Although I hail from Hyderabad, I belong to a gypsy tribe that migrated from Uttar Pradesh. My great grandfather travelled from Kandahaar to Shahjehanpur. My grandfather and father shifted to Hyderabad. There they joined the Nizam’s forces. I was born on January 27, 1922 in Shahjehanpur. It is a ritual that all pregnant mothers return to their parents to give birth to their first child. So 15 days after I was born, we returned to the Nizam state, now called Hyderabad. I did my matriculation at Nampali High School, and surprisingly I was the only football player who passed. Then I went to college in Warangal where I studied English along with Urdu and Arabic. The Prime Minister Mr. Narasimha Rao was senior to me by two years, and we stayed at the same hostel.
I was very weak in English, but topped in games and drama. I was also very fond of socializing. My English professor Mr. Sebastian, a wonderful man, used to give it to me left and right. Very often, he would tell me that I was wasting my father’s money. He suggested that either I join the military or the movies. That gave me the idea. When it was time for me to join the university, I told my father that I wanted to join films. Though it shocked him, he did not object. You see we came from a very orthodox family and getting into films was looked down upon then .
When I came down to Bombay, I expected all the popular directors like Kedarsaab, Mehboobsaab and Shantaramji to meet me with open arms at VT Station! I had this silly feeling that I was the only person to have thought about joining films. Later I realized how difficult my struggle was, as I had only come down with Rs.113 in my pocket. I would walk from Mohammed Ali Road, where I stayed, to Dadar, just to save one anna. I refused to borrow, as it was considered degrading by my family. When my father learnt about my tough struggle, he suffered a bigger shock. Later, my uncle told me that my father was very ashamed of me.
From ’43 to ’46 I was struggling as a junior artiste at Information Films of India. During the war, they made short films. Sometimes I earned six rupees a day, sometimes three rupees a day. By then, my 113 rupees had evaporated. While working for Information Films, I met Mr. Prafulla Roy and Mr. Khote. They offered me the lead in a few one reelers. I made about six such pictures and all were titled Hamid. Once I started earning a little more, I shifted to Mahim.
There I also met a man named Govindram Sethi. One day, he promised to take me as a hero when he got the opportunity. One fine morning he called out to me, ‘Let’s go.’ I learnt that Vishnu Cinetone had signed him to direct a picture. Previously, they only made religious pictures, but they were planning a stunt picture. That is how I did my first picture Shah-e-Misr. Soon, I bagged Janampatri, Hatimtai, Jeevan Saathi and Aap Beeti.
My next picture was with Rehana. I have all the records of my good old days. (He opens one of the several files to show me.) Vanmala was my heroine in Hatimtai, and she was also the heroine of Sikander. And this (pointing out to a photograph), was from my first picture Shah-e-Misr. It was a costume drama.
I was also paired with Naseem, Saira Banu’s mother. Something had gone wrong somewhere and the production came to a halt. I think the distributors suddenly backed out. Fortunately, K. Amarnath was planning a social with Dilipsaab. One of the distributors felt that I would suit the role. That is how I did Bekasoor with Madhubala opposite me. Amarnath had also advised me to change my name from Hamid Ali Khan to a shorter one. So I came up with Ajit. And from then on, I did not look back. I got my first rave reviews from a Times of India critic called Clara Mendonca. She said, ‘At last we have seen a manly hero!’ Even though I had a good physique and hard looks, I did find it a little difficult to dance around trees. In spite of that, I worked with practically all the top notchers with the exception of Nargis and Nutan.
Geeta Bali was the most cooperative artiste. It was a pleasure to work with her in Baradari. Geeta was a very mischievous person. One day, Shammi Kapoor supposedly came to see me. He talked a little and left. When he had gone Geeta asked me, ‘Did your friend come to see you?’ I replied ‘Han’. She giggled and said, ‘Shammi made a fool of you. He actually came to see me.’ A few months later, they got married. While shooting with her after the marriage, she suddenly started jumping around on the sets. All of a sudden she halted and said, ‘Arre now I’m Mrs. Shammi Kapoor and I should not be doing this’.
One of my favourite heroines was Suraiya. It was wonderful working with her. In ’51 we worked together in a film called Moti Mahal, and I must say it was great fun working together. She had a funny habit of fooling people. I was a very reserved person, basically a loner. When I walked on the sets she looked at me and smiled. Next day I decided to do something. Since I had a sort of cowboy outfit on, I walked upto Suraiya and put my foot on an empty chair next to her. Holding the gun in my hand, I said, ‘Suraiyaji can I make a request to you? I still have a lot to do in this world. I would be obliged if you could help me!’ She burst out laughing and she shook my hand. After that, we became good friends. And ever since she began calling me John Hall. Once in an interview she had referred to me and that really made me feel good. It’s been almost 30 years since I last met her.
