He had a will to kill, and malpractice had made him perfect. When Gabbar Singh’s beady eyes settled on his beaten-up henchmen and boomed `Kitney aadmi the?’ (How many men were they?), a palpable ripple of precognition ran through the audience. When he perversely played a cat-and-mouse game with his stooges, first lulling them with laughter and then turning around and shooting them down like clay pigeons, he launched a thousand screams and became the most famous villain of the Hindi screen.
As Gabbar Singh, Amjad Khan’s dialogue delivery had a whiplash ferocity that fascinated viewers. Yet, at one time Amjad was almost dropped from Sholay because scriptwriter Javed Akhtar found his voice weak! Fortunately, director Ramesh Sippy’s judgement prevailed. Amjad, too, realised that Sholay could make or break his career and put in a concentrated effort. Eschewing the prototype — a dhoti-clad dacoit with a tilak on the forehead — Amjad sported army patrols purchased from Chor Bazaar. He strung a bullet belt over his shoulder instead of strapping it to his waist and even blackened his teeth to vivify the tobacco-chewing Gabbar Singh.
The second son of 50s character actor, Jayant, Amjad was notorious from an early age. He had once broken a fellow student’s head and while training for the NCC, had threatened an officer with a gun. However, close encounters with the works of literary giants like Gibran, Byron and Maupassant mellowed Amjad and steered him towards theatre. Amjad was to be launched as a hero with a home production, Patthar Ke Sanam in 1965, but the film did not proceed beyond its inception. After a few inconsequential roles, Amjad signed Sholay in 1973, the day his son Shadaab was born. Sholay marked the culmination of 10 years of struggle for Amjad.
Amjad parlayed his ,Sholay success into stardom. But he had begun at the top and had nowhere left to go. His roles in films that followed (Muqaddar Ka Sikander, Suhaag, Mr Natwarlal) paled in comparison. Only an occasional film like Inkaar (’77) proved worthwhile. The perverse glee his character displayed, especially while torturing a cockroach with his cigarette butt, was a new low in human debasement.
A major car accident while travelling to the location of Wattan nearly killed Amjad, but with friend Amitabh’s support, and his own iron will, Amjad effected a miraculous recovery. However, his career stagnated despite the title role in Dada (’79) and two successful comic cameos — the wisecracking inspector of Qurbani (’80) and the Haryanvi policeman of Love Story (’81). Also, as a result of his excessive drug intake in the course of the treatment of his broken ribs, Amjad developed a serious weight problem. He could no longer participate in daredevil stunts. Few roles were now offered to him and Amjad deflected to direction. Unfortunately, his two directorial ventures, the slickly mounted Chor Police and Ameer Aadmi Gareeb Aadmi, turned out to be box office turkeys.
In 1993, Amjad succumbed to a severe heart attack. The prematurely born Amjad died prematurely at 49. But he had the satisfaction of knowing that his alter ego, the imperviously cruel Gabbar Singh, had become immortal.