PREM CHO­PRA

How to sur­vive Bol­ly­wood

Friday - - Front Page -

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

of In­dia.”

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

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