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KN Singh’s 10 best villainous roles

The 'gentleman villain’ made his mark with lasting roles in films like Awara (1951), Howrah Bridge (1958) and An Evening In Paris (1967). On his 17th death anniversary (31 January), we look at some of his best work.

Sonal Pandya

Turning down a career in law and a chance to represent India at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Krishan Niranjan (KN) Singh arrived in Calcutta to become a hero. His first appearance was in a small role as a doctor in DK Bose’s Sunhera Sansara (Bengali, 1936). He played the hero in Hawaii Daku (Hindi, 1936) opposite Rampyari and co-starring Mazhar Khan. But his roles thereafter featured the distinguished actor in increasingly negative shades. Singh continued to glower and intimidate heroes and heroines for nearly five decades and laced his characters with just the right amount of menace so much so that cineastes remember him even today.

1. Baghban (1938)

KN Singh came to Bombay after a successful stint in Calcutta and his first film in Bombay, Baghban, directed by AR Kardar, went on to celebrate a golden jubilee in 1938. He played Ranjit, the so-called nobleman who steps up to marry the warden’s daughter who has been widowed as a child. Ranjit’s intentions aren't as noble as he has ditched his girlfriend to woo the young Durga (Bimala Kumari). Filmindia’s review of the film said "KN Singh easily gave the best performance of the whole lot. He would make a good character actor if well-nursed by some producer (sic).” From then on, Singh became the go-to villain of Hindi cinema.

2. Dharti Ke Lal (1946)

In KA Abbas’s directorial debut, KN Singh played a cruel, profit-seeking grain dealer who raises prices during the 1943 Bengal famine. Always dressed immaculately, Singh’s character refuses to see the dying populace in the streets. In a small but important role, he made a powerful impact representing the upper classes concerned only with their own needs. Reportedly, the actor Yakub, who played comic and villain with ease at the time, said, “You are not merely Singh but a king. I will not play the villain anymore.” He left the evildoing to Singh.

3. Awara (1951)

In Raj Kapoor’s Awara, KN Singh is Jagga Daku, a man hell-bent on revenge. As the son of a criminal, Jagga is given little leeway and accused of a crime by the all-powerful judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor). In retaliation, Jagga makes sure the judge's son Raj (Raj Kapoor) turns to a life of crime. Singh had got a break in films owing to Prithviraj Kapoor, a family friend, and he got the opportunity to act with the thespian in Raj’s Awara in a prominent role. Awara was screened at the 1953 Cannes festival and remains a favourite of film fans in countries like Russia, Israel and China.

4. Baazi (1951)

For Navketan’s Baazi, Dev Anand’s good friend Guru Dutt was given the opportunity to direct his first film. Dev Anand played Madan, a small-time gambler who is hired to work at the Star Club. Madan has to take care of his sick sister. Dr Rajani (Kalpana Kartik), who is in love with Madan, treats his sister at her free clinic. Rajani’s father, played by KN Singh, disapproves and wants Rajani to marry her childhood friend. However, there is more to Singh’s character than meets the eye and he seems more than willing to remove Madan from the picture, including framing him for a murder he hasn't committed. Dev Anand and Singh worked together in other films like CID (1956) and Funtoosh (1956) but are best remembered for this early noir thriller.

5. Howrah Bridge (1958)

In Shakti Samanta’s Howrah Bridge, KN Singh shared the screen with another legendary villain, Madan Puri. Puri played John Chang, a smuggler, while Singh played Pyarelal, Chang’s main man who deals with Madan (Chaman Puri) who has a family heirloom, a jewelled mask, coveted by Chang. Madan’s brother Prem (Ashok Kumar) comes to town to retrieve it and gets entangled in the shadowy world of Calcutta and its opium trade.

6. Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958)

Directed by Satyen Bose, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi was the story of three brothers who run a garage together. The film starred real-life brothers Ashok, Anoop and Kishore Kumar playing Brijmohan, Jagmohan and Manmohan, respectively. Oldest brother Brijmohan hates women after having been ditched in love and when Manmohan gets entangled with the pretty Renu (Madhubala), their lives are turned inside out. KN Singh played Raja Hardayal Singh, a malevolent man who wants his younger brother to marry Renu to inherit her wealth. Raja has tried this scheme before and locks his own wife away. It’s up to the band of brothers to stop the marriage before it happens.

7. Detective (1958)

Working again with Shakti Samanta, KN Singh was Gonsalves, head of operations at Hotel Marino in Calcutta. Gonsalves oversees a smuggling ring from Singapore to Calcutta and finds a lookalike to step in as Mr Lall, a prominent businessman in the city. With his own man in place, Gonsalves tries his best to evade the police. Co-starring Pradeep Kumar, Mala Sinha and Daisy Irani, the film was a race between good and bad, as Raja (Pradeep Kumar) and Ma Shin (Mala Sinha) try to avenge her father Inspector Loon Pe's killing and stop Gonsalves.

8. Woh Kaun Thi? (1964)

KN Singh played the blackguard in so many films that when he appeared automatically all suspicion fell on him. Such was the case with Raj Khosla’s Woh Kaun Thi? starring Sadhana and Manoj Kumar. Singh (as Dr Singh) and Parveen Chaudhary (as his daughter, Dr Lata) played colleagues of Manoj Kumar’s Dr Anand. When Anand’s fiancée is killed in mysterious circumstances, they are the immediate suspects. But also looming in the background is Anand’s distant cousin Ramesh (Prem Chopra) who stands to inherit a lot of money if Anand’s mental health is discredited. Enter the mysterious Sandhya who appears to be in two places at once and is seemingly trying to kill him.

9. An Evening In Paris (1967)

After acting with Madan Puri in Howrah Bridge (1958), KN Singh acted with another classic villain, Pran, in An Evening In Paris starring Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore. He played Jack, a nightclub owner, whom Shekhar (Pran) owes money. Rich heiress Deepa (Tagore) has fallen for Shekhar and he and Jack try and use the nightclub dancer, Suzy, to take her place and get the money. Singh and Pran also acted together in Majboor (1974), Dostana (1980) and Kaalia (1981).

10. Haathi Mere Saathi (1971)

In the 1970s and 1980s, KN Singh was not seen on screen as much as in the early part of his career, but when he did appear, it was often memorable. Written by Salim-Javed, Haathi Mere Saathi featured Rajesh Khanna as Raju, whose four elephants have been by his side since he was a kid. When Raju marries the wealthier Tanu (Tanuja), she grows jealous of his close relationship with the elephants. Singh played Kumar, a rival and owner of a carnival who tries his best to possess Raju’s elephants. In the end, he is ready to resort to violence to make sure his ends are met.

Also see: KN Singh, the man who spooked Nargis, forced Rajesh Khanna to be punctual