How to survive Bollywood
After more than five decades in Bollywood, Prem Chopra has a piece of advice for actors who aspire to succeed in the Hindi film industry: “Always remember the people you meet on your way up. You will need them on your way down”.
If you thought it was Shah Rukh Khan who said that, think again. That was Prem Chopra, and he’s lived by it since learning the lesson early.
“When I was a college student in my native Shimla, a hill station in northern India, we were very excited when we heard some actors were in town for a film shoot,” he says. “There was only one hotel there then, Clark’s Hotel. The late star and comedian IS Johar was staying there and we waited outside the hotel for two hours and we kept waiting… finally they came out and waved to us and went away. We were so disappointed.”
Cut to 1970. “I was shooting with star film-maker Manoj Kumar for his film Purab Aur Paschim (East and West). I was staying at the same Clark’s Hotel and the manager came to my room and asked me to come down as a crowd of students were waiting outside the hotel to see me. I remembered the days I had waited like them and went there immediately. I sat down and talked to them about my experience in the film industry. It was a very beautiful, emotional moment for me.”
That attitude has stood him in good stead for 54 years and counting. But Bollywood’s best-loved baddie wears his mantle lightly, as evident when we meet him on his recent visit to Dubai to promote his biography
Prem Naam Hai Mera, Prem Chopra by his eldest daughter Rakita Nanda.
The 78-year-old thinks nothing of asking to pose with my son, who’s just past his teens and knows nothing about the actor’s standing in Bollywood. But by the end of his exclusive interview for Friday, Prem had got another fan!
That, he says, is one of the reasons for his survival. “Keep going, it’s never the end of the world,” he twinkles. “I’ve worked with four generations of actors. I am one of the few actors who’s acted with all the Kapoors so far – from doyen Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor, Raj’s sons, Randhir and Rishi Kapoor, and now their children, Kareena Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor. If I’d said it’s enough, there’s nothing more to learn, I’d have disappeared ages ago.”
It took Prem 11 years of acting before he even considered giving up his day job. though he was always drawn to drama. “I loved dramatics and debates in college,” he says. “It changed me in a big way. I was shy, I had stage fright, but once I went up on stage I was transformed. I was nominated for the best actor award in college, and even won a couple of awards. My friends told me to try my luck in films. That’s how the seed was sown in my mind.”
But there was no encouragement from home. “My father was a government servant, and told me I was choosing a very insecure profession,” says Prem. “He wanted me to apply for civil services exams, but I rejected it outright. I told him I wanted to be in films. I didn’t want to regret later that I didn’t try. He was a very liberal person, so he didn’t stop me, but he wasn’t able to support me financially.”
He first tried his luck in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1956 when he was 21. “I expected to be lapped up by the film industry. Nothing of the sort happened. I went back to Delhi and got a job in a government department looking after the accounts for a year. Not my cup of tea, but I was able to keep my dream alive by acting in amateur plays. After a time I was tempted to try again.”
Prem went back, but this time he took up a regular
job to sustain himself – with the premier publishing house The Times of
India’s circulation department. “Though India’s premier film magazine Filmfare was published by
The Times of India, I dared not go and look for publicity there as I would most certainly have been thrown out of my job immediately,” he chuckles.
He would work during the day and haunt film studios at night, searching for the elusive break. As his responsibilities at his job increased, Prem had to travel. He’d finish his work earlier so he could come back and look for acting jobs. He formed many friendships with struggling actors like himself, which have lasted until today. One was Manoj Goswami, who became matinee idol Manoj Kumar, and later cast Prem in many of his films – playing the villain in hits like Upkar, Purab Aur Paschim, Be-Imaan, Sanyasi and Kranti. But his first offer of acting work came when a producer called him on the way to work and offered him a leading role in a Punjabi film
Chaudhary Karnail Singh.
Initially reluctant because of the limited scope of such films, Prem took it up because he thought it would showcase his talents to Bollywood producers. “It turned out to be a super hit and even won a National award,” he says. “But nobody in the rest of India saw it or even knew I’d acted in it. Though I acted in a couple of Punjabi films after that I just was not earning enough money. Even as a leading man I could not afford to quit my job.”
