K.N. Singh – Memories
I’ve been in the industry for 54 years now, over half a century. Those good old days are over, my friends have all gone. I sit here at home with nothing to do, except wait for God to take me away. Sometimes, I recall those glorious days, when filmmaking was an art not a business. You’re talking to a blind man. I’m blind in one eye and almost blind in the other. For the last 36 years, I’ve worked with only my left eye. But in the last one year, my eyesight has deteriorated. I cannot see you without these special glasses.
I was born on September 1, 1909, in Dehra Dun. At that time, my father was a noted advocate. I studied at La Martinere’s in Lucknow and completed my Senior Cambridge with Latin. After that, I was expected to join the Bar Association, like my father. At first, I was admitted to the Bar but I quit after an unfortunate incident. There was a terrible murder in a guest house in Dehra Dun. A woman had been murdered and buried there and the lady’s dog discovered the body. It was quite obvious who had committed the murder and everyone knew about it. In spite of that, the man got away scot free due to insufficient evidence.
So I touched my father’s feet, said sorry and opted out. I hated the idea of defending someone who was guilty. As a result, he lost interest and devoted all his attention to my younger brothers and sister, who all joined the legal profession. In order to survive, I started doing business, opening several concerns like Military Supplies Syndicate, Indio Alliance Corporation, Snow White Laundaries and Calico Printing Works. Ultimately, I opened a school in Rourkee, in 1932. But I had to return to Lucknow in 1934, because my father fell ill.
Later, my father packed me off to Calcutta. He wanted me to stay with my sister and help her while her husband worked. There, I met Mr. Prithviraj Kapoor and thanks to him I managed to get into films. His cousin, Nityanand Khanna, was a good friends of mine. We were together at the Royal Military College in 1927. So when I left Dehra Dun, he wrote to Prithviraj to look after me. One day, Prithviraj phoned me and introduced me to D.K. Bose. In those days, D.K. Bose was like Frank Capra or Cecile B. DeMille. He had made films like Rajrani Meera, Life is a Stage, Seeta and Vidyapati. They were great pictures.
Early 1936, saw me as an assistant to D.K. Bose. But in September 1936, he put me in front of the camera for the first time, in Sunhera Sansar. I played a brief role of a doctor. Then came my first picture as a hero in Hawaii Daku. My heroine was Rampyari and Mazhar Khan was the villain. Hawaii Daku also happened to be my last film as a hero. The New Theatre people signed me as a villain for my third picture, Anath Ashram. I played a bad man who kidnaps a boy. Prithviraj Kapoor and Pahari Sanyal were in the lead, with an Anglo-Indian girl named Dorothy Brown, as the heroine.
Next came Vidyapati, with Prithviraj Kapoor in the lead. Mr. A.R. Kardar liked my performance and signed me for Milap in 1937. Once again I played the bad man to Prithviraj Kapoor and the girl was Bimla Kumari. I had quite a few scenes with Prithviraj. The courtroom scene was a great one. Mr. Kardar liked my performance so immensely that he invited me to accompany him to Bombay. I landed in Bombay in 1938, with a contract in my pocket. My first film in Bombay was Baagbaan in which I played a villain to hero Nandrekar with Bimla Kumari in the female lead. Once Baagbaan celebrated its golden jubilee run, I got branded as a villain. This was 52 years ago.
Those were glorious days when the trams were in operation. I would catch a tram from Matunga up to Bombay Central and across Belasis Bridge to Tardeo. I would then get down and walk to Filmcity Studios at Tardeo, next to the Parsi Agiary. At the rear, was Sirajali Hakim’s Laboratory. He was also responsible for developing Famous Studios at Mahalaxmi. Today, nobody shoots there. Previously, it was completely air-conditioned, till Mr. Rungta sold the air-conditioning unit for eight lakhs of rupees. What Sirajali did for the industry, his followers have undone. Money, money, money… was the reason.
Money did not count at all in our time. What counted, was your respect, dignity and circle of friends. Today nothing counts except money. It doesn’t bother anyone how you get it, even if you have to murder for it. This is the kind of atmosphere that prevails in the industry today. I cannot imagine how the stars do five to six shifts a day. At the most, I did two shifts and that probably happened only for five or six days in a year. The only reason for the chaos today is money.
Even the pictures that are being made today, have quite absurd scenes. For instance, you have no idea why one man is hitting another, or why 20 people are fighting one man and he finally beats them all up. Besides, you see the hero jumping from a tall building and flying through the air! Yeh kya hain sala, kidhar hota hain, yeh? At my age, if I hit someone, he won’t get up for three days. It looks like they’re hitting a cotton bag. It is absolutely idiotic. When such roles come my way, I very bluntly refuse them. Since 1965, the new breed of directors have come with one aim — to entertain for money. Today, filmmaking is more of a commercial set-up. Nobody says with love, ‘I’m directing this film’, or ‘I’m acting in this film’. All today’s stars will say is, ‘I’m doing five shifts a day and they’re not paying me enough’.
