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12 February 2021

The Greats: Pran

12.02.1920 - 12.07.2013
Where do I begin? My
conscious introduction to Pran was in Amar Akbar AnthonyOf course, I liked him, and wanted Jeevan to get his comeuppance for betraying his trust. Then, I saw him in Zanjeer. Ah, who can forget the hennaed Sher Khan and his grace when he loses? Or Yaari hai imaan, for that matter? (Director Prakash Mehra went on record to state that if it wasn't for Pran, Zanjeer would never have been made.) So far, so good. Until I watched Madhumati. As the arrogant Ugranarayan, he was chilling. 
The man, suave and aristocratic, leaning back in his armchair in his formal clothes and leather boots, puffing the perfect smoke rings into the air while he spoke to Dilip Kumar... that, right there, was a villain to end all villains. His voice did not rise; he did not curse, he didn't even raise a little finger –his minions did his dirty work, but you knew he was evil all the same. And until Salim-Javed created that villain of villains, Gabbar Singh in Sholay, there was no villain to surpass him. 

Pran Kishan Sikand, born in Lahore in 1920, wanted to be a photographer. But the acting bug bit him and he debuted in Yamla Jat in 1941 – as the villain. His first 'acting' role, however, was as Sita to Madan Puri's Ram in a local Ramlila in Shimla. He came to Indore with his wife and his one-year-old son a day before India's independence in 1947, and he was very upset that he could not go back to Lahore.

That is how Pran landed up in Bombay. By then, he had the cachet of being Noor Jehan’s hero in Khandaan and had acted in 22 films as villain. The partition and the move to Bombay caused a short lull in his career, but within eight months, he was signed for Ziddi (1948), which starred Dev Anand and Kamini Kaushal. That was just the beginning of a long and illustrious career as the bad guy, as well as a lifelong friendship with Dev Anand and with Ashok Kumar, the producer.

More often than not, he was the suave villain, the cad in the gentleman's clothing, the one who schemes to get his hands on the hero's wealth or the hero's girlfriend, or both. He was the long-lost son, or the only heir to a wealthy father (only he wasn't, after all). Sometimes, he was just a bad man with a golden heart. Not until Upkar did we see Pran being good. (He did have a brief cameo as the hero’s friend in Aah.) It was rather disconcerting to see Malangi chacha on screen and discover that he was actually good, not just pretending to be good. It won him a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor. 

He won the Filmfare awards three more times but was principled enough to refuse his award for Beimaan (1972) to protest the award for best music going to Shankar Jaikishan for Beimaan and not Ghulam Mohammed for Pakeezah.

Pran was a huge star in his heyday, starring alongside the top heroes of his time, including Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor et al. Writers wrote characters keeping Pran in mind. So popular a villain was he that he had prominent billing in the credits and was paid almost as much as the hero. In fact, in Don, he was paid more than Amitabh Bachchan.

So good was he at being bad that, in an interview, he once said once that at the height of his popularity, people wouldn’t name their children ‘Pran’. A keen sports buff, he delighted in not only watching cricket, but organised ‘star’ cricket matches for charity.

In his memoir, Naseeruddin Shah reminisced how the veteran actor loved to disguise himself, and how thrilled he was if people wouldn’t recognize him (even if they did). It showed a child-like enthusiasm for his profession that never quite waned. Ironically, for a man who refused 'hero' roles because he was uncomfortable singing and dancing, Pran had some iconic songs picturised on him.

Many years ago, I wrote out a list of Pran's performances that I absolutely liked. I intended it to be part of The Greats series, but never got around to writing it. Then, I intended it to be a tribute post when the actor died in 2013. After all, what better way to mourn the passing of an actor I respected and admired than by remembering his performances? But time passed and the post remained on the backburner, not even appearing in 2020, which was his birth centenary year. But better late than never, I suppose, so here, on his birthday. in no particular order, are some of what I consider his best performances.

Raja Ugra Narain / Madhumati (1958) 
 
As Raja Ugra Narain, the debauched local zamindar, Pran epitomised the ultimate in villainy, radiating menace just by a look or the tapping of a quirt. He’s suave, wealthy, aristocratic. He is also a man who will stop at nothing to attain his ends, and answers to no one. By the time he meets his just desserts, you are rooting for his downfall with as much intensity as the avenging ghost. Rana

Rana / Victoria No. 203 (1972)
It is rare that two ‘character actors’ walk away with a film, when the leads (Navin Nischol, Saira Banu) are stars.A petty thief, half of a conniving duo, who get their hands on a key and spend the rest of the film searching for the lock that it can open, Pran was hilarious as the alcoholic Rana, while best friend Ashok Kumar played the part of the philandering Raja. The hilarious twosome get up to drunken hijinks while searching desultorily for the lost treasure, and looking like they were having immense fun during the shooting. They made up dialogues as they went along, said Pran, in an interview to Bunny Reuben. Do bechaare bina sahaare was magic because of the camaraderie between the two. 
 