What he didn’t realise was that the role that would change his life was around the corner – a three-scene part in Woh Kaun Thi (Who’s that girl?) which starred his buddy Manoj Kumar. It materialised as a result of his doing the rounds of producers’ offices – in this case, NN Sippy, a savvy man looking for a new face. It jolted Prem out of his dream of playing a hero.
“The great film-maker Mehboob Khan who’d made
Mother India, had promised to launch me as hero in his next film after Son of India,” says Prem. “He’d summon me to the studios and make me watch him shooting. But he was very sick those days, and I couldn’t afford to wait any longer. As it turned out he didn’t make a film after Son
Woh Kaun Thi got Prem noticed but Mehboob Khan wasn’t pleased and told him that film would typecast him as villain. “I initially regretted doing negative roles, because a lot of producers told me I could have been a leading man after I did Upkar,” he says.
“But later I realised I’d followed the right path, because most of them were just talk.”
In the meantime, his friend Manoj Kumar offered him a role in the patriotic Shaheed. His first major role had him playing real-life revolutionary Sukhdev Thapar, who was executed for protesting against British rule.
It was a positive role and good reviews followed, but very few film offers. One of the few was again from Manoj for his debut production Upkar, which was a huge hit. It showcased Prem as an actor to watch out for.
What all of this taught Prem is that to survive in Bollywood, you had to adapt. “Mehboob Khan was very angry when I did Woh Kaun Thi,” he says. “He sought me out and told me I would now be branded as villain, because the film would be a big hit. Which it was. But when I told him I couldn’t hold on any longer, he blessed me. I have no regrets. I feel my longevity is due to the fact that I went down the ‘wrong’ path.”
Prem quit his day job only when he was halfway through shooting Upkaar in 1967 aged 32. “Only when I felt really secure did I turn my back on conventional wisdom!” he quips. “By that time my office had also come to know.”
He went on to act in more than 400 films – hit after hit such as Teesri
Manzil, Do Raaste, and Hare Rama Hare Krishna to Trishul, Bunty Aur Babli and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. He ruled the roost from the late ‘60s and ‘70s up until the late ‘80s, when a younger lot of villains started taking over. Prem smartly decided to move to playing older character roles, which kept the work coming in.
“I’ve been acting for more than five decades. I’ve acted with many generations of leading men, superstars even, who are not around today,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, this is a commercial business. If the film doesn’t do well, the person most affected is the hero. If three or four films of a leading man flops in a row, he’s out. So I’d have been out long back [if I’d become a leading man]. For actors like me it is easier. We started as character actors so going back to them was not very difficult. I’m still working because of that.”
Insecurity is the bane of Bollywood and Prem Chopra was no exception. However, he learnt to deal with it after receiving some expert advice from the late matinee idol, Dev Anand. “I felt insecure a lot initially, fearing I would not get work if the films did not work well,” says Prem.
“But I always believed in honesty and hard work. Dev Anand told me, ‘In this profession you should mind your own business. Don’t listen to bad things about anybody and don’t talk badly about anybody.’ He was right and I follow that.”
The tragedy king Dilip Kumar was another inspiration. “With Dilip Kumar it was a dream come true, as we idolised him,” says Prem. “Working with him was incredible – he was so
‘I always believed in honesty and hard work. Dev Anand toldme, don’t talk badly about anyone’
supportive and helpful. When I was going over the top in a scene from
Dastaan (Story) he very gently told me ‘Try underplaying’. I did, and it turned out beautifully. I later did
Bairaag with him, which he literally directed himself, though there was a namesake director.
“Even then he was known as one of the greatest actors in India, but the amount of hard work he put in was incredible. It taught me that you may be at the top of your profession, but if you aren’t constantly on the top of your craft, you may as well be dead. I’ve strived to always be on my toes, never be complacent. Concentration is paramount. Honesty, to your craft as well as the profession, comes next.”
