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When I was growing up, I knew two Prans.
One was the black-and-white Pran, who was always the bad man. You hated the very sight of him and rejoiced when, towards the end of the movie, the tables were turned against him.
The other was the colour Pran, who was invariably a colourful character. Sometimes he was a bad man in the eyes of law, but he was always good at heart and would eventually become a friend of the hero. You loved this Pran and shed a tear if he died.
This evening, Pran -- black-and-white as well as colour -- died. He was 93 and had, obviously, long been out of action. Newer generations would not have even heard of him. But for people my generation and older, Pran was one of the pillars of our times. His death is a reminder that these generations are also slowly wrapping up -- a thought that always terrifies me each time a pillar falls.
One knew the end was not very far when pictures of Pran appeared in the papers recently: a bird-like figure now, recognisable only because of the familiar aquiline nose, receiving the Dadasaheb Phalke Award at his home in Mumbai.
He was almost given the award about 15 years ago. I remember that afternoon -- this must be 1999 or 2000 -- when journalists on the information and broadcasting beat had gathered in the office of Arun Jaitley, who was then holding the portfolio. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award for that year had just been announced, and it had been given to the director Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Jaitley was telling the journalists about the chat he had had with Mukherjee when he had called him up to convey the government's decision to give him the award. 'He is so humble and childlike,' Jaitley gushed, 'and he was worried if he would be able to walk up to the dais to receive the award.' Mukherjee, like the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, had just undergone a knee-replacement surgery
And then Jaitley said, "It was really a tough choice this year. We had to decide between Pran saab and Hrishida."
Indeed a tough choice. How does one choose between Pran and Hrishikesh Mukherjee? It is like answering the question: Who do you love more, your father or mother? Both had done movies that you could watch any number of times -- each time seeming to be the first time.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Anand, Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke, Baawarchi, Namak Haraam, Gol Maal .
Pran: Madhumati, Zanjeer, Majboor, Upkaar, Johnny Mera Naam, Victoria No. 203, Don, Kaalia, Kasauti, Chori Mera Kaam -- to name just a few. Not to forget his memorable role in Amar Akbar Anthony . The movie would be nothing without the parts of Pran (Kishan Lal) and Jeevan (Robert), even though it has Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor playing the lead roles.
I did not grudge the fact that the award went to Hrishikesh Mukherjee that year -- he was one filmmaker who could make the entire nation laugh or cry -- but I did feel a little sad that Pran had lost out.
Fortunately, they remembered to bestow the honour on him nearly 15 years later, while he was still alive. Most people don't live till 93, and it now seems as if Pran had remained alive all these years so that he could receive the highest honour that had eluded him 15 years ago. But that was not the case, of course. Pran did not need a Dadasaheb Phalke Award to tell the world how great his contribution to Indian cinema has been.
His contribution to cinema will live on in his films -- films that we will watch again and again -- even though he is now dead.
I suddenly recall what my father, a man of few words, had once said a long time ago, when I was still a kid and when families across the country gathered in front of the TV on Sunday evenings: He had remarked, "Pran thhakle cinema ta jomey aar ki " ("You relish a film if it has an actor like Pran").
The last film that I watched of Pran in a theatre, while he was still a working actor, was Duniya . This was sometime in the mid-1980s. I had watched it in Majum, a theatre that was closest to my house in Kanpur but which is now defunct.
Duniya , according to me, is one of the best films ever made in Bollywood. It has Dilip Kumar, the honest guy, who spends a chunk of his life in jail after being framed by three villains -- Pran, Prem Chopra and Amrish Puri. Upon being released from jail, he makes sure that each of them dies -- how he goes about is the story. Rishi Kapoor and Amrita Singh serve as the romantic pair, and the songs they sing in the film are some of the best that the combination of Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman and Javed Akhtar has ever created.
It's nearly 30 years since I watched Duniya in the theatre, but I still remember the name of one of the villains: 'J.K.' It was Pran who played Jugal Kishore, or J.K.