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Amjad Khan, the man who brought alive Hindi cinema's best-known villain – Anniversary special

Born on this day 70 years ago, Amjad Khan, Sholay's Gabbar Singh, was more than just an actor who excelled at villainy.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Whenever one thinks of the quintessential Hindi film villain, the character of the bandit Gabbar Singh from Ramesh Sippy's classic Sholay (1975) emerges on top. Gabbar Singh was made immortal by Amjad Khan, an actor who was deeply committed to his craft and to serving humanity.

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Amjad Khan was the son of well-known actor Jayant, who featured in several films such as Shirin Farhad (1945), Madhumati (1958) and Haqeeqat (1964). Born on 12 November 1940, he was introduced to acting at a young age, making his debut as a child artiste in Nazneen (1951). He later acted alongside his father in the Raj Kapoor production Ab Dilli Dur Nahin (1957). Amjad Khan also assisted filmmaker K Asif on his ambitious Love And God (1986), which remained incomplete when the filmmaker died suddenly in 1971.

But it was only in the 1970s that the actor Amjad Khan came to the fore. He was seen in Chetan Anand’s Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973), but it was his next film, Sholay, which brought him enduring fame. Interestingly, Gabbar Singh was originally supposed to be played by Danny Denzongpa. But Denzongpa's dates had been allotted to Feroz Khan's Dharmatma (1975), so he was unable to take up the role. 

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In an interview with the website rediff.com, the late actor Viju Khote, who played Kalia in Sholay, recalled that earlier films on dacoits featured them wearing a dhoti with black kurta and a huge black teeka (religious mark on the forehead). But Amjad Khan did some research on real-life dacoits and found that they actually preferred to wear fatigues and would scope out places to loot. So, in the film, while other members of his gang wore dhotis and kurtas, Gabbar Singh only wore military fatigues.

The hysteria that followed Sholay meant instant stardom for the cast. Amjad Khan’s wife Shehla recounted one incident in Filmfare magazine. “It was the Sunday just after it [Sholay] was released," she said. "We had taken Shadaab [their son] to Juhu beach [in Mumbai] when I saw a crowd of people coming towards us. Amjad picked up Shadaab, grabbed my hand and said, ‘Run! Just run!’ We barely managed to get into the car before people started banging on it.”

Amjad Khan performed many more roles in films such as Muqaddar ka Sikander (1978), Mr Natwarlal (1979), Laawaris (1981), Yaarana (1981), Kaalia (1981) and Satte Pe Satta (1982) where he was cast with the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, whom he affectionately called ‘Shorty’!

Amjad Khan played a variety of roles, which prevented him to an extent from being typecast as a villain. He did comedy in films such as Qurbani (1980) and Utsav (1984) with as much ease as he performed villainy. It is testimony to his talent that he won the Filmfare Award for Best Comedian for the film Maa Kasam (1985)! But his most complex role was, perhaps, that of Wajid Ali Shah, the hedonistic last nawab of Oudh in Satyajit Ray’s classic Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977).

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Not only was Khan a committed actor who played each role with ease, he remained a humble, affable person who didn’t mince his words. Khan was elected president of the Cine Artistes Association and advocated an increase in salaries and better working conditions for studio workers. In a no-holds-barred video interview conducted in 1987, he advocated for respecting the privacy of film stars and described the film glossies of the day as “parasites” that live by sucking blood from the industry and whose “own contribution is nil”.

In the interview, he also responded to the trend at the time of actors turning to politics. “Aside from Sunil Dutt, all others [film stars] have become politicians for their convenience,” he remarked bluntly. “My problem is that I cannot lie, so I cannot become a politician. It is very important for a politician to be able to tell lies.”

Speaking of his friendships, he said, “I consider my friends my family. If needed, I can even give my life for my friend.” Though there were several instances of him helping his friends out, the actor refrained from mentioning them as it would be against the spirit of friendship.

He also discussed his weight gain, sharing the series of unfortunate events that spared his life but changed it irrevocably. While recuperating from a major accident, Khan was advised not to undertake any physical strain or exercise. As he was getting better, he broke his leg and became bedridden. Thereafter, he suffered an attack of Bell’s palsy, which paralysed one half of his face. As one misfortune after another befell him, Amjad Khan was forced to give up his love for fitness and ended up becoming obese.

Amjad Khan made his directorial debut with Chor Police (1983), starring Shatrughan Sinha, Parveen Babi and Shakti Kapoor, followed by Ameer Aadmi Ghareeb Aadmi (1985), also starring Sinha. Both films did not click at the box office.

The actor suffered a massive heart attack and died on 27 July 1992. His long-time co-star and friend Amitabh Bachchan fondly recalled the time spent with Amjad Khan to Filmfare magazine. “When I suffered the accident during [the making of] Coolie (1983), he would come and keep me company in the hospital and also later when I was convalescing," he said. "We would laugh and joke on the similarities of our hospital episodes. It’s still impossible to believe that he is not with us. Amjad was one who was universally loved by the industry and by the people of this nation. A great asset was lost that day and a great friend!”

Amjad Khan's name remains seared in the consciousness of Hindi film fans as much for the characters he played on screen as for the deep humanism that permeated his life.