Cinema With the passing away of Pran, we have not only lost a great actor but also somebody who made us believe that life is not all black and white. Ziya Us Salam

Champak Lal and Ghanshyam, both in their 60s, are regulars at Moti cinema in Chandni Chowk. It has been their popular haunt since the time they set foot in Delhi as callow youth, semi-skilled, inexperienced, full of enthusiasm of making it big in the big city. Driven by adrenalin of cinema, they cut corners to catch a film at Moti, occasionally Kumar. Films that they saw only once were few; those that attracted repeat visits were many. Prakash Mehra's “Zanjeer”, the film that announced Amitabh Bachchan to the world, was one such favourite. The two went to see the movie as much for Bachchan as for Pran, the indomitable foil in the movie. Indeed, their favourite was the song “Yaari hai imaan mera yaar meri zindagi”. The words struck a chord with the two friends, as did Pran with his zestful rendition.

Lal and Ghanshyam went to Moti soon after the news that Pran had passed away was telecast. Nursing a faint hope that the cinema might be planning a retrospective to the actor, they made persistent enquires, only to return disappointed for the hall today plays a lot of dubbed trash. Or at best, Bhojpuri fare. They had another reason to be disappointed. Lal and Ghanshyam stayed in Charkhewalan in Old Delhi, just a few brisk steps from Ballimaran where Pran was born. Ballimaran, which is often in news because of Ghalib’s haveli, stayed silent and indifferent to Pran. He deserved better.

Handsome as a hero, Pran was a consummate villain whose name evoked fear. So powerful was his aura as the bad man of the Hindi film industry that for much of the 1950s through 1960s and the ’70s, very few new-borns were named Pran! Such was his popularity that most of the films in which he acted ended their titles with the words ‘And Pran’ accompanied by deafening background music. Whether as Raaka of “Jis Desh Mein Behti Hai”, or Ugra Narayan of “Madhumati”, Pran’s portrayals brought screams in the dark confines of cinema halls.

However, in an industry governed by easy stereotypes, it would be easy, no, almost unavoidable to call Pran the best ever villain of Hindi cinema. The reality is, Pran was among the most skilled of actors to have graced the big screen; a rare artiste who played the hero, the villain, the comic and the central character with equal relish. In a career spanning over 350 films, he had the distinction of cinema halls simultaneously showing films where he played a hero and a villain. The man who was paid more than Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna could not be made of lesser mettle. In fact, for more than a decade Pran was paid more than the heroes of his films; and his lesser paid co-stars included formidable names like Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor.

Interestingly, he never used to leave the sets after his shot was taken. He was always interested in seeing the hero’s performance too just to make sure that he did not come across as inferior to him. He did some of his best work opposite the famed trio of the industry, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, and later came to be the favourite of directors Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra, under whose sharp eye he crafted a masterpiece in “Sharaabi”, where he got more powerful dialogues than the hero, Bachchan.

His stylised work, including making rings of smoke using a cigar and rolling his eyes, was widely appreciated. As was his booming voice. He could pull off a song or two as well: remember his “Yaari hai imaan mera” in “Zanjeer” or “Qasme Vaade” in “Upkaar”. If as a villain he was pitted opposite the top heroes of more than one generation, as a hero he starred opposite the likes of Meena Kumari and Noor Jehan. Unlike others, his looks did not give him away. In fact, his good looks helped him redefine villainy in films and often helped maintain suspense in the story, as in “Upkar” where the audience lived through the film with the belief that he would finally turn a mean streak! Music directors Kalyanji-Anandji were initially unhappy that their song, “Qasme vaade pyar wafa” was to be filmed on Pran and tried to prevail upon the director to change the plot! He defied stereotypes: If at one time he was Noor Jehan’s hero in “Khandaan”, he was also the man responsible for giving supporting actors a new dignity in Hindi cinema with his zest-filled portrayal in “Zanjeer”, the film for which he had recommended the then untested Amitabh Bachchan for the hero’s role after Dev Anand had turned down the proposal. With Malang Chacha’s part in Manoj Kumar’s “Upkar”, he showed positive shades too and in more than a handful of films with Mehmood, he showed his comic side.

Born in the Walled City of Delhi, the land of Ghalib, Pran completed his matriculation from Rampur, the abode of the Nawabs. A soft-spoken, well read man, who loved his drink, and good things of life, he slowed down considerably over the past decade or so. That did not affect his zest for poetry and he could dish out an Urdu couplet for as long as he lived. Though the famed voice began to fail him, he remembered most words of Ghalib. Appropriate for a man who will go down in the annals of cinema as the man who won a rare dignity for actors and joy for countless Lals and Ghanshyams.