Pran: Bigger Than Bachchan
When it comes to playing any part with equal relish, Pran Krishan Sikand, affectionately called Pran Sa’ab, is the name that pops in most film buff’s head. Here’s why and what makes him a legendary star actor of Indian cinema.
My first few memories of Pran Sa’ab is of him in roles that were poles apart. A stern grandfather Rai Saheb, a desi recreation of Captain Von Trapp, who couldn’t control his riotous grandchildren in Gulzar Sa’ab’s Parichay. While the film was based on Bengali novel ‘Rangeen Uttarain’, the onscreen adaptation was akin to Hollywood’s The Sound Of Music.
Another everlasting impression of the legendary actor was a bearded Sher Khan with henna-colored hair and in shiny pathanis, as a foe-turned-friend of Angry Young Man Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer. And, a personal favorite, was a comical clean-shaven Nepali singing Hum bolega toh bolego ke bolta hai in Kasauti. There were umpteen villainous avatars Pran Sa’ab portrayed with equal earnestness, but as a kid bad guys never fascinated me. Ironically, it were the antagonist parts that contributed highly to make him a legend. His signature look as the bad guy was of a serious man with either a cigarette dangling from the mouth or a pipe in the hand giving cold stares to the heroes.
Interestingly, the roles that left an impact in my frock-wearing days pretty much explicates Pran’s versatility to slip into the skin of any and every character. Perhaps, that’s why he managed to have a long and prolific career. He started off as a hero, rose to glory as a villain and shined and sustained in congenial characters between 1940 and 2007. That is close to 360 films in six decades, which is a lot more number of films than the current fave legendary actor Big B has done, whose filmography too like a good wine too has gotten better with age.
But what characters and films defined the Padma Bhushan and Dadasaheb Phalke Awardee and made him a star bigger than a most of his contemporaries? Rumor has it that Pran Sa’ab was the highest paid actors in his heydays.
Pran Sa’ab was launched as a Hindi film hero in 1942’s Khandan and romanced a young Noor Jehan. The film was an instant hit, especially the love duets – he did nearly 20 roles as a lead. In an interview that he gave years later, the actor revealed that mouthing lovey-dovey songs and prancing around in courtyards made him extremely uncomfortable.
Six years later he got a chance to break out of the hero mold. Ziddi was Dev Anand’s movie as a lead actor and Pran’s first film as an actor in Bombay (his earlier movies were produced in Lahore of undivided India). But he played the quintessential bad guy and fans loved a pencil thin mustached Pran giving icy glances with his brooding eyes. The film’s success turned the reluctant-hero-into-a-happy-villain onscreen. In an interview the actor had said: Unless you know the evil, how will you know the good? It explains why he loved beating heroes and scaring heroines rather than romancing and singing in the movies.
Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai
Of all the bad guys he portrayed in the 50s, the most menacing role was Pran’s as a gun-toting bandit Raaka in 1960’s Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. The unique hairdo (similar to the perukes donned by British Barristers), rolled-up eyes, handlebar mustache and the way he said a dialogue as simple as ‘Tumhara Baap Raaka’, were over-the-top but it did scare the hell out of everyone.
Kashmir Ki Kali
Pran Sa’ab got extremely famous playing villains, but he was tired of repeating the bad guy’s clichéd characteristics. In 1964’s Kashmir Ki Kali he added a comical touch to his negative role. His character of a lecherous and conniving Mohan lisped, so every time he said a wicked line it led to laughter than create fear.
Ram Aur Shyam
This was one of the other most-wicked avatars of Pran Sa’ab. In 1967’s Ram Aur Shyam he played a whip-lashing brother-in-law of the timid Dilip Kumar. Raaka was menacing but Gajendra was mean and brutal! Once again his get-up – crisp Jodhpuris, leather boots, blue contact lenses and a whip – built up the villainous demeanor.
In the same year his fans got to soft side of Pran Sa’ab as well-meaning, forthright and handicapped Malang Chacha in Manoj Kumar’s Upkar. Raj Kapoor too had tried to present the villain in a new light – as a sympathetic doctor – in Aah, but it didn’t work with audience. The legendary actor lip-synced the famous song ‘Kasme vaade pyaar wafa…’; the composers were aghast with the idea that the melancholic melody was pictured on the man who was known for wicked roles, but were pleasantly surprised with the end result.
Pran Sa’ab self-confessed that his most difficult role was of the stern on the outside but soft inside Granddad in 1972’s Parichay. Once again, it was refreshing to watch the talented actor play a part that was so different from all the previous avatars.
The affable Pathan could be any friend to the protagonist in any film, but Pran Sa’ab’s interpretation of Sher Khan made him a sweet, charming and memorable character in the 1973 film. How else can one explain that an egoistic goon give-up his illegal business just to be friends with an honest cop? Interestingly, this isn’t just my favorite Pran character but even a personal favorite role of the legendary actor too.
Of course, Pran Sa’ab did many movies in the 80s, 90s and guest appearances in 2000s, there isn’t a role he hasn’t played on the big screen, a romantic hero, a dacoit, a sympathetic doctor, a brutal brother-in-law, a thwarted lover, a conniving industrialist, a stern parent… the list is endless.
His career resonates with his famous dialogue from Zanjeer – Sher Khan kaale ka dhanda karta hai… lekin imaandari se. Indeed, so much imaandari (honesty) that every role has become an everlasting memory.
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