Actors and actresses were so particular about keeping time, as was the case with Madhubala, Nutan, Nargis and Geeta Bali. Geeta Bali wouldn’t waste a single minute. She would even rehearse her lines in the make-up room. That sort of dedication is missing today. The same applies to the heroes. Recently, I worked with a hero, whose name I won’t mention. We were ready for the shot. I spoke my dialogue and all the hero did was stare at me, surprised. He asked if I had memorized my lines at home and I told him that I was paid to do so. After that, he cancelled the entire shooting schedule, as he had not even read his lines. Till today, he has never met me again.
Today, I feel ashamed to call anybody over to my home, because there’s a vast difference between the film people of then and now. Most actors, actresses, directors and even art directors were educated. They knew how to talk and how to treat people. If they ever dropped at my place, they’d find a reason to do so. There was never any cheap talk or cheap behavior. Most people came from decent families. Take P.N. Arora for example, he went to England for his training as a sound engineer. Robin Chatterjee went to America for his training. It’s not as if they went to Kalyan for their training. Most of us were graduates, some even with a L.L.B degree. Manmohan Krishna was a professor.
K.L. Saigal was a man with a heart of gold. One evening, when we were returning from a party, he saw an old man shivering in the cold. He stopped the car, took off his coat and covered the old man. A little later, I asked him if he had checked his coat pockets. He said, “Not much Kishen, I only had 40 rupees’. He did not bother about breaking up his good suit. Another good-hearted person was Prithviraj Kapoor. Every day, some 50 to 60 beggars would line up outside his place and he’d give either one or two rupees to each. Then, he would touch his father’s feet and leave for his office at Opera House. Did Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor ever think of doing that?
Our work was so normal, that we even did our own stunts. Take Nargis for instance. In Angarey (1954), she had to climb Wilson Dam, all 150 feet of it, while I stood atop. Of course we did put a rope ladder, but if she slipped, it would’ve been the end of her. It required guts to do that. In Anath Ashram, I kidnapped a young boy and ran off. I waved frantically at an oncoming car but the driver failed to see me and I dashed against the speeding vehicle. I wasn’t hurt badly, but like others, I did it. We were paid for it. I fell off a horse in Prithvi Vallabh, when I had to carry off Kajanbai. I explained to Sohrab Modi that the horse wasn’t the riding kind. But since nothing could be done about it, I rode it. As expected, it reared and I fell off. I was hospitalized for one month and the shooting was cancelled. In my last shot in Howrah Bridge, I had to jump into the Hooghly River and die. Since it was a long shot, a dummy was used. Otherwise, I would’ve done it. Directors never used doubles and lookalikes for stunts except for very risky shots.
There was a scene in Awaara where Raj Kapoor kills me. According to the script, we’re fighting and the knife is supposed to hit the beam above. And while fighting, the knife was supposed to fall down. In that action, Raj was to grab the knife and kill me. It so happened that Bhagwan Dada dropped in on the sets. Since he was a stunt king we asked him to suggest how to take the shot. He made a suggestion. Raj being an open-minded boy listened to him and carried it out. If it happened today, the director would’ve asked him to leave the set. It’s very sad what has happened to Bhagwan Dada. He was once a big star and even owned a studio.
You might find this amusing, but I must tell you what my remuneration was when I first started. (Laughs.) When I worked with D.K. Bose as his assistant, I earned Rs. 80 a month. When he took me to the East India Film Company, I earned Rs.150. And I earned an extra Rs. 300 when Bose put me in front of the camera for three days, in Sunhera Sansar. In Hawaii Daku, where I played the hero, I got Rs. 600 a month for three months! (Laughs.) With Vidyapati and Anath Ashram, I earned Rs.125 per film, per month, amounting to Rs. 250 a month. After I came to Bombay with Mr. A.R. Kardar for Baagbaan and its subsequent golden jubilee run I was signed by Ezra Mir for Sitara. For just two months’ work, I was paid Rs. 3000. I felt like a bloody rich man.
Though I felt rich, I did not buy a car then. I bought my first car, a Ford V-8, in 1951. It was a 32.5 horsepower car. The whole of Bombay knew it was my car because it was an unusual turquoise blue. In 1964, I bought an Ambassador. Two years later in 1966, I sold the Ford. At present, I don’t have any car as I’m retired with nowhere to go.
