Happy birthday Amjad Khan: The gem of a villain who gave Bollywood its relevance it misses today
Could Amjad Khan probably be the missing link who could offer the ideal platform to understand how seamless some actors truly were in the past?
Among the other things that changed in the 80s for mainstream Hindi cinema — the heroine becoming a prop, the comedians being sidelined to an idiotic parallel track, the music becoming secondary and the hero transforming into a one-man army — it was the manner in which the villain was viewed that impacted films the most. Suddenly the villains become comical, and no matter how formidable they were assumed to be it was the hero who had to win in the end even if the whole thing appeared unconvincing.
Even in this period one of the villains who managed to maintain his previously celebrated status was Amjad Khan. The gravitas that he had ushered in for the baddie with his Gabbar Singh in Sholay (1975) held the actor in good stead across the roles that he did later and more so when he had started to concentrate on what are called parallel or character roles. His untimely death in 1992 at the age of 52 robbed Hindi cinema of an actor, who had he been alive, could have seen helped not let the bad guy become irrelevant.
Villains in Hindi cinema have always been a much-celebrated lot. They have assumed larger than life personas right from Shakaal in Shaan (1980) to Rama Shetty in Ardh Staya (1983), Dr. Dang in Karma (1986) or Mogambo in Mr. India (1987), they have scared the daylights out of unassuming viewers with simple one-liners like ‘Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra...’ in Bobby (1973) and yet when things come to a pass it is unfailingly always the hero who automatically becomes bigger. Either the villain has been seen as the personification of pure evil or simply someone who could be outwitted when the time comes. The manner in which the stature of the villain transformed post-Sholay where he wasn’t the eyebrow twitching Pran from Madhumati (1958) or Ram Aur Shyam (1967), the evil moneylender Sukhi Lala from Mother India (1957), the rustic bandit Raka in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) or Jabbar Singh from Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) but someone who was beyond reason or reproach. In fact, Gabbar Singh and Sholay would be the first, and perhaps the only instance worth recalling where the villain continued to work on the subconscious of the viewer long after he was defeated. The only other time when the villain came close to be far more formidable than one who triumphed over him would be Mr. India but the comic book aspect of Mogambo made Gabbar look far nastier.
Amjad Khan’s entire career only lasted about 15 odd years - since 1975 (Sholay) to his death in 1992. By the time he had died he had become much more than a successful villain. He could ease into comedy with Des Pardes (1978) Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), Malamaal (1988) or be a class supporting act in Utsav (1984), Qurbani (1980), Yaarana (1981) or even a brilliant presence in films like Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), where his emasculated Wajid Ali Shah was the perfect antithesis to Gabbar Singh, or films like The Perfect Murder (1988), Rudaali to name a few. At the same time, Khan also managed to pack in the standard villain with Inkaar (1977), Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), Kaalia (1981), Mr. Natwarlal (1979) and Bombay 405 Miles (1980). Khan would also be the only ‘villian’ after Pran who managed to rise above being the standard bad guy or the comedian and he did without much effort.
It is unfortunate that in spite of being one of the biggest actor-star of the 1970s and the 1980s, Amjad Khan continues to remain underrated. The actor is yet to enjoy a resurrection via nostalgia that has witnessed previously hidden brilliance of some other actors, filmmakers and music composers to be discovered by newer fans. Amjad Khan’s wide range of roles and especially the manner in which he interpreted Wajid Ali Shah in Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari or Vatsyayan in Girish Karnad’s Utsav need to be revisited more by the younger generation of viewers. Khan could probably be the missing link who could offer the ideal platform to understand how seamless some actors truly were in the past. Juxtapose that with Khan in Mukul S Anand’s Maha-Sangram (1990) where he plays the aging don Bada Godha and you’d see why Khan’s early death took away one of the few actors who could manage to shine in the most typical roles. In Maha Sangram Khan’s Bada Godha walks the fine line of being the most feared gangster in then Bombay underworld and at the same time be as soft as a dewdrop when it came to listening to his daughter.
While it is mostly enough to see an actor’s best roles in order to understand the thought process that probably guided them, even though a good actor might fool you into believing something that he/ she do not stand for, at times some off-screen incidents, too, shed great insight into an artist. In Amjad Khan’s case, there is an interview that he gave to a Canadian television channel in 1987 that offers a rare glimpse into the astute mind that the actor possessed. For viewers of Hindi cinema who were too young to see or hear Khan when he was not acting, this interview has him speaking at length about the state of then Hindi cinema, the state of film journalism, which he labeled the parasite of the world of journalism, politics and even the state of the country. Unlike present day film stars, Amjad Khan does not mince his words when his cinema was accused of being pedestrian - he expressed that films reflect society and also added that if films were to really inspire people beyond a limited degree then people would be taking on the evils of the society by bashing up 10-12 guys because a hero called Amitabh Bachchan did that on screen and not just copy his hairstyle.