When Amjad Khan got tough with his fellow collegians

Long before he played Gabbar Singh, the late actor roughed up some Thai students at a Mumbai college who allegedly assaulted his South African friends.

Mayur Lookhar

Seldom does an actor's on-screen persona reflect his real self. That is why the art is called 'acting'. But there are times when certain traits help an actor portray a character.

The late Amjad Khan terrorised audiences with his portrayal of Gabbar Singh in the 1975 blockbuster Sholay. Having begun as a child artiste, Khan got his first plum role when he was picked to play the dreaded dacoit in Ramesh Sippy's magnum opus.

It is known that Khan had to struggle to land the role. Danny Denzongpa was writer Javed Akhtar’s first choice. But Denzongpa was busy shooting for Feroz Khan's Dharmatma (1975) and so the role went to Khan.

Akhtar wasn't convinced that Khan’s voice would suit the character, but Khan persuaded director Sippy that he was perfect for the role. This feisty attitude was imbibed in Khan from his college days. An alumnus of Bandra's RD National College, who was Khan's junior, shared an interesting anecdote from those days.

Abrar Hussain (name changed on request) said Amjad Khan was an Arts student at National college. “This must have been in the early 1970s," Hussain said. "Khan wasn’t great at studies, but he had quite a presence. He roamed around in his Jeep, which was a luxury for most of us."

Those days, Hussain remembers, there was stiff competition among the Hindi-speaking students and the Urdu speakers. The Hindi speakers performed classical songs and plays, while the Urdu speakers recited poetry, sang ghazals, and enacted plays. And Amjad Khan was the only one who could take all the cultural groups under his wing. "He had a towering personality and won many laurels for our college.”

Khan's good showing at cultural events did not mean he had no other skills. He became general secretary, the highest elected student representative.

“Khan was the leader of his group. This included his brother Imtiaz. Educational exchanges were common in those days too. So we had students from Thailand, Palestine and South Africa studying in our college. The Thai girls had become fond of the South African boys. This didn’t go down well with the Thai boys. One day they beat up a couple of the South Africans.”

Now, the South Africans were mostly of Indian descent and had developed bonds of friendship with the Indian students. "When he heard of the action of the Thai boys, Amjad was very angry," recalled Hussain. "He decided to teach them a lesson."

Most of the international students stayed as paying guests in the bungalows that dotted Bandra those days. (There were few multi-storey buildings then.) "Amjad Khan and a few of his group jumped the fence at some of the bungalows and roughed up the Thai boys. I was stationed outside, to alert the boys if the police came by,” said Hussain.

Khan went on to become one of the greats of Indian cinema. In 1987, he met with a serious accident on the Bombay-Goa highway, leaving him with broken ribs and a punctured lung. The subsequent medication resulted in him gaining a lot of weight, leading to other complications. He passed away on 27 July 1992 of a massive heart attack.

“Amjad was no goon," said Hussain. "He was liked and admired by all. The skirmishes with the Thai boys were part and parcel of college life. Besides, these never got too ugly. We lost touch with Amjad after he joined films. His early death came as shock to all of us.”

Maybe the gods chose him to discipline errant souls in heaven?