“Dont ever run away from things. You have to face facts,” Debaki Bose once told me, the man to whom I was introduced by Prithviraj Kapoor, who gave me my first break.
Subsequently, I’ve tried not to run away from situations in that ornery, delightfully cussed thing called life. Physically, of course, I never had to. I always had shamefully good health. Whenever our films needed a hefty villain to be knocked down by an onrushing locomotive, to hurtle down six floors after a fracas amidst water tanks on the terrace or to stand between handsome young heroes (nice boys smelling faintly of shaving lotions and caramel biscuits) and their screen love, receiving blows on a square jaw, the word has gone forth for good old K. N. Singh. Physical courage is all right, but I was thinking of that much-neglected thing— the human mind.
Debaki Bose held me by my hand and spoke to me when I was trying to run away from a screening of the rushes of East India Film Company’s “Sunhera Sansar,” my first film. I played a doctor in it, appearing in three or four scenes. Every actor knows that doing a long stretch of walking in front of the cameras is the worst possible ordeal for a newcomer. The camera is a harsh, relentless observer—a one-eyed monster all eyes for the smallest gaucherie. And why only an actor? Off-camera, how many men can walk manfully, unself-consciously, in the full gaze of a roomful of watchful people? The doctor in “Sunhera Sansar” had to walk across from one room into another. I must have done it well, for everyone was jubilant (“so much like a doctor,” they gushed) and I really don’t know why I tried to run away when the rushes were screened.
I came to films (a profession where we revel in breaking rules and regulations) from an unlikely source: a law-minded family. At about the time I should myself have been boning up on Salmond, Dicey, or the Indian Penal Code, I found myself in Calcutta (U.P. is the family home), leading the life of a young man of leisure. Plain thinking. High living. Beer and small talk in the evenings at the club. In my circle came some film men. Eventually I got to know Prithviraj Kapoor. One evening years later, when on a casual occasion, I thanked Prithvi for starting me on my career, he quietly walked up to the electric switch on the wall, turned off the light and turned it on again. “You see, there is a bulb here and current. I merely brought them together. And so with you.” It was very generous of Prithvi to put it that simply but all the same I owe my career to him.
At the East India Film Company’s studio, I knocked around the laboratory, settings, script and directorial departments for a while before playing the doctor in “Sunhera Sansar.” Gul Hamid was the hero in the film—a Pathan who had more manners than a U.P.-ite to the manner born—and Menaka, Ram Pyari and Mazhar Khan were in the cast. There was a wonderful team spirit in films then and I began to love the career that lay ahead of me.
Photo Caption – “Baghban” directed by A.R. Kardar, is the film Singh rates highest. He played a villain in it “but the violence was not physical but subtly mental.” To this role and film, Singh ascribes his “continuance” in films.
In Calcutta, I did five films. In “Hawai Daku,” my second film, I played, for the first and last time in my life, the hero—a pilot. After “Milap”—in which I did a brief role as a prosecuting attorney against Prithviraj Kapoor on the defense, a role which I suppose was interesting because of my family’s legal background—A. R. Kardar brought me to Bombay, cast me in “Baghban,” directed by him for Mr. Y. A. Fazalbhoy’s General Films. It is this role and film to which I owe my continuance in films. It was a villain’s role but the violence in it was not physical but subtly mental. I was cast as an evil-minded engineer who woos the heroine. I didn’t have to flex my muscles but had to do a lot of intellectual gymnastics. There was a scene in which the “bad girl” of the film (played by Yasmin) throws a dagger at me, a real one. The blade grazes me and sticks quiveringly on a bit of wood behind, making a scratch. Sneeringly, I tell her, “See, even my blood is white.”
“Villain” K. N. Singh was shown as crashing into a locomotive in New Theatres’ “Anath Ashram” and dying (the first time he died on screen). A violent end may be just the thing for a screen villain but worth pondering is the fact that all great crooks while they live never get into any sort of a scuffle. It is beneath them, they prefer to scheme.
The second time I died on the screen was in Hindustan Cinetone’s “Apni Nagaria” (titled “Mud” in English), directed by Dada Gunjal. I remember this film because it was the first anti-capitalistic film ever, based on a script by S. H. Manto—a fiery leftist writer.
