Pran had a screen presence that was too impressionistic to be confined to cinema libraries or web graveyards after paying a handful of perfunctory tributes.

Pran. The moniker infused fear and respect in equal measure in the minds of Indian cinephiles. It is a month since he left us, physically. Though more famous for doing negative roles, Pran sa’ab rarely let himself be a caricature/stereotype on screen. A multifaceted actor, his persona was too larger than life to fit into any single template; his skills too diverse to be caged in any single narrative; and his screen presence too impressionistic to be confined to cinema libraries or web graveyards after paying a handful of perfunctory tributes.

In his career, he did all kinds of roles - apart from negative ones of course. He did lead role in just his third film Khandaan; then went on to do supporting roles in films like Aah, gumnaam, Adalat and Shaheed - much before Upkaar, which marked a definite shift toward such roles. He even played characters having lighter shades in films like Victoria No. 203; Kasauti; Jungle mein mangal; and Aap ke deewane.

However, one of the leitmotifs when it came to his characters — right from very early in his career — was: songs picturised on him. They were, at times, written keeping him/his character in mind, certainly not as distractions or as ‘item numbers’ but as an indispensable part of the overall narrative. Surely not the ones for which you could leave the theatre for a smoke or a cup of tea.

Bunny Reuben, author of Pran’s biography, '…and Pran', chose to include in his book's prologue not description of the scene in Badi bahen - his first appreciated negative role - where he makes an entry after blowing a smoke ring at Geeta Bali; nor any scene from Halaku - with Pran in the tile role of Genghis/Changez Khan's grandson - which the veteran himself considered one of his most important roles. He didn’t even opt for scenes from films like Madhumati; Ram aur Shyam; or Dil diya dard liya , where Pran was the epitome of evil. Reuben, instead, chose a song sequence, his jugalbandi with Bindu - the qawwali 'Raaz ki baat keh doon' from Dharma. This is what Reuben says after observing the audience reaction to Pran’s performance in the song:

“The audience goes mad. They whistle and scream and clap to the beat of the qawwali. Some even dance in the aisles. And as the qawwali draws to a close, the audience is in a frenzy.”

As Reuben himself adds in the very next line, such spontaneous reaction would usually be reserved for stars – not mere heroes but stars. The likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. But to have that kind of reaction for an actor people loved to hate, there must have been some X-factor associated with him!

Moment of serendipity

A few months before Pran passed away, he had won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Suddenly, mediapersons scampered for Pran-related trivia. I was no exception and just as I was counting on my fingers the songs I could instantly recall picturised on him, there was a happenstance — I spotted the 'Best of Pran Songs' jukebox on YouTube.

The moment was one filled with serendipity because when I think of Pran, my memory doesn’t reach as far as 1958, when Madhumati was released; or 1967, when Ram aur Shyam came. It instead zeroes in on Pran's character (Sher Khan) from the 1973 Prakash Mehra-blockbuster Zanjeer, especially that one song:: 'Yaari hai eemaan mera yaar meri zindagi' ('Friendship is my religion… for friends I live'). So, on spotting the jukebox, I realised that I was not the only one who associated Pran’s name with those character numbers (not to be confused with dance numbers having Bindu and Helen which at times acted as macguffins).

Pran, while still the ‘... and Pran’ mentioned in this piece, had, in the post-Upkar phase, increasingly started getting positive roles and it had become more acceptable for parents to name their child 'Pran'. As an aside, I wonder: Wasn’t it the parents’ loss that they had to desist from baptising their child with life (the literal meaning of pran)?

Unique screen presence

A well-informed cinephile-friend, Pravir, based in Mumbai, talks about Pran sa’ab’s screen presence when it came to his songs:

Such was the screen presence and versatility of Pran sa’ab that he would look part of the songs to the core — whether or not he lip synched it.

Right from the time he was spotted in Lahore’s busy Heera Mandi by writer Wali Mohammed Wali when Wali observed a certain ‘menace’ to the way Pran chewed paan, it was clear that cardboard villainy would not suit him. Roles had to be well-etched with varied shades. This had to include song sequences, one that would chisel the character to give it better shape. However, his screen presence; his menacing eyes — he didn’t need those fake lenses in Kab kyon aur kahan to scare the audience — and his stylish dialogue delivery made sure that he infused life even into stereotypes.

Following a successful career as a lead hero in Lahore, where he did all the 'dancing around the trees with the heroine' - a career that became a victim of partition - he had to start afresh in Mumbai, where his eyes became the point of attraction. Again, there was enough scope for song picturisation.