Dev Anand was a role model in the way he approached his career – the almost fanatical concentration he displayed in his films. “That, I believe, was the secret of his success,” says Prem. “Raj Kapoor too, in his own way knew his strengths and weakness.
“The so-called trinity – Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand – were all very different kinds of actors but hugely successful because they knew their strengths and weaknesses, and learnt to use them to their advantage.
“They were obsessed with their work. They were not interested in politics, just their own work, and that’s why you still revere them. Tens of thousands have come after them. Where are they?”
Prem Chopra’s survival mantra is ‘Never take anything for granted’. “It’s very easy to get carried away by all the glitz and glamour,” he says. “If you are successful there will be hundreds to fawn over you. Don’t get blinded by all of that. Never forget it’s your work that is being applauded, and you should constantly work at that to be in the limelight. I’ve seen actors like Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar looking more nervous than me on film sets, and it wasn’t because they were scared. It was because they were involved in the role, intent on giving a good shot every time.”
The other reason he’s been able to hold on for so long is that Prem has not affiliated himself to any of the reigning superstars of Bollywood.
“Apart from the fact he’s played character roles all along, the other reason he’s lasted is he’s not part of any camp within the industry,” says daughter Rakita Nanda.
“Like you have the Salman Khan camp or the Shah Rukh Khan camp. Those days too there were camps. His unique point is he’s survived 50 plus years, which is great in any industry, forget just films. The reason is, he didn’t backbite, he didn’t carry gossip from one film set to the other. He did his work, minded his business and went back home. He never indulged in any negativity off camera.”
This may have cost Prem a few films initially, but it paid off in the long run. “I may have lost out on a lot of work due to my neutrality, but that is where talent and hard work counts,” he says. “But I still got work from most camps because I delivered with impartiality.”
Prem’s problem has always been that he’s taken his work too seriously. So much so that people used to believe he was a bad man in real life shout ‘Don’t hit my Pappa!’ We would be inconsolable until we went home and saw he was alright. When I was a little older I asked him ‘Why don’t you do some honest work, like a taxi driver?’”
It’s the same zeal to do a good job that keeps the flame alive for Prem Chopra. He still receives calls from film-makers almost every day, though most of the offers do not materialise.
He finds the current lot of filmmakers much more professional. “When I started out there were no bound scripts; dialogues were written on the sets, and sometimes this led to chaos,” he says. It led to films being made in fits and starts, taking a long time, and sometimes being abandoned. “Now you get a bound script before shooting begins, you know everything well in advance, there are proper rehearsals, and they stick to their schedules – films are completed on time and you move on. I like this method!”
Prem Chopra has acted in a few American films too. But he remains realistic, saying that none of them have created any waves.
“Honour Killing, with some British, Pakistani and Indian actors, was shot in London,” he says. “Heartland was another. The
Threat has been released in some countries, but not in India!”
Now, Prem finds himself spending more time at home than on set. And at home his reputation does not work. “I was bullied by the four women at home – my three daughters and wife, Uma, to whom I’ve been married for 45 years!” he laughs.
But at 78, he’s still raring to go. “I am ready to do any good role,” he says. “I plan to keep acting until the very end.”
‘It is very easy to get carried away by all the glitz and glamour. Don’t get blinded by all of that’
too. “There were instances when I was out with my family and people started shouting, ‘Run, Prem Chopra’s here’!” he smiles. This put a lot of pressure on his three daughters – Rakita, Punita and Prerna – when they were growing up.
Rakita says, “We used to be worried that he would be beaten up for doing bad things on screen. As kids we used to sob and cry watching his films, especially when the hero of the film would hit him. We would
Prem Naam Hai Mera, Prem Chopra, Dh50, is available at Jashanmal book stores.
Prem has acted in more than 400 films
Amitabh Bachchan attended Prem’s book launch in Mumbai
Friday’s Shiva meets the Bollywood ‘villain’
Prem has been married to Uma for 45 years