Article Hindi

Remembering Amjad Khan's unusual roles on his 25th death anniversary

The actor is most known for his abhorrent yet immortal role of Gabbar Singh. However, he is one of those fine actors who didn't limit themselves to roles they were appreciated for or even in demand of.

Anita Paikat

Since its inception, Hindi cinema has celebrated its heros and heroines, even when the latter roles were played by men. Interestingly, the audiences have, over a century of cinema in India, also held its villains in high regard.

Characters playing wicked, treacherous and lecherous roles never died down, instead they added layers to the rich fabric of the industry. More often than not, there would be no story without the villain — no Mr. India without a Mogambo, no Shaan without a Shakaal, and no Agneepath without a Kancha Cheena.

The demand for actors playing villains never dwindled, therefore, most of the successful ones had enough work to fulfil their needs and passion. Only a few got the chance to diversify. Prominent among them are Pran and Amjad Khan.

While Pran also played a loyal and loving employee, father and grandfather in quite a number of films (Amar Akbar Anthony, Parichay, Adhikaar), Amjad Khan was seen doing the 'good samaritan' role in many films (Chameli Ki Shaadi, Qurbani, Yaarana) in the later years of his career. However, Khan came far ahead from the other villains in his experimentation with roles.

On his 25th death anniversary today (27 July), we celebrate some of his most unexpected ones.

1) The soft, poetic King in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

In Satyajit Ray's only Hindi film, Amjad Khan played the King of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. It is 1856 and the British colonisers have plans to dethrone the King on the pretext of maladministration. The Britishers claim the King is busy writing and listening to poetry, instead of running his kingdom. He is given two choices, either to dethrone himself and accept the compensation or to face the British army.

Their accusations are not wrong though, contrary to Khan's villanous image of abhorrent yet immortalized Gabbar Singh, Wajid Ali Shah is emotionally soft as a feather. His only passion in life is appreciating art, and he does just that. His mannerisms, the perfect Urdu diction, and his clean sober face, makes the audience forgive his inefficiency as a King, and instead sympathises with an aesthete ruler about to lose his crown.

Wajid Ali Shah finds himself stuck in a dichotomy, whether to go up in arms against the British or agree to dethrone himself and accept the compensation. Who would have thought the uncouth Gabbar Singh could also recite poetry in chaste Urdu, with an elegance that is trancing.

2) The creepy yet comic lover in Pet Pap Aur Pyar (1984)

Directed by Durai, Pet Pap Aur Pyar is a romance-tragedy that addresses all the words in its title — pet (stomach), pap (sin), and pyar (love). Janaki (Smita Patil) comes from a family of eight; six siblings and her parents. Almost all the family members who are able to walk and talk are working, only that they refuse to contribute their earnings at home. Janaki, with the help of her friend, takes up a job of picking papers from the streets.

The story is loosely based on the epic Ramayana, suggested by the plot and the names of a few characters. The protagonist is Janaki, one of the names of Sita, and her father is called Janak, also the name of Sita's father in Ramayana. The plot has Janaki impregnated and abandoned by a pious man who believes in helping fellow beings.

The tragic events in the film are punctuated with comic scenes by Mahmood and Amjad Khan. Even though he didn't have many dialogues, Khan brings the much needed comic relief. He plays the owner of a cycle repair shop who has fallen head over heels for Janaki. The shop is right opposite Janaki's house and Khan tries to make advances each time he sees her. His tactic, however, is as filmi as it can get. He plays romantic songs on an old PA system.

The more amusing aspect of these acts are his expressions while the songs are playing. Khan toys with his eyes and eyebrows, making him an unfriendly, yet adorable character.

3) The scientific sex researcher in Utsav (1984)    

Amjad Khan as Sutradhar in Utsav

Girish Karnad's Utsav is an adaptation of a 10-act Sanskrit drama attributed to Sudraka, an ancient playwright. The period film courted controversies for its bold scenes and characters.

The film narrates the story of courtesan Vasanthsena's relationship with a Brahmin married man, Charudatta. As if this was not enough, the subplots too were bold enough to raise eyebrows. Utsav presented Amjad Khan in a dual role, Sutradhar (narrator) and Vatsyayan — interesting to note that both roles were rarely seen in Hindi cinema.

As the Sutradhar, Khan introduces the theme of the story at the very beginning of the film, speaking in Sanskrit. He adds wit and satire, in equal amounts, to a fairly slow paced film and makes most of his experience as a theatre actor, successfully hosting a play on the big screen.

Vatsyayan is the man who penned Kamasutra, the ancient Indian text on human sexual behaviour. He spends his day at a brothel, in the quest of making a comprehensive report on the sexual positions undertaken by prostitutes with their clients. Khan's comfort at playing Vatsyayan and speaking about sexual positions and their benefits, is commendable. He is an objective researcher and makes clear that his study is nothing but science.

In one of the scenes, Vatsyayan, along with his assistant, witnesses and discovers a new sexual position, the 30th one! One would think the detailed narration of a sexual position would be offensive or vulgar. But, Khan proves his mettle here with his comic timing and dialogue delivery making the scene one of the best in the film.  

4) The forlorn landlord in Rudaali (1993)

Amjad Khan in Rudaali

Rudaali, directed by Kalpana Lajmi, is an adaptation of Mahasweta Devi's short story with the same name. The film narrates the plight of Shanichari (Dimple Kapadia) who takes up the job of Rudaali. Rudaalis were professional mourners in the state of Rajasthan hired to cry at the death of a rich man. The more dramatic they made it, the more they were rewarded.

In the film, Amjad Khan plays the role of a rich landlord, Avtar Singh. The landlord has lived an extravagant life, ruining the lives of young women in his course. However, old age and soon approaching death make him see the mirror and he is now paranoid with the thought that not a single person will genuinely mourn him after his death.

As disturbing as this thought might be, it turns out to be a fact. People all around him are indeed waiting for his demise. His sons want his property and the rudaalis are looking forward to the earnings they can make for crying over his corpse.

Khan fits the role not only for his acting skills but also for his physique at the time. His weight and roaring voice reflect both the grandeur of a landlord and the repercussions of a wasted life. He brings out a character which neither deserves to be sympathized with nor condenmed.