Scenes as songs

This is what he said in an interview dated back to 2000 about not wanting to do lead roles:

Because mujhse gaane gaaye nahin jaate the! Well, I mean those songs that are sung around trees with the heroines! If you notice, all my hit songs as a character artiste which happened later are actually scenes and not items thrust in to make the people happy.

More than five years before Ziddi (1948) - the film that marked his entry into Mumbai filmdom - Pran had started doing lead roles. He made his lead-debut in Khandaan (1942), opposite another debutante, Noor Jehan. The duet Ud ja ud ja ud ja panchchi has a young, gangly Pran and a much younger Noorjehan (hitherto Baby Noorjehan) in period cinema costumes, dancing to the tunes of Ghulam Haider, who doubled up as the male playback.

Pravir, who demarcates Pran’s career into phases — not necessarily in terms of chronology but in terms of shades in his character — says,

“In the comic anti/supporting hero roles across three decades [starting with in 1950s], look at his expressions in the fun songs like 'Dil ki umangen hain jawan'; 'Aake seedhi lagi dil pe (Half ticket)'; 'Husn chala kuchh aisi chaal' (Bluffmaster); 'Subhan allah haseen chehra' (Kashmir ki Kali); 'Tum agar mujhko na chaho to' (Dil hi to hai); 'Is duniya mein jeena hai to' (Gumnaam); and 'Ae bagh ki kaliyon' (Jangal mein Mangal - the weirdest of all).”

Some of these are songs where he doesn’t lip sync, still makes himself an indispensable part of the sequence, as pointed out by Pravir. Many have Pran playing the party pooper, a menace whom the hero-heroine couple wants to get rid of. Some are songs where the hero uses him as a pawn to impress his lady love. These are ‘running him down’ songs — songs where the hero serenades to the heroine while Pran's character watches helplessly, ultimately turning angry and wishing revenge.

'Dil ki umagein', 'Husn chala kuch aisee chaal', and 'Suhaan allah' fall into this category. The first song from Munimji has him braying under the pseudonym ‘Thakur’, his sincere attempt at ‘singing’ landing him eventually on a donkey.

Aake seedhi lagi dil pe, where Kishore Kumar sings for himself (in female voice) as well as for Pran, has him trying his best to match the tomfoolery of Kishoreda. The nonsensical phrase 'badh ke budhan cheervi takar' would be later used by Kishoreda for himself in 'Ek chatur naar' from Padosan.

Pravir talks about the second phase, where roles are reversed. It is the hero feeling the humiliation, the jealousy, the kiss of evil planted by the villain — no lighter shades here. The hero is morose, the villain ecstatic having the heroine in his arms. There is a certain enjoyment derived by the villain seeing the hero hopeless; to put it in a juicier way, a certain schadenfreude:

"... you can witness the joy of snatching the heroine from the hero in songs he was part of, like 'Dil Ke Jharokhe Mein' (Brahmachari); 'Mujhe Tum Mil Gaye Humdum' (Love in Tokyo); or 'Aaj Ki Raat Mere' (Ram Aur Shyam) to name a few.

Pran and Bachchan

My friend Vikas, who hails from Allahabad — Amitabh Bachchan’s home town — posted in response to the Amul cartoon dedicated to Pran "Big B ko big banaane ke peeche inka haath tha." (He played a significant role in making the Big B big). I could not agree more.

As this factfile mentions, Pran did some 14 films with Amitabh — among them Kasauti, Zanjeer, Don, Kaalia, Majboor and Sharaabi . Apart from Andha kanoon , Pran didn’t have negative role in any of the films, even playing Amitabh’s contemporary in Nastik.

If my memory serves me right, when DD Metro was started, the first movie shown on the night of its launch was Kasauti. Not a bad watch for Amitabh-lovers, but otherwise the song featuring Pran, 'Hum bolega to bologe ki bolta hai' was the only memorable element. Pran does Kishoreda-like madcap comedy in the role of a Nepali. He is at his best during the Humra ek padosi tha antara. As one of my other filmi friends, Divya Solgama from Mumbai (whom I've written about here), attests: “In Amitabh concerts, this song was a ‘must have’ even though he didn’t have any line at all!”

Despite being much senior to him, Pran played varied supporting roles in films having him in the lead, with songs punctuating the narrative in an elegant way. In Majboor, moving at a lethargic pace till that point, his 'Michael daroo peekar danga karta hai' infused pace and there on, he is the one driving it forward.

