My grandfather died when my father was just three years old and his mother had died at child‑birth. So my father was virtually an orphan and an unhappy child. My grandfather was the Governor of Gilgit, in Pakistan. My father had his early education in Lahore, and came to Bombay at the age of 18. He always wanted to be an actor as films fascinated him, He had one sister and 23 brothers, he being the 24th child. Since my grandfather was the Governor, he was considered royalty. So a son of his family joining films would not have been accepted since films were considered taboo.
So my father ran away at 18 and came to Bombay with Rs. 26 in his pocket. He would often tell me about this. He eventually found a job in the studios of Mohan Sinha, Vidya Sinha’s grandfather. My father and Mr. Dwarka Divecha (who later became one of the greatest cameraman in the industry), became reflector boys. They had to stick silver paper on the reflectors!
As luck would have it, Mr. Mohan Sinha was screen testing new comers for a film. Now my father and Dwarka Divecha were in the compound drying the reflectors after pasting the paper. Mr. Sinha saw my father and said, ‘You young man, come here. Are you interested in joining films’? He replied, ‘Yes sir, I want to be an actor’. Mr. Sinha, ‘What are you doing here’? Father, ‘I have a job in your studio. I handle the reflectors’. Mr. Sinha, ‘Can you recite something’? Dad knew a couplet from Heer Ranjha which he recited and as luck would have it, he was selected for Fashionable India. His career took off from there.
He was one of the lead players. Gradually, after working with Mr. Mohan Sinha, he moved to Prabhat Pictures, then worked with Mr. Vijay Bhatt (Pravin Bhatt’s father) and Mr. Hari Shivdasani, Babita’s father. My father was on a salary till he started free-lancing. He did all sorts of roles and eventually worked for nearly 50 years. He wanted to be a character actor. He’d say, ‘With my face I could never be a hero’. He was very happy. It was not important to him whether he was the comedian or the leading man. It was just the joy of being in the film industry.
In the earlier days when there were no double shifts, his timings were from 9.30 to 6.30. And he’d be at the studio with make-up, on the dot of time. As soon as he entered, he’d touch the floor in reverence in whatever get-up or wig. And he’d sit on the sets not moving till lunch was called. We were given strict instructions, my mother too, that unless it was an emergency not to call the studio.’ If you or the children want to talk to me, call at lunch time’. He considered films a very serious, dedicated and sacred business.
A master at the school of style, he carved a niche for himself. He did memorable roles in Kanoon and other films. He should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for playing the role of Narad Muni in more than 60 films. No actor in the history of cinema has played one character so many times. I should be approaching them to put his name in the book.
B.R. Chopra was a family friend, as was Dwarka Divecha, a friend till he died. Divecha uncle died earlier than my father. In those days, everybody was like family, including Dilip Kumar whom my father had worked with. People had a sense of value for relationships. Competition only existed to some extent and in the studios.
Though in boarding school I would accompany my dad to his shootings whenever I came down to Bombay. But only if he was shooting with Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari, because they were my favourite stars! Now, I am working in a film directed by Yusuf saab and it feels like such a nostalgic trip.
My dad taught me two things. One, if you are seated and two persons walk in, you should always offer your chair first to your director and second to the cameraman. Because these are the two people who are your friends on the floor. I have seen my father offer his chair to younger directors during his time. And two, no matter whether the hero is five-feet two-inches or six-feet-eight-inches, it is always the villain’s job to make him look like superman. The villain has to convince the audience that the hero is capable of taking on so many goons and vanquishing them.
There was a lean phase in his career, but it was not too hard on him. Luckily, he always went on and on. And nobody could actually fill his slot till my father was acting. Today, Mr. Prem Chopra and others, are doing what my father did 40 years ago, with all due respect to them. I’m speaking of playing the comic villain. In fact, even I have started doing this and people want me to do the kind of roles that my father used to. But my father was so good at it that whatever I do would fall short. I could never match him. My performance, mode of work and approach is different. I am dedicated, but not as dedicated as my dad was.
As a family man, my father was the greatest dad anybody can have. He married my mom, also from Lahore and her name is Kiran. Hence Jeevan Kiran is the name of our house. It is not named after me as people usually think. Not many people in the industry have even seen my mother. She hardly went out, as it was always her husband and children for her. And for my father, it was also basically his work and family. He was a very understanding man. When I was going through a lean phase in my career, I could see the suffering in his eyes. It is the greatest regret of my life that today, when I am so successful, I have achieved so much, my father is not alive to see it.
Going on shikar was something father was very fond of. Even I was, but now I’ve stopped killing animals. I remember this incident when we had gone to Khandwa, and my father had this novice of a hunter with him. Dad never fired at female animals. But this novice shikari was an idiot who shot a female deer in the herd. When her stomach was cut open, there was a little foetus. From then onwards, my father gave up hunting. I remember that man being pulled up so badly that my father nearly shot him in anger. There are so many incidents I remember him by. There was a little Irani restaurant near Paradise Cinema in Mahim where we used to get lovely mawa cakes. Father and I would get on our cycles and cycle all the way there to have them. Those days were wonderful.
Since I was always rebelling he called me the rebel prince. Today, my son is doing to me what I used to do to my dad! But in the latter half of his life he learnt to respect me a lot. He knew that I would never give up in life and that I had a lot of fight in me. He had become a little weak because of his drinking. My father was not an alcoholic but he loved his drinks. Gradually that gave him some liver problems. He used to crave for a drink despite the doctors telling him to abstain.