‘II tell you something which you’ll find amusing. This area where I live today (ever since 1938), was once called the mini Hollywood of Bombay. That’s because Prithviraj Kapoor, K.L. Saigal, Madan Puri, Manmohan Krishna, Jagdish Sethi, Jayant, Sitara Devi, P.N. Arora, Anil Biswas, Brijrani, Dwarka Khosla, L.N. Verma, Dhronacharya, P.N. Khanna, Manna Dey, Bismal, Phani Mazumdar, Robin Chatterjee, Dilip Das Gupta, Jairaj and myself, all lived here, within a span of 20 buildings. I’ve forgotten many names. Some have shifted and some have died. Now it’s completely wiped out. Anyway, since we were all staying close to each, other, we would gather in the evenings at one person’s place. Once, everyone came over to my place and K.L. Saigal sat in the middle singing. The student-residents of the V.J.T.I. Hostel opposite my place, gathered in the pouring rain to listen to him. Besides, on holidays we would get together with our wives and children, and go off on picnics. We used to enjoy ourselves. Can you imagine anyone doing that today?
Having worked so many pictures and at my age, I find it difficult to recall most of them. With Guru Dutt as director, I’ve done Baazi, Milap, C.I.D. and Baaz. I’ll let you into a little secret. Though C.I.D. was supposed to be directed by Guru Dutt it was actually directed by his assistant, Raj Khosla. Dev Anand was the hero in the first three pictures. Baazi was Guru’s first picture as a director, while Baaz was his first picture as an actor. Guru brought Waheeda Rehman from Hyderabad for C.I.D. Can you believe that he started his career as a dance master with Prabhat Movietone? Ram Singh and Dev Anand met him in Poona and brought him to Bombay. Guru Dutt directed his first picture Baazi for Navketan Films and the story was written by Balraj Sahani. Thanks to Baazi, Navketan Films managed to stand on its feet and is still there. And since Guide, I don’t think DeVs ever made a good picture.
The success of Ek Raat helped W.Z. Ahmed open Shalimar Pictures, along with a studio, in Poona. Ishaara was another picture I did with Prithviraj, along with Swarnalata and Suraiya. Prithviraj played my son, though he was three years older than me. So in order to do the role I asked his permission because I had to use several crude words! I couldn’t do that to someone I respected and to a person who loved me.
Raj Kapoor was a terrific director, but I found Sohrab Mody perfect in his takings. He was a very strict director. He would never allow anybody to smoke in his studio, Minerva Movietone, nor on the sets. If I had to smoke, I would have to leave the studio. I was a heavy smoker and I left after every shot and rehearsal. Sohrab pointed out that I spent 10 minutes going out and returning. Fortunately, he relaxed the rules for me. Another director I can remember was a German called Paul Zels. He was a freelance director who directed Hindustan Hamara with Dev Anand and Flight 417 with Ashok Kumar. I enjoyed working with most directors but others like Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla and J.K. Nanda also had a distinct quality in their pictures.
P.N. Arora was a friend of mine with whom I did a picture. I can’t recall the name but I played Rehman’s father. He was a hero then. I often visited Arora at his office opposite Dadar railway station. It was quite sad how he stripped Helen of everything she had. Fortunately, she had a shop at Oberoi Towers from where she earned a rent. Helen was foolishly in love with him. I’m happy it’s over and that she’s happy now.
I seem to have forgotten a very important incident that happened while I was shooting for Vidyapati. I got married! (Laughs). I left for seem Dehra Dun to get married. If you see the film, there’s a scene when I enter Prithviraj’s darbar. Before entering the darbar I’m not married. But the next scene inside, I’m a married man! (Laughs). I got married on July 13th, 1937. It was a rushed marriage because the sets were still standing. As a result, I don’t have any photographs of my marriage. The marriage took place in Hardwar. I did not even have a honeymoon since I rushed back for shooting.
Most of the people I have worked with, have become producers, directors and studio owners. This did not tempt me to become a producer. Because there’s barely a single producer who does not tell a lie, or who does not bend down to his hero or heroine’s whims and fancies. ‘Kal aana chahiye, nahin to bada nuksaan ho jayega, badi kripa hogi. Please!’ I can never beg. I could do that for a friend with love but not for self-gain. I cannot lose my self-esteem. We were taught not to beg. ‘Starve and die but don’t beg’.
Among the stars of today, I’ve worked with Dharmendra (in Loafer, Hukumat), Amitabh Bachchan (in Kaalia, Ajooba — which is due for release), Jeetendra (in Himmat, Jigri Dost) and Rajesh Khanna (in Haathi Mere Saathi). Though I have never worked with the heroines, I’ve liked Rekha and Hema Malini. Hema was introduced as a dream girl and she truly was one. Among the directors, I’ve appreciated only Mahesh Bhatt. After Saaransh I expected a lot from him but today he’s silent. I know Mahesh has it in him because I’ve worked with his father Nanubhai Bhatt. I’ve worked in films for 54 years. Unless there’s a good role and unless I find that the director knows what he wants, only then will I do a film. Even age will not hinder me. The actor in me is not yet dead. The actor in me will only die when I die (As told to Keith D’Costa in 1991).