In “Ek Raat,” the first production of Shalimar Pictures and the first directorial venture of W. Z. Ahmed, I played a bad man always smiling, with never a frown on my face. Prithviraj was the hero of the film.
I am younger than Prithvi by 3 years, but in a subsequent film, “Ishara,” produced by D. R. D. Wadia and directed by J. K. Nanda, I had to play Prithvi’s father, and not quite an affectionate father at that. I had, of course, always regarded Prithvi as my mentor and so this role called for a tremendous mental change. The film, incidentally, marked the screen debut of two well-known heroines, Suraiya and Swarnlata.
They call me “uncle” on the sets—it started when a young leading man who had befriended me (he later died in an accident) committed some misdemeanor. I pulled him up and he apologized saying, “Uncle, I won’t ever do it again”—and Uncle has seen the day when many bright young things made their entry into films. In “Jwar Bhata,” Dilip Kumar and Mridula made their bow. I played a police officer in the film. (Generally, I am the criminal!) Every role has its physical as well as mental characteristics. A man’s profession leaves its stamp on him physically, too. For, example, a police officer has a distinct walk, a certain external presence. I used to visit courts and watch the stars there in action— these include police officers—and it has been a great help to me in playing any type of role connected’ with the law.
I used to play in mythologicals too—a celestial Commander in Chief in “Vidyapati” and Duryodhan twice, in Baburao Patel’s “Draupadi” and Baburao Pendharkar’s “Maharathi Karn.” I was in M. Nazir’s (he was the first actor to turn producer) “Laila Majnu.” I played Laila’s father (Swarnlata was Laila). I had to hit Nazir, playing Majnu. I said we had better skip that. He insisted on being slapped, I obliged and put him out of work for two days.
Director Was Boss
Talking of assault, I am reminded of the director being the absolute boss on the sets in those days; today it is often the director who is the most directed person on the sets. Debaki Bose habitually carried a menacing cane with him and Amiya Chakrabarty once slapped Devika Rani.
Photo Caption – K.N. Singh played Dilip Kumar’s elder brother in “Halchal”. It was a villain’s role but Singh has played on-the-right-side-of-the-law roles, too, for example, that of a police officer in “Jwar Bhata,” which, incidentallly, is noted as Dilip Kumar’s debut-maker.
In K. Asif’s “Halchal,” I played Dilip Kumar’s elder brother. I remember the film because Balraj Sahni, in prison for political activities, had a jailor’s role. Police used to escort him from the jail to the set and back in the evening. At pack-up time, we used to joke with Balraj, inquiring, “Going home?”
In “Sitara,” which Mr. Ezra Mir made in 1938-39, I played a villain’s role—a very brief, but much acclaimed, one.
There is a little coffee table at my home with inset pull-outs of wood on all four sides. When you draw one of these out, all four come out. A blue-eyed youngster, son of a man I am greatly attached to, used to drop in and amuse himself by doing so. Years later this boy signed me up for a role in a film he was producing and directing. It was Raj Kapoor. I was so amused, so proud, that Raju was going to direct me in “Barsaat.” My role in the film was that of Bholu, a man so ugly outside no girl would marry him but seething inside, so to speak, with simplicity. In Bholu, Raj Kapoor had conceived a character of high voltage, a man with a wide mental graph and I enjoyed playing it. “Awaara” was even more tickling because Raju directed not only me but his father Prithvi. It was in this film that I got involved in actual fisticuffs for the first time.
In “Baazi”, directed by Guru Dutt and produced by Dev Anand’s Navketan, I had an interesting role: the proprietor of a hotel with a Jekyll and Hyde personality—a domesticated father of a daughter in his schizo and a gambling den boss in his phrenia! This was a real meaty role—I rank it with the “Baghban” role.
After “Baazi” there were some films—like “Mehlon Ke Khwab,” “Chhabili” and “Fantoosh”—where I got “sympathetic” roles but in the main I got carried away in the stream of villainy. In my most recent role, in Dev Anand’s “The Guide,” I am Velan (a South Indian name), not a villain. Velan starts no fights, in fact he tries to stop one, and gets his head almost smashed! (This interview was conducted in 1963).