For a while I stopped keeping drinks in my house. But he would insist, ‘You have a drink, it will make me feel nice. Have a glass of beer’. We shared that kind of relationship. I would smoke and drink in front of my dad. I would even discuss my woman problems with him. He’d tell me one thing, ‘You have your fun, you are young and healthy. But be careful. Once you get married, don’t let any other woman come into this house. Whatever you do, no woman should enter the sacred sanctity of this house’. That is one piece of advice I will always follow.
Among his memorable films were Mela, Tarana and Ghar Ki Izzat. My favorites are, Mela and Kanoon. There was a courtroom scene in the latter which was excellent. Dad wanted me to be an actor. So I did my course, since he insisted that I be a trained actor.
Grief of any kind would send dad into a flap. He was a very soft person. I remember when I went to Madras for some shooting, I had a stomach problem and had to be operated. I had told mom not to inform him. But when she finally did, he nearly fainted. He just sat on the floor and started weeping. Even if I had a fever it would upset him terribly.
He was the same with his friends. He had this close director friend and when this gentleman died, dad went into depression for months on end. He would just cry and remain morose. He could not bear grief. Instead, he had the capacity to take pain for himself. But if anything happened to his friends, it would really upset him.
Weaknesses? He was very fond of gambling. He was easily swayed and could be influenced by people. You could cheat him of all his money and he’d never ask for it back. All he’d say is, ‘Forget it, that guy is in trouble’. I remember so many such people coming to him to say, ‘Saab, paise nahin hain’.
And he also did a lot of charity. Like for instance in the Babaji ka darga where they feed people. Dad used to contribute towards this. Many children have been educated by him and now I follow this practice. I think education is the greatest thing you can give someone.
Every second or third month he would go to London. He loved travelling and would spend all his holidays in London. He loved to cook for himself and buy strawberries. My father was very fond of good food and liked to live well. I have these same traits.
He was a good person, a perfect actor, a very good father and a perfect husband to mom. Very close to my wife and son, dad doted on him. Actually, I call him super dad. He died at 72, having lived a full life with a glorious and successful career. That’s why, he died a contented man, with a smile on his lips. He was working till the very last, until just three months before he died. Financially, he was well secured too.
From childhood, I recall that the smell of paint, pancake and studio dust, are all related to my dad. I remember going with him to his, shootings. Since I was also in boarding school, my holidays were great fun. Every Friday, we would go to New Talkies which is the only theatre in Bandra that showed English films. It was such a regular feature, that every Friday, five seats were reserved for us in the A row, for the last show. Sundays were another ritual. Dad would get hold of a Chinese menu, asking us what we would like to eat. Then he would call the restaurant, place our orders and reserve a table. It was fun.
Dad never forced us to do anything. He always asked us what we would like to do. When I returned from boarding school, I was like a wild kid. He once saw me smoking a cigarette. So in front of the family, he very casually asked me, ‘Which brand do you smoke’? When I told him, he brought out a 555 from inside and said, ‘Why don’t you try this’? Then he advised me, ‘Always smoke the best, drink the best and eat the best. And if you don’t have it then earn it’.
Really, he was the best dad anyone could ever ask for. Once, while I was in school, I was caught with a girl. The authorities told me that after the holidays, there was no need for me to come back. When my dad asked me about this, I told him that I was holding a girl’s hand and chaffing with her. When school re-opened, he came back with me and told the Principal off. He said, ‘It is a very normal thing for a boy to hold hands with a girl. If you had caught him with a boy, then I would have agreed. But what is wrong with holding hands? It is a very normal action’. He also told the Principal that if he insisted on throwing me out, he would go to the Board of Directors. But that was not necessary. That day, I was so proud of my father I felt 10 feet tall!
Yes, he was fond of drinking, but never exceeded his one-and-a-half glasses. He could never finish the second glass. For years, he would have just one meal a day. We were four children and he showered us with love. Probably because he was orphaned as a child, he showered all the love that he missed, on us. For years, all of us would eat from the same thali. It was a large silver one. He never ate more than one-and-a-half chapattis and a little rice. But he loved variety in his food.
Some fixed habits persisted. He would listen to B.B.C. in the evenings and at the same time, watch Chhaya Geet. He also had to listen to B.B.C. at six in the morning. Then he would make tea for all of us and wake us up. My mom loves Kashmiri chai and he would specially prepare it for her.
He worked with a lot of big banners and after every film, he would bring home some of the suits he’d worn. Then, if a poor producer came along with a small budget film, he would use these suits for his film. For Kanoon, he used a suit that he had worn 10 years earlier. All his life, he maintained the constant weight of 160 pounds.
A very mild person, he never broke the law. When he went to London for the first time, all of us gave him long shopping lists. At customs when he returned, he opened his suitcase and put each item on the table. ‘This is a watch for my son, this Walkman is for my daughter… Just tell me whatever duty you have on this and I am ready to pay it’. The customs officer was so shocked that he put all the things back in the suitcase, closed it and cleared my dad through without taking any payment.
Father was very happy when I too joined films. My first film, first shot, for the first time, was with my dad. It was fantastic working with him, he was so encouraging. I have worked with him
in two films, Surakshaa and Laparvah.
My father and Kiran shared a very special bond. Dad was rather weak for the last three months of his life. On June 7, he went into a coma and the doctors said he would live only for a few hours. We kept calling out to him, but there was no response. But the minute Kiran walked in and called his name, his eyelids fluttered, he opened his eyes and smiled at Kiran. It was amazing, since he was in a coma. Kiran has this excellent sense of ESP. He was with dad for 20 minutes and when he came out, he said that dad would die on June 10, between three and five in the evening. On that day, at one minute past three, he died. We were all shattered. But I never felt as though he had gone away. Today, after five years, I still feel his soul is watching over us. I still feel he is guiding us. Now that we are so successful, one soul up there is very happy – (As told to Jyoti Shastri in 1992).