Pran, right, putting a badge on Dev Anand. (A photo dating back to the 1980s by Gopal Shetty)
Pran, who died at the age of 93 in Mumbai on July 12, had the among shortest screen names in the history of Hindi cinema but perhaps the longest and most illustrious career spanning over six decades. It was as if everybody in India knew who Pran was.
The actor straddled all manners of celluloid villainy in close to 400 films since his first in 1940 and was in many ways the very embodiment of Hindi cinema, like his contemporary Ashok Kumar. To be both an intrinsic part of an entire art form and one of its most defining features simultaneously must have been quite a high for Pran.
Pran’s presence in any film had a remarkably clarifying effect, mainly because he frequently did roles with deeply negative shades. Pran had the mean realm so completely cornered that he deservedly went on to become the Dean of the Mean (My term, coined right here) early in his career. In an industry notorious for typecasting its actors, it typecast Pran with particular relish but he lifted his performances out of their jadedness and gave them an enduring appeal with consistent integrity.
In my childhood, when going out to watch movies was considered a rare privilege, one of the most common questions asked before selecting a film was “Ema Pran chhe?” (Does it feature Pran?) That was because his presence meant that the film will have some dramatic hooks. Pran meant the end of ambiguity.
Pran is one of the few figures of that vintage and standing, apart from Ashok Kumar, whom I never met or spoke to. So I have no personal anecdotes to liven up this short little reminiscence. Considering his very long span in the profession and given his stature, it was inevitable that Pran would end up working with the entire roster of Hindi movie stars over the past seven decades.
With many of the biggest movie stars over the decades, Pran acted in numerous films. Ashok Kumar, often regarded as Hindi cinema’s actor’s actor, and Pran acted in 27 films together, for instance. When you consider that many actors in Hollywood do not act in those many films in their entire careers, this is an extraordinary number. With Amitabh Bachchan, by most reckoning Hindi cinema’s biggest ever star, Pran did 14 films. In fact, their 1973 film ‘Zanjeer’ (Shackles) is considered as a compelling example of a giant star, Pran, lending his name and credibility to a relative novice, Bachchan, during the early days of the latter’s career. That’s why some obits have pointed out that Pran was paid thrice what Bachchan was for the movie.
Perhaps Pran’s biggest challenge at the height of his success was that filmmakers would essentially hand over a stereotype to him and expect him to make something memorable out it. That he did was a tribute to his artistry. Of course, there were many roles where Pran could have just gotten by by merely keeping his right eyebrow arched for the duration of his presence. There is a lot to choose from Pran’s filmography but I have just chosen two clips here. One is, of course, from ‘Zanjeer’, and the other from ‘Half Ticket’ (1962).
By any measure, Pran led a dream life doing what he loved and loving what he did. Along the way he gathered stardom and adulation very few manage.
P.S.: My special thanks to dear friend and photographer Gopal Shetty who is always generous to share his collection with me.