Pran’s biography — written by Bunny Reuben — may have a quirky title, but it emblematises a rare sort of cinematic stardom that was rarely attributed to secondary characters. Yes, I shouldn’t be addressing Pran as a secondary character (he never was!), but the structure of an Indian film frequently positioned the villain/vamp figure within the second level of cinematic hegemony, leading the functions of antagonism to the peripheries. Although the presence of villainy was always deemed a central dramatic feature in both traditional arts and films, there has been a failure to attribute stardom to actors who donned these roles. Of course, Pran was an exception to this epiphenomenon! This becomes the subtext of the title of Pran’s biography, as it insinuates a flash of the villain’s stardom in the credit roles of any film featuring him: in many of these films, Pran’s name was announced towards the end of the primary cast’s — take this example from Subodh Mukherjee’s Munimji (The Accountant, 1955) which opens like this:
Filmistan Ltd. presents a Mukherjee production:
Munimji (The Accountant)
. . . and
The placing of Pran’s name towards the end rendered his cinematic presence more impactful, occasionally stronger than the lead hero’s, and helped centralise his position as actor/villain — which covered six decades (from the 40s to 90s). He’s been the ‘villain of the millennium’; being the ultimate personification of evil, Pran yet was never hated. Though his filmic persona desisted many parents from naming their boys ‘Pran’ (as I also discussed in my article on Helen), Pran, the actor/person, was offered everything but communal hatred. His highly stylised form of acting, grandiose mannerisms and deep vocal intonations were extremely popular amongst producers and the public alike. His presence in landmarking blockbusters like Bari Behen (Elder Sister, 1949), Bahar (Spring, 1951), Halaku (1956), and Madhumati (1958) concretised his associations with villainy; although it equally allowed him to parody the idea of evil which he recorded in comedies like Half-Ticket (1962), Dus Lakh (One Million, 1966), and Victoria No. 203 (1972) . . . where Pran not only seemed most iconic-cum-memorable, but also expanded some cinematic horizons to dismantle his industrial stereotyping. These axiomatic shifts onto other character terrains offered a sort of newness to the iconicity of Pran (which was initially encumbered within villainy) — a similar shift, I’m reminded, was undertaken by the canonical villain, Jeevan, when he romances with Cuckoo in an adorable romantic song-sequence, titled ‘Chowpatty pe Kal Jo Tujhse’ (‘Yesterday, what happened between us in Chowpatty . . .’). That song doctored, if not completely, the public’s central perception of the image of Jeevan-as-bad-guy which was transfixed on a singular frame of reference of viewing stars . . . allowing Jeevan to try different, unvillanous roles, and overhaul his stardom within popular imaginations. I’d suggest Pran’s transition was multifold and offered him the liberty to juggle between cinematic polarities in a single narrative. Reflect on the exploitation of this aspect in Bluff Master (1963) and Brahmachari (Celibate, 1968), where we witness Pran clothed to illuminate three rasas (laughter, love, and anger/terror) that are not only fundamentally disparate but are provoked by distinct notions of performativity; different characters/roles are designated to perform these rasas, but Pran performs all three in toto. This playful juxtaposition — or some might say, manipulation — advantaged Pran and his iconicity as a bankable actor, while restructuring the audiences’ expectations of our star figure.
The sudden influx of more actors donning negative roles in the 70s — like Prem Chopra, Danny Denzongpa, Amjad Khan, and Amrish Puri — affected Pran’s perpetual cinematic presence, in some aspects, but catapulted his legacy to the postmodern screen. At the backdrop of character portrayals, Pran’s evil personas were repeated via the cinematic presence of other actors: for instance, the Pran in Upkar (Favour, 1967) offers some resemblance to the Amrish Puri in Nagina (1986) or the Prem Chopra of Raaste ka Patthar (A Hindrance, 1972) pays homage, albeit indirectly, to the Pran of Madhumati (1958). We may find more examples, but the point of highlighting this is that Hindustani cinema manipulated ideological technology to mediate the desires of audiences: to consume Pran again and again . . . and so, Pran was immortalised both on-and-offscreen by being both present and absent. That being said, these political steps to aggrandise the cinematic value of Pran do not, and cannot, overshadow the public’s respect for Pran, the man/actor/father/citizen, which directly sprung from Pran’s realistic portrayals of peoples and personalities. The hero wins at the expense of the villain’s loss, but can we say that we believed Pran could lose? His onscreen evil personas were larger-than-life and strong enough to have an ever-lasting influence. Thus the denouement of Pran’s character(s) was, at times, unbelievable and only cinematically true. It’s hard to believe a real-life, Pran-like evil could succumb to repentance or imprisonment, or death . . . I’m still in awe of figures like Pran. Hindustani cinema owes its life to giants like Pran Sahab (‘Sahab’ translates into an unofficial honorific term for ‘Sir’) whose contributions cemented its position in the world of cinema. He was awarded India’s third-highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan (2001), and the coveted Dadasaheb Phalke Award (2013), India’s highest national award for cinema artists, owing to the dedication with which he served the entertainment/film industries of India. One of those unforgettable stars, Pran Sahab etched a significant, ineffaceable mark in the pantheons of historical stardom, and continues to do so . . .
This FaceoftheMonth is one such example.