The first thing everyone recalls when they hear "Pran" is the look that was almost his trademark: a raised eyebrow, a piercing gaze and sneer-curled lips. A friend of the great Pakistani short-story writer Sadat Hasan Manto and the only villain who commanded more respect (and fatter pay cheques) than heroes, Pran was a proper gentleman. The veteran actor passed away last night in Mumbai.
Born Pran Kishan Sikand in Delhi, 1920, Pran travelled all over India and what is now Pakistan as a child because his father was a civil engineer who was stationed at different places during his career. As a young man, Pran wanted to be a photographer, but a chance meeting with a producer of Punjabi films landed him the role of the villain in Yamla Jat (1940). The film was a huge hit and 20-year-old Pran was on his way to becoming an actor. Before Partition, Pran acted in twenty-odd Punjabi films in Lahore. Even back then, he was mostly cast as a villain.
Pran left Lahore in August 1947 and came to Bombay. (Apparently his greatest regret was that when he left Lahore at the time of Partition, he had to leave his dog behind. Later, Pran had three dogs, whom he named Bullet, Whiskey and Soda.) The films he'd made in Lahore counted for nothing in Bollywood and Pran, now a married man with a child, struggled to find work. Fortunately for him, he had a few friends in the movie business and one of them was Manto, who got him a role in the Dev Anand-starrer Ziddi (1948). It was a a massive box office success and within a week, Pran had signed three more films.
With films like Afsana (1951), Jagte Raho (1956), Madhumati (1958), Kashmir ki Kali (1964) and Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Pran cemented his reputation as an actor who was much more than a cardboard cutout of a baddie. From comic turns to chilling menace, swashbuckling pirate to ruthless emperors, Pran's acting had versatility. He was also an extremely hardworking actor, who invested a lot of time and effort into his roles. Understanding the importance of one's appearance, particularly as a villain, Pran paid a great deal of attention to his make-up and wardrobe. Sometimes, he would ask his make-up artist to come home and draw sketches of how he wanted his character to look in the film.
It remains one of Bollywood's enduring delights that its greatest villain was such a gentleman off-screen. He supported causes and helped people whenever he could. In many ways, he was more approachable than most stars, perhaps because he was very aware of how people cowered at the sight of him, intimidated by the roles he played. Those who knew him always spoke of him as being characterised by kindness and elegance. He loved poetry and could at any point recite entire poems in Urdu, and with perfect delivery.
In the industry, he came to be known as "Pran sahab", respected as much for his off-screen persona as his ability to make the villain a character that audiences watched with rapt attention. Pran starred in a string of successes and he was one of the few on-screen villains who gave the hero a run for his money in terms of billing and popularity. In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, Pran was paid more than most of the heroes against whom he was pitted in his films. In the 1950s, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar were paid more per film than Pran and in the 1960s, the exception was Rajesh Khanna. Everyone else, including Amitabh Bachchan, was paid less than Pran was in his glory years. Although he had only a few roles in which he played unvillainous characters, his performances in Upkaar (1967) as a disabled veteran and as Sher Khan, the outlaw with a heart of gold, in Zanjeer (1973) were further proof of what a fine actor Pran was. Pran retreated from films in the 1990s, citing health and age issues. He appeared occasionally in a film or two, but by and large, the actor was happily retired.
Pran was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2001 and earlier this year, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for lifetime achievement was conferred upon him. The actor was 93 when he passed away. His funeral will be held today at noon, at Shivaji Park in Mumbai.