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From villain to loyal friend to loving father: 9 roles that showcased Pran's versatility

Pran began his movie career playing a villain in the Punjabi film Yamla Jat in 1940. Then barring a few films, he continued playing the bad guy until Upkar (1967). On his fifth death anniversary, we look at nine roles that reflected his talent and versatility.

Anita Paikat

Pran Krishan Sikand, or simply Pran, was one of Hindi cinema's best known bad boys.

At the height of his career, Pran often commanded screen space equivalent to that of the film's leading man.

Whether it was opposite the great Dilip Kumar, the stylish Dev Anand, the energetic Shammi Kapoor, the crazy Kishore Kumar, the dapper Shashi Kapoor, the intense Manoj Kumar, the romantic Rajesh Khanna or the volcanic Amitabh Bachchan, Pran always made his presence felt, no matter what role he played.

Interestingly enough, Pran had never wanted to be an actor. The good-looking young man was actually keen on becoming a photographer. A chance meeting with writer Wali Mohammed Wali at a paan shop in Lahore in undivided India landed him a role in the Punjabi film Yamla Jat in 1940. He played the bad guy. And thus a legend was born.

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Pran moved to Bombay after Partition and after a brief struggle bagged a role in Shaheed Latif's Ziddi (1948), which starred the struggling actor Dev Anand and rising star Kamini Kaushal. The film was a hit and, within a week of its release, Pran signed three more films. And, as the cliché goes, there was no looking back.

Pran prepared for each of his roles thoroughly before he set out to shoot for them. In an interview with the website rediff.com, Pinky Bhalla, the actor's daughter, spoke of how he prepared for his roles at home. "If he was doing a new role he would go through books and look up pictures to get the look right," she said. "If he had seen somebody walk in a particular way, he would try to copy that. He would sometimes rehearse his dialogues at home if he got them in advance because in those days there were no bound scripts."

As the years passed, Pran thought it best to shed the villain's mask and began taking up positive roles. On the actor's fifth death anniversary today (he passed away on 12 July 2013), we revisit nine of his best roles.

1. Madhumati (1958)

This tale of reincarnation scripted by Ritwick Ghatak had Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in the lead. But it was Pran's Raja Ugranarain who wielded all the power. Though the film appears to revolve around Devinder (Dilip Kumar) and Madhumati ( Vyjayanthimala), Pran's villainy is as important to the plot, if not more. There would have been no reincarnation without the villain and his heinous crime.

Pran shone as the lecherous rich man in the film. His polished look and strong voice added to the vileness of the character. The film was an instant hit. It also won the National award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and nine Filmfare awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Music Director. 

2. Dil Hi To Hai (1963)

This romantic comedy had Pran playing Yusuf who wants to marry Jamila Banu (Nutan) for her wealth. However, Jamila is in love with the poor poet Chand (Raj Kapoor). Pran was not a menacing, conniving villain here. He played a comical character who is easily influenced by his evil mother and just as easily fooled by Jamila and Chand.

3. Upkar (1967)

Pran had by now spent almost 25 years in the film industry. His on-screen image was that of a bad guy you would not want to mess with. According to the news website Quint.com, "A few journalists conducted a survey in schools and colleges in Bombay, Delhi, Punjab and UP and found out that not a single boy was named Pran [after] his rise." No one wanted a son named Pran.

Manoj Kumar's Upkar came as a turning point. Pran played the 'good old man' Manlang Chacha who guides Manoj Kumar's Bharat.

Why did he opt to change his image? Pran himself answered this question in his biography, titled ...and Pran, written by the film journalist and publicist Bunny Reuben. "Before this film I had been cast as the 'bad man' in film after film. I remember that whenever I was spotted in public, or on the roads, I would be greeted with taunts like  'Arre badmash', 'Hey lafanga'..." Though the actor himself didn't mind these taunts, his wife and daughter were not comfortable.

"One day my daughter Pinky asked me quietly, 'Daddy, why don't you do some decent roles for a change?'" This and his close friendship with Manoj Kumar made Pran accept the role.

4. Guddi (1971)

Though Pran had just a cameo in this film, it is his role that has made Guddi part of this list. Starring Jaya Bachchan (then Bhaduri), Samit and Utpal Dutt, the film narrated the story of a young girl who falls in love with a film star (Dharmendra). Her friend (Samit), who looks forward to marrying her, and her uncle (Dutt), set out to break her misconceptions about films and film heroes. She is taken to film sets where she realizes that the image of the hero is nothing but a farce. All his sacrifices, romance, and heroic fights are fake.