Raja Babu / Half Ticket
He is a suave diamond thief who plants the loot in a young man's pocket and then spends the rest of the film following the youth around in order to retrieve the jewel. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't know that the youth is not as young, or as innocent as he seems. Pran displayed his talent for comic villainy in this and many other films, matching Kishore Kumar’s zaniness. He also got to lip-sync to an iconic song – Aake seedhi lagi dil pe, matching steps with Kishore Kumar.

Gajendra / Ram aur Shyam (1967)
Who can forget the light-eyed sophisticate who had a penchant for cracking whips to keep a meek Ram cowed and browbeaten? The nightmare continues until Ram’s identical twin Shyam takes his place and becomes Gajendra’s nemesis. Gajendra’s cruelty was controlled and therefore, all the more chilling.

Sher Khan / Zanjeer (1973)
 
Prakash Mehra is on record as saying that if Pran had not signed the film, Zanjeer would not have been made. In fact, the principled actor turned down his friend, Manoj Kumar’s Shor because the character was a Pathan, and he was playing one in Zanjeer. Amitabh Bachchan can also thank Pran for his career’s first hit – Pran had been impressed by Bachchan’s screen presence in Bombay to Goa (1973) and seconded Salim-Javed’s recommendation of the lanky youngster. As Sher Khan, a lovable, voluble Pathan who remains Vijay’s staunch friend – Sher Khan is unforgettable. While he may have been taken aback at the ‘hennaed’ wig given him, he managed a mean step in Yaari hai imaan meri, probably the most iconic song in Pran's career.

Malang Chacha / Upkar (1967)
The honest and forthright Malang Chacha is the voice of the film’s conscience, egging Bharat to put his interests ahead of the world’s and warning him that too much goodness can come back to bite him. That cynicism is in the song he sings – Qasme vaade pyaar vafaa sab bateein hai baaton ka kya… Promise and vows, love and fidelity – these are mere words, they mean nothing. Malang chacha was the Hindi film bad man’s’ first mainstream ‘good’ character (though he had earlier played a bad-man-turning-over-a-new-leaf in Shaheed (1965).
 
Rai Saaheb / Parichay (1972)
Based on a Bengali novel called Rangeen Uttarain by Raj Kumar Maitra, Parichay also found inspiration in The Sound of Music. Playing a cold disciplinarian who’s estranged from his son (Sanjeev Kumar) who wants to pursue music, Pran humanised an old man struggling to gain the affection of his five grandchildren who blame him for their father’s death. The change in his nature was brought out very convincingly by the actor.
 
Raka / Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960)
 
As the unforgettable and menacing Raka daku in Raj Kapoor’s saga of rehabilitation of the dacoits, Pran was responsible for one of his character’s signature traits – running his index finger inside the collar. In an interview, the veteran actor said that it suggested the hangman’s noose was never far away from his neck. Raj Kapoor had tried – and failed – earlier to make Pran ‘good’- he played a doctor in the latter’s Aah; but he left an indelible stamp as Raka.
 
Sohan / Johnny Mera Naam (1970)
Vijay Anand’s masala caper gave Pran a lot of scope to perform. Cast as Dev Anand’s brother, Pran plays a character who was proud of being a policeman’s son and wanted to be one himself. When his father is murdered, Sohan kills the murderer; from then on, he’s on the run, and when the life of crime beckons, he willingly accepts the offer. Until he reunites with his brother and realises that the man he’s working for is responsible for his father’s death. Pran made the change in his outlook believable.  

Michael/ Majboor (1974)
Who can forget the happy-go-lucky Michael in this 1974 pot boiler? Pran reignites his camaraderie with Amitabh Bachchan, in the role of an canny bootlegger who can be aggressive when the situation demands. He brought the necessary lightness to a taut thriller, and his Phir na kehna Michael daaru pee ke dangaa karta hai became as iconic a song as any other.
 
These are but a handful of roles that Pran breathed life into; who can forget him as the titular Halaku (Meena Kumari was reportedly aghast that Pran had been signed for the role until she saw him in character) or the stern father of Bobby? The crippled trapeze artist of Don or the imposter leading a double life in Munimji? Kabira in Karz or the Nepali Pyarelal in Kasauti? In a career spanning decades Pran played a variety of roles, leaving an indelible stamp of his own on them. Throughout, he remained an affable, quiet, gentleman, an avid reader with a love for Urdu literature.
Pran Kishan Sikand, recipient of the Padma Bhushan and the Dada Saheb Phalke Award is no more. He died on 12 July 2013 after a prolonged illness at the ripe old age of 93. He had lived a long and fulfilling life, beloved of his family and the film fraternity. His contemporaries had nothing but good to say of him; the actors who came after him were in awe of his craft and his discipline. Everyone talked about his generosity and his general goodness. That is his final epitaph – that he was a good man. And perhaps that is even more illuminating of the man he was than anything else.

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