Nalini Jaywant and I had formed a sort of pair. We had worked in Nastik which became a tremendous hit. In fact, it was the only hit I had. As a result, we worked in several pictures — Saat Saliyaan which was based on Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Bombay Race Course, Aan Ban and a few others.
Having worked with senior artistes like Dilipsaab, Kamini Kaushal, was always held in high esteem. As a result, she never felt shy to correct someone. We worked together in Bada Bhai. She was a good artiste and a very cooperative one. We did a few other films, I’m sorry I cannot recall the names, though I do remember working with her and a famous director called Raman.
Regarding Meena Kumari I recall what a very popular star, who is a character actor today, once told me. ‘When I have to work with Meena Kumari, I have to be very careful because she always steals the show.’ Meena was a born artiste. You give her any role and she would do it beautifully. We only worked together in Halaku.
I also did a picture called Char Dil Char Rahen with Nimmi. It had the biggest star cast ever! Raj Kapoor, Meena Kumari, myself, Nimmi, Shammi Kapoor, Jairaj ji and some other girl. Mr Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was the director and producer.
Believe it or not, but I have acted with both sisters, Mumtaz and Mallika Randhawa in Do Dushman. Mumtaz and I also did Panic In Baghdad. Originally, it was to be called Arabian Nights, but since Panic in Bangkok, an English movie, was already a hit, Nanubhai Bhatt changed the title to Panic in Baghdad.
In 1951, I worked in a picture called Marine Drive with Bina Rai. This was Mr. G.P. Sippy’s first production which he also directed. Bina and I did one more picture. With Nigar, I did Daman, directed by Nanubhai Bhatt, Mahesh Bhatt’s father. Durgabai played my mother in Bekasoor, and we also came together in Mughal-E-Azam. Veena and I did Anadaata and Sarkar, which was a sword fencing film. Veena was truely a majestic lady. She was beautiful with a tremendous personality. Veena was brought to Bombay from Lahore by Mazhar Khan. When I was a struggler, producers found it difficult to pair me with any heroine because I was too tall. The only one who suited me was Veena and most producers could not afford her. Shashikala played my sister in Sarkar.
Another actress with whom I did seven or eight pictures, was Shakila. We did Guest House and Baraat. You won’t believe it, but if I was shooting for 30 days a month, then at least 20 days I would be shooting with Shakila on some set or the other. This brings to mind a funny incident. One night, I had returned tired from shooting and went to sleep. Suddenly my wife woke me up saying ‘Arre bhai why are you talking so much about Shakila. All the time you have been saying Shakila do this or Shakila do that.’ My poor wife being an up-country girl was shocked. I had to explain that I was dreaming about one scene which we had done together!
I don’t have much to say about the vamps while I was playing villain. Helen did play the vamp in a couple of films and so did Bindu. Helen was also my heroine in Kabuli Khan. Strangely, Salim also acted in the same film. He acted as my younger brother and it’s from there that their relationship developed. With Bindu I did Zanjeer and a few other films. I have done so many film as a villain, but I have never had any particular girl as my vamp. other till five next morning. Talking about Bindu reminds me of my granddaughter who calls her cat ‘Mona darling’.
Basically, I was never close to anybody. I was a loner and felt that , filmmaking was a business. The only person I was really friendly with was Kedar Kapoor. He was the assistant director in my first film Shah-e-Misr. He’s dead now, poor chap. I was also quite close to Dilipsaab. I am indebted to him because he actually saved my life. This happened during the days of Naya Daur.
I had once misbehaved with my first wife. She was a French girl by the name of Gwen D’monte. Because of that incident she walked out on me. We had decided to get divorced, so I was feeling depressed. I felt there was no use living. I wanted to end my life. That time I was living in Juhu, opposite Dilipsaab’s sister’s place. He noticed me getting into the car looking very dejected. He called out to me and asked me what had happened. I explained the incident to him. We sat talking with each other till five next morning. I realized that Dilipsaab had bigger problems at home and he was coping with them. My problem was a small one compared to his and tried to bear with it. For two days after that, Dilipsaab kept observing me. He’s truly a great man for helping me through a very trying period.
My last film as a hero was Panic in Baghdad. This was in 1966. It so happened that Rajendra Kumar was doing a film called Suraj in Madras, at the time. We had worked together in Teerandaz. Rajendra Kumar was director H.S. Rawail’s assistant then. So, Rajendra contacted me and asked if I would like to play the villain in Suraj. I agreed much against a few of my producers’ wishes, as I was also playing the hero in a small film like Dilruba. After that, I did a few character roles in Raja Aur Runk, Jeevan Mrityu and again the villain in Prince. Then came Zanjeer which changed the life of so many people, like Prakash Mehra, Amitabh Bachchan, Salim and myself. Zanjeer was followed by six other silver jubilee hits like Jugnu, Dharma, Yadon Ki Baraat, Kahani Kismat Ki and a couple of others. They all happened in quick succession and I established myself as a villain.