While the image of the hero was broken down, the film also dismantled the image of the villain. The lecherous, power-hungry, selfish actors you see on screen are not so in real life. Pran, still the best-known villain of Hindi cinema at the time, played himself in Guddi. He breezes in with a smile for a shoot, enquires after people's health, generously gives away a branded watch to Dharmendra, completes a fight scene with the hero and walks away with the smile intact. Through Guddi, director Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Pran sent out the message that actors who play villainous characters are not evil in real life, they are just playing a character. 

5. Victoria No 203 (1972)

Victoria No.203 presented Pran and Ashok Kumar in a different avatar as elderly men Rana and Raja, respectively, who regaled audiences with their naughty and comical antics. Their characters were based on Michael Curtiz's Hollywood film We're No Angels (1955). And indeed, Rana and Raja are no angels. They are thieves who, on their release from prison, vow never to do anything that would take them back behind bars. But as soon as they get a whiff of a diamond robbery, they set out to find the loot.

"Dadamoni [Ashok Kumar] and I would sit on the sets and write the dialogues," Pran told Reuben. "His habits were child-like, he would... play lots of mischief and tease everybody, but nobody minded. The film was full of punches and little touches, many of which were not in the original script, but which we made up as we went along."

6. Parichay (1972)

Parichay was Gulzar's remake of Robert Wise's The Sound Of Music (1965) with a few changes. Pran played strict grandfather, Rai saheb, to five extremely naughty children. Though Rai saheb cannot tolerate indiscipline and likes to rule his house like a king would rule his kingdom, he is a soft man at heart, yearning for love and affection. He wants his grandchildren to love and respect him but fails to understand that one must show affection to gain some.

7. Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)

Pran was one of the very few actors who played characters from various religions throughout his career. He has played a Hindu character in many films. He played a Muslim Pathan in Chhalia (1960) and Zanjeer (1973) and a Catholic in several films like Majboor (1974), Andha Kanoon (1983), Rama O Rama (1988), and Hum Hain Bemisaal (1994), among others. Therefore, it was interesting that Pran played the father of Amar, Akbar and Anthony in this Manmohan Desai directorial.

Pran showed all the pain a father goes through when he loses his entire family. In order to avenge the separation, he turns the bad guy and abducts the daughter of the man responsible for his family's downfall. Though a cruel act, his character was saved because he raises the girl as his own.

8. Zanjeer (1973)

Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer was the film that gave Hindi cinema its 'angry young man' aka Amitabh Bachchan. It was also the film that gave us a symbol of loyalty and friendship in the form of Sher Khan, aka Pran. Sher Khan is a bootlegger and a tough, but his attitude of being ready to sacrifice his life for his friend's smile won hearts instantly.

Playing a Pathan, Pran ensured he did everything he could to fit the character. "For Zanjeer, Pran saheb used the same get-up as the one he had used for Chhalia (1960), since in that film too he was playing a Pathan. He didn't change things too much, but he used a reddish-haired wig and a beard for this film," filmmaker Mehra recounted to Pran's biographer Reuben.

However, Pran knew the look alone would not suffice to convince audiences. He also worked on his diction. "Changing one's voice and accent is very important," he recalled. "Merely changing my costume, or wearing a red beard and wig, I wouldn't have been impressive as the Pathan in Zanjeer. So, I changed my voice, too, to sound like a real Pathan. There have been times where I had to do as many as 18 retakes to get the pronunciation of a word just right!"

9. Johny Mera Naam (1970)

In a surprising move, Pran was cast as Dev Anand's brother in Johny Mera Naam. Mohan (Pran) and Sohan (Dev Anand) are proud and loving sons of a police inspector. One day, their father is murdered and Mohan, in a fit of rage, kills the murderer and disappears. While Sohan grows up to be a police detective, Mohan follows the wrong people and works for exactly the same man who had ordered the murder of his father.

Until the second half of the film, Pran plays the ruthless, fearless henchman. His villainous nature is at a fore and you wish the character dies. But the moment he reunites with his family and realizes that he is working for his father's murderer, he makes an about-turn. He is now a member of the 'good men's clan'. His voice and expressions soften and he is no longer dreadful. The change Pran brings about in the character is just amazing.