Interview Hindi

Exclusive: Nowadays the hero wants to play villain himself, says Prem Chopra

The veteran, who turns a sprightly 82 today (23 September), agrees that the humorous and classy villain is becoming extinct.

Mayur Lookhar

Being an actor in this country comes with a rider: people often confuse your on-screen persona with your real-life personality. While 'heroes' sometimes get away, literally, with murder, villains are thought to be loud and I also fell prey to this misconception. As I stepped out of the lift at the residential tower in which Prem Chopra lives, I saw straight ahead this dark door.

A phantom, crossed crime scene tapes, paper bats and other cryptic decor was pasted all around. Surely this was the den of the legendary Hindi film villain, I thought, and without a second's hesitation rang the doorbell. A maid opened the door, heard that Prem Chopra had invited me for an interview, and pointed behind me. That's when I noticed the quiet door adjacent to the lift. Perceptions can be so embarrassingly wrong.

The nameplate beside the door read ‘P-R-E-M C-H-O-P-R-A’. My mind immediately went back to the iconic introductory line from Bobby (1973) delivered in his patented unctuous manner: ‘Prem naam hai mera... Prem Chopra [My name is Prem. Prem Chopra.]’.

A veteran of over 400 films, Chopra is counted among the best Hindi film villains. From Dev Anand to Dilip Kumar, Manoj Kumar to Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan, Chopra has tormented some of the biggest heroes and heroines from the 1960s well into the new millennium. As a villain, he was suave, conniving, lecherous, but all his characters also had a sense of humour.

The domestic help opens the door and asks me to come in. The great man is wearing a T-shirt and track pants and watching the news while nibbling on his breakfast. I wait for him in another room. Ten minutes later, he walks in.

Before the interview begins, Chopra guides me to the honours placed on a small shelf. He reminds me that he has received international honours from Norway and Ireland, the latter for a dark film called Honour Killing (2014). But Prem Chopra is not one for a vanity trip. Over the next hour, the veteran is a model of humility as he shares his thoughts on his career, recalls some fond memories of the stars he worked with, and cherishes his few turns as a hero. Excerpts from the exclusive conversation:

Sir, you are turning 82, but you still seem to have the charm and energy you possessed in your glory days. After 50 successful years in the film industry, you have received lots of prem [love] from fans and the film family, but I wonder, is there something else, some elixir of life, that keeps you in such high spirits even today?

It is my work which keeps me going on. And participation in social activities. I’ve got the Mother Teresa award [in 2011]. I have travelled to different countries to raise funds for the poor and for the artistes' association as well. I went to a Muslim country to raise funds for the construction of a Hindu temple. Dilip saheb [Dilip Kumar] and myself had done a charity programme, both of us spoke about raising funds for the needy. Such social activities keep me up and running.

If you to were summarize your career and your life journey so far in a few words, what would they be?

I am quite content with whatever happened in the journey of my life, in my professional career, because I started off as a leading man but, unfortunately, those pictures [as the hero] didn’t work and I found success playing a villain. Then I got Upkar (1967), where I played the parallel lead. I had given up my job at The Times of India newspaper. I was stamped as a villain as I was part of many silver/golden jubilee hits.

I read that it was during the shooting of Main Shadi Karne Chala (1962) that someone advised you to switch to negative roles. Who was that person? And what was the first film you did as a villain?

That was one Mr Bakshi. He worked in the production or writing department at Filmistan Studios. Those were the early days of my struggle. I used to visit various studios, to show my reel. Mr Bakshi told me, ‘You want car, name, fame, money, then become a villain.' That struck me. My first film as a villain was Woh Kaun Thi? (1964). That was a suspense thriller and my character was the suspense. They wanted an unknown face and so that is how I got it.

The legendary movie mogul Mehboob Khan was said to be very fond of you and, if I’m correct, he wanted to cast you as hero after he did Son Of India (1962), but he was surprised that you switched to playing a villain. I guess that dream film never came about, but did your decision affect your relationship with Mehboob Khan? 

This was again during my days of struggle. I went to meet him in the hope that it could help me bag a leading role. Khan had given breaks to talents like Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar. He told me you have a chance but don’t do anything wrong.

After winding up my work [at The Times of India office], I used to meet him. I observed that his health was going down. As I received other offers, I quit my job. I played a hero in the Punjabi film Chaudhary Karnail (1960). At the premiere of Woh Kaun Thi?, Mehboob Khan was chief guest. Coincidentally, I was to shoot in his studio the next day as a hero in another Punjabi film. He came to me and said, ‘I told you don’t make a mistake. Now that you have played a villainous role, that’s how it will be.' He wasn’t upset. He merely asked me to go ahead with my life.

Sadly, your mother passed away after your very first film, and I read how your brothers and you told your respective wives that all of you would be happy only if your little sister Anju was happy. Did everything pan out well?

She was very young when our mother died. Our father was busy with his job. So we brothers did tell that to our [respective] wives. Anju is a very noble soul, she is a grandmother now. She, too, adjusted well with the situation.