I feIt really funny being bashed up by offer men. I remember Pransaab telling me that he felt bad whenever Bharat Bhushan used to beat him up. You see, it was all part of the game and we were paid for it. Today, I don’t mind being bashed up by a Jackie Shroff because he does have a good physique. Why, there was a time when I had Hema Malini bashing me up in quite a few films. She is one of the most wonderful ladies I have met. My heart bleeds for her. I pray that she has a happy life. We did Paraya Dhan where she kills me, followed by Pratigya, Jugnu, Charas and so on. You know Dharmendra, Hema Malini and I formed a sort of team. I remember doing Andaz with Hema where I played a guest role, a sympathetic role. This was followed by Paraya Dhan where I try to rape her. She asked me ‘How can you be good to me in one film and rape me in another?’ We just laughed about it!
My marriage to Gwen D’monte in 1951, lasted five years. I had married against my father’s wishes. And being a Pathan he threatened to shoot me, the girl and then kill himself. But when he met her, he liked her and gave us the permission to marry. Gwen was an exact replica of Ava Gardener. When Gwen and I divorced, my father told me, ‘Look son you did what you had to do, now you do what I want you to do.’ Actually I was very lucky that we did not have any children or it would have been a messy affair. Mentally, I was a wreck and agreed to do what he wanted. I had committed a mistake. So I married Shahida Ali Khan and she has stood by me through all my ups and downs. I pray that she is my wife even in my next life. She’s the backbone of the family.
I have been a very lucky man to have such a wonderful wife. She stood quietly by my side through my worst days. She and others like Mrs. Raj Kapoor, Mrs. Pran and Mrs. Dharmendra should be awarded for standing by their difficult husbands!
Of the 87 pictures as a hero, only Nastik was a silver jubilee hit. That was in ’54. Naya Daur and Mughal-E-Azam were also hits, but I was not the hero in them. Yes, you could say I flopped as a hero, but as a villain, I was a hit! Totally, I have done around 200-odd-pictures.
Around 1980 I began overworking. I started doing two and three shifts and I was 59! Now I am 70. As a result I had a heart attack — it was the second one. So my doctor checked me and found that a certain portion of the heart had been severely damaged. It also happened with poor Sanjeev Kumar. My cardiologist Dr. Mathur who was also part of Dr. Denton Cooley’s team, called up Dr. Cooley in America, and arranged for me to have an operation there. On June 14, 1981, I got myself operated. When Dr. Cooley saw me a day before the operation, he was shocked and said, ‘Don’t tell me I have to operate on you. You look perfectly alright.’ Then he asked if i ever played my games. I pointed out that I had played almost every game — hockey, football, tennis, cricket, cycle-polo, horse-polo, everything. Dr. Cooley was surprised that in spite of being such a sportsman, I should have had a heart condition. I explained that my heart problem was the result of excessive smoking. I smoked 60 to 70 cigarettes! Anyway, I finally had my bypass surgery. I was not alone —Vyjayanthimala’s husband Dr. Bali was also operated on the same day. Poor chap had three or four bypasses, while I had only two. After coming back I decided to take it easy, so I retired to Hyderabad.
Today after a break of 10 years I have returned to my favorite occupation, films. Actually, Salim Akhtar had been after me to do a film for him, but I put him off. Finally, I realized that I was just wiling away my life not doing much, so I agreed to do his Police Officer. I also felt that the people began missing me very badly. People began using my one liner in ads. Take my ‘Mona Darling’ line which was changed to ‘Lily, don’t be silly’. One day while taking a walk, in Hyderabad, an autorickshaw man asked me ‘Saab ab hum aap ko kabhie nahin dekhenge picturon main? Aap ne kyon chod diya saab?’
That made me feel bad. I had stopped doing films because of health reasons, and also because stars had begun behaving badly with us old timers. They came at 3 or 3.30 p.m. for a 9 am shift, while we just sat idle. I felt humiliated doing this. And finally when the star arrived, he did not even apologize. Amitabh Bachchan, and today’s young stars like Jackie, Aamir, Salman and Sanjay Duff are very professional and punctual. They have really impressed me, especially Sanjay Dutt who is going great guns. Another thing, none of them drink like they did in the past. This is a goal sign for our industry.
I must admit that giving up films was my worst mistake, I hope I can correct it. I really feel people loved me and missed me. I hope I don’t disappoint them. Yes, I’m signing a few films of my choice. I want to die giving my last shot! (As told to Keith D’ Costa in 1991).