The legendary screen villain worked in the circulation department of The Times of India even as he chased a career in films.
Exclusive: Prem Chopra remembers his days as a newspaperman
Mumbai - 23 Sep 2016 9:50 IST
Updated : 9:53 IST
"Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra." This self-introduction from the film Bobby (1973) evoked both fear and recognition for Prem Chopra, arguably one of the most famous villains of Hindi cinema.
Chopra has worked in over 300 films and spent more than five decades in the entertainment industry largely playing a lecherous villain, but one with a sense of humour.
However, like most artistes, Chopra had to go through a period of struggle. What is fascinating about this struggle is that the actor was once part of the country's oldest surviving English newspaper – The Times of India.
A few days before Chopra turned 81 on 23 September, Cinestaan.com spoke briefly to the legend who shared vivid memories of the time he spent with the Old Lady of Bori Bunder.
“I had no family or friends to support me in Mumbai," recalled Chopra. "So I needed a job. I was in the circulation department and my job required me to travel. Despite working in Punjabi films, I couldn’t leave the job. There was hardly any money in Punjabi films then. It was a long time ago, but I believe the job paid about Rs1,000-plus. It was a good amount in those days. I stayed in different guesthouses in Colaba. Besides, I got first-class train fare. Travelling expenses to other cities was reimbursed separately."
Speaking about his experience of working with the newspaper, Chopra said, “The job took me away from Bombay for more than 15 days in a month as I travelled to Calcutta and other places. It was a good experience. I got a chance to meet people, build contacts. It helped me in my professional career later on. I worked [with the paper for] about 4-5 years.”
Even as Chopra kept the job, he simultaneously but discreetly kept looking for a break in Hindi cinema. "I went from studio to studio looking for a break in Hindi films," the veteran actor said. "But I couldn’t tell my bosses at the TOI about my secret ambition or else they would have fired me. Later on, they were supportive of my celluloid dreams. I continued working for about 4-5 years. I continued to work in TOI even after doing Hindi films likes Shaheed (1965), Teesri Manzil (1966), and Latt Saheb (1967). I finally quit the job when I did Upkar (1967).”
While his acting career was blooming, Chopra began to cut down on his business trips to other cities by winding up his circulation work quickly and dedicating the remaining days to visiting film studios.
“The Times of India didn’t have much competition in those days," he said. "As opposed to meeting the agents at their office, I used to call them to the station. The train used to halt at these stations for about 30 minutes. I used to prepare my report on the train itself. I would tell them to increase the sales by 20%. Within half an hour, I would take their signatures and send the report back to The Times of India. I used to wind up earlier, in about 4-5 days, come back to Mumbai and dedicate 4-5 days for my personal ambition." Chopra's bosses back in Mumbai remained unaware of this.
Chopra got his break in films in an unusual fashion. He was travelling by a suburban local when he bumped into an anonymous gentleman who asked him if he would be interested in doing films. “I can’t recollect his name now, but I met this guy on the train. He asked me whether I was interested in films, and asked me to come with him to a studio," Chopra said.
During the journey, the gentleman revealed to Chopra that the film would be in Punjabi. Though he was not keen on Punjabi films, "I thought by taking it up I would at least get a foothold in films. I was introduced to one Mr. Kumar, who was from Pakistan. He had made Chaudhari Jarnail Singh in Pakistan. The Indian version was titled Chaudhari Karnail Singh. Jagjit Sethi was the producer. They wanted a boy with a Muslim face. The moment the director saw me, he said 'I want this boy'. I was cast alongside Jabeen, who was a top actress in Punjabi films those days,” Chopra recalled about his debut.
The Punjabi film did open doors to the Hindi film industry, but the transition to villainy is a story in itself.
“I had shown my Punjabi films to Tolaram Jalan [who owned Filmistan studio]. I met one Mr Bakshi there. He told me, ‘You want money, a house, a car? I said, why not? He said then you should become a villain, don’t try for a hero. You have a villainous personality, Pran is getting old, and you will find his place. Fortunately, I got some films where I played the villain and they became hits. I was soon labelled the next super villain.”
Clearly, there are many more fascinating stories to be told, but the octogenarian requested that he be excused. Maybe we will be able to bring you some more gems from Prem Chopra some other time. For now, here’s wishing the great villain a happy 81st birthday and many more ahead.