In those days, the film industry was still not deemed a great profession. Did you ever tell your parents about your desire to become an actor?

I had told my father. He knew I was working in theatre in Shimla. He cautioned me that this [films] is a very insecure profession. So, he asked me to find a job in Mumbai first. He said he can’t support me. That was a good piece of advice. I came here, got a job in The Times of India and that’s how things started.

What was it about Rajesh Khanna and you that you guys squared off against each in over a dozen films?

That was the demand of the distributors. We were close friends. Back then a film used to revolve around the hero, heroine and villain. We were of the same age, too. Most of our films were big hits. There was never a dull moment as we played different characters in most of them. There was Kati Patang (1970), Prem Nagar (1974) and Maqsad (1984). My character was different in each.

You shared a great equation with Manoj Kumar, too, with whom you have done nearly 30 films.

I was there in virtually every film of his and I had the lengthiest roles. The best thing about Manoj Kumar was that he wasn’t interested in projecting himself as an actor in the pivotal role but would give importance to other actors too. For him, it was not the individual but the film that mattered. His style of filmmaking was innovative and original. People are still copying his style. I wish he could have… (pauses) he is active mentally but he has health issues.

If I’m correct, Amitabh Bachchan was the one who beat you up the most on screen. After all, he had a height advantage.

(Laughs.) Yeah, I used to beat him also. In the film Dostana (1980), I tied Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha to a pillar and whipped them with a hunter. After every shot, I would ask them, 'Guys, hope that didn’t hurt’. Amitabh then asked me, 'Why are you asking this after every shot?' I told him, 'Brother, after this shot it is your turn to beat me up.’

And how was the experience of working with Dharmendra?

Dharamji is a damn good fellow. We became good friends. With him, there is no formality. In fact, that’s been the case with all my co-actors. I had done 7-8 films with Dilip Kumar, too. He had a great liking for me. The reason I am in the industry is because of Dilip Kumar.

Coming back to Dharamji, he is a great guy, but a guy with different moods. When he drank, he drank to glory. When he gave it up, he just gave it up. We were in Bangalore together. I was shooting for Ek Aur Ek Gyarah (1981). I wasn’t feeling well but he requested me to join him for a drink. One of his men got the brandy. I asked the guy (enacting the moment with gestures), what is this? He said this is brandy, that’s water. He had literally made a neat peg with very little water. I told him I’ll fall sick if I drink this. He replied, 'But [Dharam] sir drinks like this.'

We have had many such small but memorable moments together. He is fond of Urdu poetry and so am I. We would have a jugalbandi [duet]. I would say, 'Mera naam Prem aawaargi.' He would reply, 'Toh mera naam Dharam deewangi.' 

Personally, which were your most satisfying roles?

Well, after doing 400-odd films, I can’t say distinctively which is my favourite.

But perhaps you can tell us which was the most challenging?

I will say the most challenging role has to be decided by the audience. You may think you are the best performer of the film, but if the audience doesn’t accept it, then it counts for nothing.

I believe you improvized a lot for your villainous characters. Can you talk about that and the process of prepping for a role?

In our days, a picture was never made in isolation. We sat together, discussed it [scripts, characters]. We had a free hand to improvize the characters within the limits of a screenplay. I used to add one-liners which became very popular. Once I like a character, I keep referencing it in my mind with the different characters I have observed in my life or in other pictures. Sometimes you got similar characters. You just grasped them, put in your own efforts, and made them [different]. Preparation is very important.

What is the story behind Prem Chopra playing Prem Chopra in Bobby? Was it your call to name the character after yourself?

No. That was a very funny story. Raj Kapoor was a very good friend of mine. His wife and my wife are sisters. He said I have a small role for you. I said I would love to work with you, but give me a good role. I am playing parallel lead in films by other top directors like Shakti Samanta, Pramod Chakravorty, Yash Chopra. Tomorrow, they, too, will ask me to play short roles and I won’t be able to refuse them. He said I don’t know, just manage.

Who could have refused Raj Kapoor? I met him one evening at a party and asked him to tell something about the character as I needed to prepare. He kept delaying it, saying he had lots on his mind. I then turned up on the sets. He said, 'You are reading about a reward for a missing boy in a newspaper.' As the paper is removed, the same boy and girl [Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia] are standing in front of me. As they leave, I grab her hand and say, 'Prem naam hai mera.... Prem Chopra.' I was already established as a villain, so he didn’t have to explain to the audience what my character could do. They knew that if there is Prem Chopra, there will be a problem.

That character is now synonymous with my name. That was the genius of the director and the writer.

The 1960s and even the 1970s were a period where the villain was usually a classy, sophisticated, slightly lecherous smuggler but a humorous guy. Then, perhaps, in the mid-1980 and the 1990s came the phase where the politician became the popular villain. You had your share of playing the evil politician. Were you comfortable with the transition?