Even a film made out of shelved scripts Film hi film had the whole narrative revolving around him, a filmmaker struggling to complete his project which he is so passionate about. The title song explains his predicament though he doesn’t lip sync. The sense of joy, pain, helplessness is brought out by his expressions, with the song in the background.

Songs... for Pran

Pravir’s third phase is the one I am most familiar with; one where songs were written “specifically keeping him in mind”, as he says. And, invariably, his songs were the best picturised and the best composed in the whole album/movie. “These include 'Kasmen vaade pyaar wafa' (Upkar); 'Yaari hai imaan mera' (Zanjeer) [mentioned earlier]; 'Raaz ki baat keh doon to' (Dharma) [mentioned earlier]; 'Do bechare' (Victoria No. 203); 'Hum bolega to' (Kasauti) [mentioned earlier]; 'Shaam suhani aayi' (Zinda Dil), 'Daaru ki botal mein' (Majboor) [mentioned earlier]; 'Haaye zindadi' (Vishwanath); or [and] 'Chal musafir' (Ganga Ki Saugandh),” says Pravir.

Talking about this phase, Mumbai-based actor Sharib Hashmi feels that Pran’s songs became as important post-Upkar as a Helen number or a Bindu number.

I’m also curious to find out from my friends: Which singer’s voice, which music director’s tunes best suited him? For me personally, it would always be Manna Dey. Pravir continues “[b]e it Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, Mahendra Kapoor or Mohd Rafi, it always appeared that Pran is singing himself.”

He adds, "Kalyanji-Anandji top the chart of giving milestone compositions to Pran and he completely justified each of them. The composer duo are known to focus on good and meaninful lyrics and then render appropriate tunes to them, and with Pran on screen, the combo just created magic."

Speaking about singers, Divya, a great fan of Panchamda (R.D. Burman), tells me something I had hitherto failed to spot: In Bade dilwala (1983), the title song’s first version in terms of appearance in the film picturising Pran, was by Udit Narayan, a full five years before Qayamat se qayamat tak!

Sharib says, “I think Manna Dey’s voice suited him the most. And though my favourite songs are 'Yaari hai imaan' and 'Qasme vaade', I love singing Kishoreda’s 'Hum bolega to bologe ke bolta hai'.

Another question that lurked in some corner of my mind: Cine industry here at that time was a hero-dominated one. So, did the heroes of that time feel overshadowed, feel outperformed, by Pran? In other words, did the heroes see a 'threat' in him?

Not at all, say Divya and Pravir. Both consider him an acting institution, a veteran. So, actors revered him rather than getting a complex because of him. In fact, Pran was a well-established actor — in Lahore — much before either of the actors constituting the first Trimurti - Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar - came into prominence. He did nine films with each of the three and maintained friendship with them. The rest of the cast was much less-experienced to him, hence no question of a complex or a threat feeling in any of them.

Personality un-'Zanjeer'ed

Were there a re-release of just Pran’s song sequences on the big screen, I would enjoy watching them and feeling those goosebumps — a la the audience mentioned in the prologue of Reuben’s book.

The screen presence of Pran was towering, later matched perhaps only by Amitabh Bachchan. The first movie in which they created magic together, Zanjeer, was also the one which had been rejected by some top heroes, one reason being: no song ‘sung’ by the hero. The angry young man’s birth and his immortality, in part, needs to be credited to them.

As I visualise the Sher Khan-Vijay confrontation scene from Zanjeer, I cannot emphasise enough star writer-duo Salim-Javed’s temerity in showing Sher Khan, a supporting character, outmanoeuvre Vijay, the central character, in a brawl. A fight where Inspector Vijay — sans his uniform and his power — challenges the lion in its own den.

A clash of two bravehearts ensues. Both collapse at the end and are fully exhausted. Then the moment comes where the lion-hearted Sher Khan offers an impulsive Vijay his hand of friendship. In the case of any other hero, say Dev Anand or Rajkumar — both of whom rejected the role — Sher Khan would have been pummeled and the offer of friendship would have been unimaginable. In a film where the best song was picturised with Pran, perhaps, it was fitting to show him as an equal, and in some ways, even stronger than the hero.

A true barkhurdaar (gentleman) is how I would describe Sher Khan. So was Pran in real life. Incidentally, barkhurdar was one of his favourite takiyakalaams (catchphrases) that he immortalised by using in many films. In fact, when I google the term 'barkhurdaar’, the third auto-suggestion has Pran’s name along with the term.