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KN Singh: The man who spooked Nargis, forced Rajesh Khanna to be punctual

The legendary film villain was picked for the 1936 Berlin Olympics but missed out owing to personal reasons. Cinestaan.com spoke to his son who shared some great anecdotes about his father on KN Singh's 116th birth anniversary.

Mayur Lookhar

Tall, well built and a natural athlete in every sense of the term, Krishan Niranjan Singh, better known as KN Singh, was one of the most feared figures in Hindi cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. In his heyday in the 1950s, he worked with everyone from Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar to Dev Anand, and Ashok Kumar to Sunil Dutt.

KN Singh is best remembered for his villainy in films like Baghban (1938), Awara (1951) and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958). Dressed in his trademark suit, boots and hat, and smoking a pipe, Singh was the classy villain of Hindi cinema.

Today marks the 116th birth anniversary of the late actor. Cinestaan.com spoke to his son Vibhushan Paul Singh, who lives in Canada. Singh shared some wonderful anecdotes about his father. Excerpts:

KN Singh was among the few Indians to have witnessed nearly 40 years of the Raj, the birth of Indian cinema, India's Independence and the new millennium. I'm sure there must have been times when he spoke of the many eras that he had witnessed. Can you share some of those memories?

His penchant for good clothes, dressing well, shoes being properly polished and love for jazz music, all of this was inherited from the British Raj. To add to it, he was a six-footer, and athletic. So he always stood apart from most Indians. When he told my barrister grandfather about his desire to act in films, my grandfather did not approve as he felt acting was nothing but nautanki. So, at 18, my father was asked to leave the house.

Dad admired Jawaharlal Nehru a lot. Being a Rajput, he always adored the freedom fighters and sportsmen. He was blinded in the later years of his life, so he couldn’t see films then. But he was never too fond of films in the 1980s and later. Age had also taken its toll then, I had got him a big TV, but in the last years he was blinded. So, he would watch a movie through its soundtrack.

Do you remember any unique qualities of his?

Dad never went to hospital in his life. He was a great believer in homoeopathy, house chuskas. He loved his whisky dearly. Another thing about him was that he used to carry his whisky, ice and soda wherever he went. He used to have a boy deliver his Scotch home. However, when his career went down, and the Scotch began pinching him, he didn’t hesitate to switch to cottage XXX rum. Even when he turned blind, he used to make his daily peg himself.

I remember once I'd changed his landline phone, the old rotary dial, and replaced it with a push-button phone. He told me to call MTNL [Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, the government-run telephone company that ran a monopoly service those days] guy and get the old telephone back. He was so used to dialling through the rotary dial and never dialled a wrong number.

We all know what a great actor he was, but I was pleasantly surprised to read about his interest in the javelin throw and shot put. Can you share some details about his sporting career?

There was a huge divide those days between the upper and lower classes. Dad never went to a formal school. In those days, it was the teacher who came home. or the student used to go to the teacher's home. The only time he was allowed to go out was for sports. Dad excelled in sports, especially the shot put and javelin throw. He never lifted weights, yet he was a natural athlete. He adored sportspersons.

He was selected to represent India when we were still under British rule. It must have been a proud moment for him. How disappointed was he on missing out on the Olympics owing to his sister's illness? Did he give up sports after becoming a successful actor?

She got badly sick and he was very disappointed to miss out on the Olympics. My father was a lonely person and he never opened up much on this part of his life. It did hurt him, but he never spoke much about this loss. Once his film career took off, there was simply no time to indulge in sports. At times, he was doing two shifts a day.

KN Singh was very close to the Kapoor family. Did he ever talk about his equation with Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj Kapoor? Can you recall any interesting anecdotes?

Dad was closer to Prithviraj Kapoor. After all, both of them started their careers at around the same time. He did a few films with Raj [Kapoor] but he was never too friendly with him. Raj Kapoor was one of those actors who loved to be surrounded by yes-men. But my dad wasn’t one. He was more fond of Shashi Kapoor, who enjoyed a certain leeway with him. Shashi, in fact, performed his last rites [in 2000]. I had left for London and the next day I saw the news that he had passed away. It was a very tough period for me.

Did he talk about his favourite film roles or co-stars?

He loved Tanuja. He did a popular film Do Chor (1972) with her. One actress who really feared him was Nargis. They had worked together in Barsaat (1949). In one of the scenes, Dad forcibly picks up Nargis from the river and brings her to his house. He was so menacing in that scene that Nargis was petrified of him. She was even scared to go to the washroom at night as she feared that Dad might surface there.

Did he ever talk about any roles that he would have loved to play?

Yes, Dad always wanted to be a sportsman, but never got to do such a role. I remember his first leading role in a film called Hawai Daku (1936), he played a pilot in that.

Pilot? Then why was it called Hawai Daku?

(Laughs.) That could be because he looked more a daku (bandit) than a hero.

I've read how KN Singh was very particular about punctuality. Do you think the likes of Govinda and other actors of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn't have prospered had they had a KN Singh in their film?

Yes, they never would have progressed. My father was a great believer in punctuality. I remember one incident. Rajesh Khanna was not known for his punctuality. He did a film with dad, Haathi Mere Saathi (1971). Everyone in the industry both respected and feared my father for his punctuality. Everyone on the sets warned Khanna how my father hates people coming late. The writer Chinnappa Devar had clicked a picture of my father and kept showing it to Khanna to ensure that he comes on time. And Khanna didn’t err.