I played a minister in Phool Bane Angaray (1991). We were shooting in Udaipur [in Rajasthan. In the scene] I’m holding a rally with slogans being shouted, 'Jab tak sooraj chand rahega, tab tak Bishambar Prasad rahega'. The director KC Bokadia hailed from Udaipur. So he had invited every citizen. There were many cameras deployed to capture the crowd.

Next day, a group of people came to me and said we are from the Indian National Congress and we want you to stand for election from Udaipur. All you have to do is make an appearance, we will do the rest. They were amazed by my popularity. I politely turned them down. Then I was offered [a ticket] from Delhi, too, but I chose to stay away from it.

It is an actor’s job to adapt. I don’t think it should be difficult if you take your profession seriously.

Well, I am a huge fan of the classy, lecherous, humorous villain. Sadly, we don’t get to see them much in Hindi cinema today.

One reason we did it [humorous villainy] was because we wanted to stay longer. You don’t want monotony to creep in.

What we see today are grey characters, or the villain is a brutal guy from the hinterlands. The humour and class has gone. Your thoughts?

Nowadays, the hero wants to play the villain himself. There is no class in it. The difference between the villains of the earlier era and today is that people didn’t have to explain why he is a villain. Today, if the hero becomes a villain, there is a reason for it, why and how he has become a villain. Was he witness to his parents being killed or something like that? So, there is reasoning, which was absent in our times.

Has any actor today impressed you as a villain?

Shah Rukh Khan did it in Darr (1993), Anjaam (1994). Hrithik Roshan has done it in Dhoom 2 (2006). Then Aamir Khan did a good job in Dhoom 3 (2013). These actors are very hard-working and knowledgeable.

Going back to your early years. We all know the legend of Sukhdev in Shaheed (1965), but you did play the romancing hero in Samaj Ko Badal Daalo (1970) where, if I am correct, you romanced not one but two women. And we saw you dancing in the bushes too. How exciting was that?

That was fun! I wasn’t nervous at all. In fact, I enjoyed it. There is no particular memory, woh song tha, bas kar diya [it was a song and I just performed the dance].

I have heard that Hema Malini loved your dancing.

(Laughs.) She never expected me to dance well. The film was Raja Jani (1972) while the song was 'Kitna Maza Aa Raha Hai'. The girl is wooing the villain to make the hero jealous. But the villain is madly in love with this girl. When she sings, he goes berserk. The director Mohan Sehgal hoped it doesn’t get too loud. Once we shot it, the cameraman just dropped his camera and burst out laughing. He couldn’t bear to see it. Hemaji and everyone had a great laugh over it. You wouldn’t believe it, but this became the repeat value of the film. She was very friendly and there was no problem performing with her.

No family is perfect and all have issues. I read there were property disputes between you and your brothers. Have you been able to make peace after all that?

These things happen in every family. Let bygones be bygones. I have forgotten about it. I am still in touch with my brothers. We come together to celebrate festivals or on sad occasions.

From India’s independence to the wars to the Emergency, the Green Revolution, economic liberalizaton, growth of Indan cinema, you have seen it all. Today, sadly, all we read is about terrorism, corruption, rape. There has been this huge debate over intolerance. How do you view Indian society in the current socio-political environment?

Today every man is out to cut the other’s throat. Nations are waging war against each other. I had written a poem on this.

Yaha aajkal har shaqs har pal haadsa hone se darrta hai
Khilona joh hai mitti ka woh fanaa hone se darrta hai
Hum sab ke dilon ke kisi koney mein yeh masoom bacchey bacchiyan
Hum badon ko dekhkar duniya mein bada hone se darrta hai.

What do you make of this issue of intolerance? How do you view it?

It is provoked by some fundamentalists, but it’s not the voice of the majority. There are fundamentalists who want to be popular. They are doing a lot of harm to society. We should live peacefully and work together for the upliftment of the country. People should call themselves Indians first, not Hindus or Muslims. It is wrong if anyone says I am superior. Religious differences are creating problems.

Age does slow one down, but you are still doing the odd project. What’s Udanchhoo about?

I am playing a swami. I am afraid, though, that after this film I may be put behind bars like a Ram Rahim or Asaram. It is more about black money, how the swami is politically connected. Then I am playing a part in the American film The Field. It has Abhay Deol while Ronit Roy plays my son. The director Rohit Batra came to me and said this is a tribute to The Godfather (1972) and I will be the godfather. After seeing Marlon Brando in The Godfather, I have always wanted to play a role like this.

Are there any regrets?

There are none because there were so many colleagues of mine who were not able to work [physically] or they just didn’t get work, which is still common in the industry. They were not able to adjust to the present times. Stability is very important in this profession. Amitabh Bachchan is doing character roles today. People have become so emancipated that they do not point out [affix a tag] that you are a villain or a hero. In the course of this journey, I have done some emotional roles, as in Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year (2009).

Finally, you had this line in a film: 'Tum toh jaante ho mere irade bade mazboot hai, par mere dil bada kamzor.' Even if the heart is faint, can one achieve everything if one has a strong desire?

If your desire is strong enough, you can certainly overrule the heart.