Showbiz stories are notoriously apocryphal, but there may be some truth to the rumour that mothers of a certain era would not name their children Pran. Who, after all, would want to associate with the ruthless estate owner responsible for Vyjayanthimala’s death in Madhumati? Or the whip-wielding sadist who made life miserable for Dilip Kumar in Ram Aur Shyam? Or the gambler-cum-bandit of Munimji, who wants to marry Nalini Jaywant for her riches despite already being married? Or the murderous dacoit of Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai? Or the clown with a penchant for mangling the English language in Dus Lakh, who knocks poor Om Prakash on the skull before setting the latter’s room ablaze?
It is surely one of life’s little jests that this unrepentant villain, who so revelled in bringing about death, was blessed with a name so vivifying. Pran Kishan Sikand was born on February 12, 1920, to a civil engineer and his wife in Delhi. He wanted to be a photographer, but one evening, while loitering outside a paan shop, he was spotted by the writer Wali Mohammad Wali, who was scripting the Punjabi film Yamala Jat (1940). The film was a hit. His costar was Noorjehan, and the pair soon signed their first Hindi film, Khandaan. After Partition, he moved his family to India, first to Indore, then Bombay. After a bit of struggle, and with the help of Saadat Hasan Manto and the actor Shyam, he landed a role in Ziddi, which had Dev Anand and Kamini Kaushal playing the leads. He never looked back.
Hindi films of the time worshipped the triumvirate of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, but when it came to casting the villain opposite these heroes, it was almost always Pran. The films are too numerous to list, though there are some highlights. He clashed with Dilip Kumar in films like Azaad and Dil Diya Dard Liya (a reworking of Wuthering Heights, where Pran embodied the vicious Hindley Earnshaw). He faced off against Raj Kapoor in Chori Chori, and with Dev Anand in Amar Deep and Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai. Pran was a strapping figure in these films, and his dashing mannerisms made him a star almost as big as the heroes he played against.
His 2004 biography, authored by Bunny Reuben, was titled ... And Pran, reflecting the importance his name was accorded in the opening credits of his films.
And then he began to diversify. In films like Kashmir Ki Kali, Pran shaded his villainy with humour. But the biggest change would come when he played a positive character in Manoj Kumar’s Upkar. (An earlier turn as good guy in Raj Kapoor’s Aah went essentially unnoticed.) The film was a superhit and it changed the course of Pran’s career, which thereon encompassed the gamut of human emotion, black through white. Another impactful role was that of the large-hearted Pathan who clashed with and later befriended a young hero named Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer. It is said that, for a period in the 1970s, only Rajesh Khanna commanded more money than Pran.
In 2001, Pran was awarded the Padma Bhushan, and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award this year is just the latest recognition in a career studded with honours. The Phalke award is often in the news as much for the people it recognises as those it leaves out, but Pran’s name should provoke little debate. He was altogether too good at being bad.