad Khan was specially good as the man who stakes his all in his belief in his friend’s talent, even if it meant losing his wife and child in the process.
After Gabbar Singh, this was possibly Amjad Khan’s greatest turn as villain. Inkaar brought him back into prominence as the kidnapper who holds Haridas’ (Shreeram Lagoo) son to ransom. Loosely based on Akira Kurusowa's High and Low, which in turn was adapted from the American novel King's Ransom, Inkaar fit into the Indian milieu rather well despite the obvious masala enhancements. Amjad Khan is chilling as the villain whose motives become clear only as the film unspools. The highlight of the film was a scene where, Raj Singh, on the run, is chased by Doberman dogs.(I couldn't get a video clip of just Amjad Khan's scenes.)
Peechha Karo (1986) Brigadier
I had watched this film a long time ago, and I still remember snatches of it. In a film that was a laugh riot from beginning to end, Amjad Khan plays a Brigadier who is being followed by two bumbling detectives who suspect that he is selling defence secrets to the enemy. While the Brigadier himself is undercover trying to expose a Pakistani agent, Boss no: 1, as a terrorist. The film was filled with absolutely nonsensical dialogues such as Shakespeare ne Menaka se kaha tha, ‘Naach meri bulbul, paisa milega’ and with ‘passwords’ such as ‘Meow’, meow, kutte ko billi ka salaam'. (If memory serves me right, the counter password was 'Bow-bow, billi ko kutte ka namaskar'.)
Directed by Pankaj Parasher, Amjad Khan held his own against a troop of stalwarts that included Ravi Baswani (Hari Giridhara), Satish Shah (Giri Harihara), Anupam Kher (Boss no: 1), and Rajendranath (Kandha Ram).
Sholay (1975) Gabbar Singh
One cannot write about Amjad Khan and not mention Gabbar Singh, the role that was the beginning of a long journey into villainy. Pitted against some of the top stars of the day (Sanjeev Kumar, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan) and backed by a strong script and powerful dialogues, Amjad Khan slipped into the skin of the character and not only looked the part of a psychopath, but actually lived it. The crude way of delivering his dialogues, the absolute sadism he displays, the maniacal laughter that still sends shivers down your spine – Gabbar Singh was brutal without being explicitly violent. In fact, most of the violence is shown by implication.
It was a role that made him what he was; unfortunately, it was also a role that became bigger than him. While he still managed to make a career, and a successful one at that, unlike so many others who remained trapped by their image, Amjad Khan's future trajectory included many, many (diluted) variations of the Gabbar Singh theme.
Amjad Khan died this day, 20 years ago. He was 51, surely not an age to die. After his death, he remains fixed in public consciousness as ‘Gabbar Singh’. It is perhaps both a blessing and a curse that he is remembered by film aficionados mostly for that one role at the beginning of his career. That, then, is his legacy.
There was more to him, however, than an iconic character in a landmark film. He was a fantastic actor, well-known to theatre audiences in Bombay, and a fine director, whose short documentary on the follies and foibles of his beloved industry was unofficially screened to popular acclaim at the prestigious Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany.
What is more, no one was afraid of Gabbar Singh in real life.
The older staff at Prithvi Theatre remember him – in a different way. A man known as much for his humour and his streak of mischief, Amjad was a tea-addict, often drinking up to 80 cups of tea a single day. When, prior to a show, the harassed canteen staff at Prithvi couldn’t comply with his demand for more tea because they had run out of milk, he brought two buffaloes to the theatre and presented it to the canteen so they would never run out of milk again.
Many behind-the-scenes workers will remember him with great fondness as a man who helped them both in his personal capacity and as head of the Cine Artistes Association. A man who spent a lifetime on-screen looting people, Amjad Khan was responsible for fighting successfully for better wages and working conditions for studio hands in real life. He was also well-known for not turning away anyone who needed help, often dipping into his personal funds to help the workers in dire straits.
That, perhaps, is an even greater legacy.
So, Cinematters, this one is for you – a tribute to an artiste, who was also a fine man. Whether I have done justice to him is for you to judge.