Told in the form of compressed capsules, Prem Chopra's biography is as much a work of his co-stars as it is a recollection of his own golden memories

It was the year 1965. India and Pakistan were at war. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri watched Shaheed, Manoj Kumar’s biopic of Bhagat Singh, at a premiere. Shastri asked, perhaps out of appreciation as well as curiosity, if a film could be made on the theme of his own catchphrase Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (An appreciation to the Soldier, A token of honour to the tiller). The result was Upkar (1967).

Manoj Kumar’s directorial debut Upkar defined/re-defined the careers of two fine actors, Pran and Prem Chopra. Though they were a generation apart, both had cut their professional teeth in Punjab, the former in pre-partition Punjab and the latter in post-partition Punjab. For Pran, Upkar marked a definitive shift away from negative roles. Little would the gangly, handsome Prem Chopra (just 30 at that time and barely a few films old) have realised that he would unwittingly occupy the slot hitherto monopolised by Pran. While Pran became an exemplar of excellence even in character roles, Prem Chopra now became an embodiment of evil. Their careers would intersect in interesting and, at times, serendipitous ways. They acted in 34 films together and their pair formed a selling point for the distributors.

In fact, when B.R. Chopra remade his own directorial debut Afsana as Dastaan, he cast Prem Chopra in the role immortalised by Pran earlier.

The witticism with which Prem Chopra became most associated Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra (My name is Prem, Prem Chopra) came in a film, Bobby, where his appearance was limited to some burlesque villainy in the final 20 minutes or so. That forms the title of his biography as well. Though written by his daughter Rakita Nanda, it is narrated by Prem Chopra in first person. Told in the form of compressed capsules — just like the negative roles he did in many films — it is as much a work of his co-stars as it is a recollection of his own golden memories. We sit back and enjoy as he waxes nostalgic about his on-screen and off-screen associations with Manoj Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, the Anand brothers — Dev and Vijay — Rishi Kapoor and many others. The piece de resistance among the anecdotes is his view on the Anands. He feels Dev should have stuck to acting, letting Vijay be the helmsman and ends it with, “They both wanted to do what the other was; and in the process, compromised what they were masters at.”

Though it was Manoj Kumar who gave his career the necessary vigour — he cast Chopra as Sukhdev in Shaheed before recognising his potential for negative roles — it is while speaking about his association with Amitabh Bachchan that the real spark in Chopra’s voice emerges. No wonder the role Chopra is fond of the most is the one with Bachchan in lead, Do Anjaane, with the two having more-or-less equal roles. This pairing with Bachchan is another motif on which Chopra’s career finds a fortuitous parallel with that of the legendary Pran.

Unlike Pran, who could make the audience develop cold feet by his sheer screen presence, Prem Chopra was a hero’s contemporary, a friend-turned-foe, an anti-hero rather than an antithesis. His Elvis Presleysque hair-do, his suave mannerisms, his vibrant dressing and his long-winded dialogues made him more of a director’s villain, a script writer’s villain than a self-made villain. He could as well have been a slightly unconventional hero with comic shades.

As the book reaches its climax, Chopra gives us a glimpse of the spadework needed to master the different shades of grey in a character. His take that an actor needs to be “crafty, well read and widely travelled” to create an impact in the minds of the audience in a negative role intrigues the reader. Perhaps he means to say that understanding an antagonist requires greater tolerance toward people from different sections, something that comes with travel and reading? This assumption gains more traction when he says that films offer a fascinating window to a country’s culture. Touche! How I wish with such a cosmopolitan thinking, he had got like-minded directors to work with. My lament is shared by Manoj Kumar who says that with Chopra’s theatre background and his ability to recite the Bard impromptu, it is surprising that film-makers did not tap his talent to the fullest.

As I compare the covers of the biographies of two ace villains — Pran [...And Pran, by Bunny Reuben] and Prem Chopra — I realise their postures are eerily similar. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chopra discloses some day that a certain part of Pran’s on-screen menace rubbed on to him, making him another feared but likeable badmaash (rogue).

PREM NAAM HAI MERA PREM CHOPRA: Rakita Nanda; Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 7/16, Ansri Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.

This article has been corrected for a factual error.