“And Pran.” These were the words in the opening credits of many a hit film in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s and the audience in the darkened auditorium immediately knew that the movie, however good or bad it otherwise was, would have some crackling villainy because it starred the original bad man, Pran. The “And” ensured that he was not just on equal status with the stars but a tad higher, since his presence could affect the box office fortunes of the movie. Indeed, it became so much part of his name that his biography by Bunny Reuben was titled …and Pran.
Making his debut in 1940 in the Punjabi film Yamla Jat – his female co-star was Noor Jehan – the Lahore native Pran went on to act in nearly 400 films. His first few films did not really do much for his career, but then came Ziddi in 1948. The Shahid Latif directed movie pushed him, along with Dev Anand, Kamini Kaushal and debutant Kishore Kumar into the front lines. It is said that he had been recommended by dancer Cuckoo and the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. A year later, Badi Behen (Suraiya, Rehman and Geeta Bali) established him as a villain. Munimji, Naya Andaz and Azaad followed, along with Halaku, a fantasy film with him playing the Emperor of the Persian empire. He was holding his own against the top actors of the day and producers were clamouring to sign him up as a villain—they knew that even if the actor was weak, Pran would give heft to their venture.
One of the strengths he brought to his roles was his penchant for trying out new outfits and looks. He loved dressing up in costumes, whether as a Kashmiri (Kashmir ki Kali) or a Thakur (Madhumati), creating a look complete with wigs, beards and tics. The inspirations came from all kinds of sources—village dacoits (Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai) to Abraham Lincoln (Amar Akbar Anthony). Often, a smidgeon of comedy would be injected to give it a light-hearted touch, such as in Bewaqoof and in his later years, films like Karz. So enamoured was he of trying out challenging roles that in Jungal Mein Mangal he even dressed in drag, not an easy decision for any male Indian actor conscious of his macho image.
But it was as the unrelenting evil man who will stop at nothing to get the girl or her fortune that he really stood out. In well written roles in films such as Madhumati or Ram aur Shyam he struck terror in the hearts of viewers. The legend went that no parent would ever name their child Pran.
Suddenly, in 1967 all this changed. He turned in a nuanced performance as Malang, the handicapped mendicant and the philosophical song, ‘Kasme Vaade Pyar Wafa,’ filmed on him, put a completely new stamp on his persona. He was now a good man, even if not a typical Hindi film hero. He continued to be the bad guy on-screen, but now was getting varied roles, such as in Zanjeer, where he was the crusty Pathan who becomes Amitabh Bachchan’s friend. He then became labeled as a “character actor”.
There were many things going for Pran. His baritone voice, with a rasping menace when required, commanding personality and screen presence certainly made a huge difference, but it was his willingness to go that extra mile, despite poor scripts which ensured that he was never boring. A lesser actor would have been typecast and turned repetitive. His long film career – his last film was the unheard of Dosh in 2007 – was a tribute to his dependability and his professionalism; Bachchan, in a heartfelt foreword to Rueben’s book wrote: “Pran sahib never interfered with anyone’s work. He never argued with anyone, he never asked for alternations in the dialogue or a situation in the script and he never once lost his temper. He would complete a day’s work diligently and leave.”
Formal recognition of his immense contribution to Indian cinema – in the form of the 2013 Dadasaheb Phalke award -- came many years after he had delivered his best performances. In the current scenario, where lead actors happily play “grey” characters, a Pran would be an anomaly. He belonged to a time when heroes were heroes and villains were villains and both fought it out in the end. Pran usually lost in the film, but he always won the admiration of the audience.
Pran Kishan Sikand, actor, passed away in Mumbai on July 12, 2013. He was born in Delhi on February 12, 1920. He is survived by his wife, Shukla, and three children.
(Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer. He is the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story)