He never needed any special costumes or makeup. Just his trademark lascivious sneer and a voice that could switch from silken menace to wheedling entreaty was all it needed to establish him as villain in the viewer’s mind. But when Prem Chopra embarked on his film career, it was with the intention of becoming a hero! A director’s illness, a small role in a film that went to be a hit and the need to establish himself ruled otherwise.
He has worked with (and got pounded up by) by every Bollywood superstar – Manoj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra, Rajinikanth, Rishi Kapoor while casting lecherous eyes on Hema Malini, Nutan, Asha Parekh, Saira Bano, Sharmila Tagore, Dimple Kapadia, Rekha… to mention a few.
And then shifting to roles more positive – and in line with his advanced years, he worked a newer generation – or many cases second or even third generation of his former co-stars – including Bobby Deol, Abhishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Kajol, both Karisma and Kareena Kapoor, Preity Zinta, Twinkle Khanna and Sonam Kapoor – a record unlikely to be surpassed!
But establishing himself in Bollywood was not easy.
As he recalls in this biography by his daughter Rakita Nanda, his wish to try his luck in films – when he was waiting his graduation results in 1955 – failed to impress his parents and his initial foray to Bombay the same year was unsuccessful.
It was not till 1960 that he was emboldened to return to Bombay and films – but on the advice of his father, searched first for a job to sustain himself, eventually landing up as supervisor in Times of India’s circulation department.
His first appearance as hero was in “Chaudhary Karnail Singh” (1960) – a Punjabi film – and though some small roles came his way, a break was still far off. Legendary director Mehboob Khan offered him an important role in his next film but the project was delayed due to his illness.
Meanwhile, Chopra accepted a small but villainous role in Manoj Kumar starrer “Woh Kaun Thi” (1964) and its success sealed his fate.
After the film’s premiere, an angry Mehboob Khan chided him for his impatience, prophesying he would now be labelled a villain. Chopra met Filmistan studio chief Tolaram Jalan but his right-hand man Bakshi advised him that if he wanted to be a popular actor, to make money, to have a house and a car, he should forget being a hero and continue as a villain.
Thus was born one of the abiding screen presences of Bollywood – an actor who invented and re-invented himself as villain, interpreting each role with subtle nuances.
The real-life Chopra is a far cry from his reel-life persona. All his colleagues testify to his warm and considerate nature, his humour and above all, his professionalism. Also his poetic skills that led Dharmendra to dub him “Prem Awaargi”.
This is well brought out in the biography, based by Nanda on a series of interviews with her father and reminiscences of various on-screen colleagues – old and new. She writes she chose the first person device as the “best way to put his story across would be as if he was narrating it in his own way”.
A mix of chronological and thematic approaches, it gives a nuanced portrait of Chopra – both at work and at home – the latter including the tough task of explaining to his young daughters why he is evil onscreen and gets beaten up or even killed.
It includes his insightful views on portrayal of villainy and his experiences of rape – the simulated, onscreen version he became notorious for. But simply as a view of Bollywood over the years, the book makes for a most absorbing and enthralling read.