So much lay in that smirk. Even if the smirk was frequently invisible behind a tough mouth. A mouth that was, in turn, protected from absolute inscrutability by a slight curling of the lip, toward a scowl or a smile. Cards were rarely played closer to the chest, and it was as if Pran didn’t need — nay, didn’t deign — to let the hero or, indeed, the audience, into his head. Even while he stood in silence as the villain before the hero’s inevitable triumph, Pran’s smug menace was palpable, schemes and machinations whirring behind his eyebrows, the right one often raised a shade higher, in disdain.
The reason he made such a fearsome adversary for many a Bollywood good guy was, quite simply, the fact that Pran invariably seemed smarter, more calculating, more intelligent than the hero. Frequently he also looked tougher, or, at the very least, scrappier and more resourceful, the sort of guy you’d want on your side when things got sticky. Consider the evidence witnessed before the climactic showdown: on one hand is the hero who has yodellingly wooed his girl, had a few laughs and gotten several songs to pirouette through, and in the other corner is Pran, who’s been through harder knocks and is, more often than not, the one grappling to prove himself against all odds.
In Hindi cinema, the hero and the underdog are two entirely different things.
Pran was neither. A hero he couldn’t be, having established himself a villain of such notoriety that people refused to name their children Pran; the only other Pran around in pop-culture, the man who gave us Chacha Chowdhury, started calling himself ‘Cartoonist Pran’, perhaps to assuage audiences worrying that Sabu was born out of a devious imagination. And while the actor could well have been an underdog — the characters Pran played were usually more wronged than wrong, more desperate than diabolical — he carried himself with such pride that it was impossible to consider him a loser.
At best, we thought the hero — when walking away triumphant — had gotten lucky.
My first memory of Pran involves a hideous wig and a relentlessly twirled keychain. The actor hammed it up quite spectacularly as Jasjeet in Chandra Barot’s Don, but he held his own to Amitabh Bachchan and — here was the crux — Bachchan couldn’t shut him up with kick or quip. At that waist-high age of VHS-aided discovery, it was a mind-altering moment to realise that even Amitabh Bachchan, as superheroic as could be, had an on-screen equal. Someone who stood his ground and someone Bachchan couldn’t easily defy.
More films were rented and watched, and since chronology was overruled by rental-store availability, Pran perplexingly popped up in contrasting situations: he was Bachchan’s best friend one day, Bachchan’s dad the next. But he was always, always important.
There have been many fantastic villains in our cinema — from the glorious Gabbar to the sinister KN Singh to the loquacious Ajit to the best of them all, Amrish Puri — but Pran was always more than that. He was a forgotten son, a disgraced heir, a spurned brother, a thwarted lover… Pran was, in sum, almost the hero. And it was in being thus their equal that he had the measure of many a leading man.
Salaam, Pransaab. May you find, up there, a horse-drawn carriage to ferry you around. The two hundred and third carriage, to be exact.
First published Rediff, July 18, 2013