Prem Chopra – Memories
I was born in Pakistan. My dad was working for the government. He got transferred to Simla. It was here that I did my schooling and college. Simla was full of theatres like the Gaiety and other amateur ones. These theatres offered a lot of opportunities for people interested in plays. I took part in some plays and it was here that I developed an interest in acting.
In our family no one was ever in the Film Industry. So when I aired my views on wanting to join films, there was a lot of opposition from my parents. But afterwards, they relented, I was doing my college and I wanted to leave my studies in the middle, but my father put his foot down. He said one thing which I would like to share with people. He said, ‘You leave my house after doing your graduation. That is the least education one can have. If anything happens tomorrow you should be able to get a job.’ This proved to be a life saver for me.
When I reached Bombay, I realized that it was not going to be easy going as I imagined it would be. I thought I had stage experience and a fair complexion, so I would be loaded with offers. It was not like it is today. That time for a newcomer to get into the line where others were already reigning, was very difficult. My father had also made it clear to me that since he had a large family to support, he would not send me any money. I would have to fend for myself. So my first priority was to find a job to be able to survive in Bombay. I did some odd jobs and then landed up with a good job in The Times of India. I worked there for 5 years.
I kept trying for films at the same time as working. Luckily I got spotted. One man came up to me and asked me if I was interested in a career in films. I told him I was interested in a good break. That’s how I got my first movie Chaudhari Karnel Singh, which was a Punjabi movie. It went on to becoming a big hit and I got a lot of offers. But at that time, the budget of Punjabi movies were small and there were constant finance problems. In fact, all their movies faced trouble getting completed. The remuneration given to me was very less and I realized that it was not possible for me to give up my job and survive. So I continued my job at The Times….
I am terrified of snakes. I was offered a Punjabi film called Sapani, where I was to play a snake charmer. Since I was desperate to do the movie, I did not tell the producer about my snake phobia. We shot a lot of scenes and finally we came to the scene where I was to open a box and the snake would raise its hood, after which I had to hold the snake in my hand. But each time I reached for the box, my hand would involuntarily come back. I was cold all over and was shivering. After many takes I finally opened the box. I took one look at the snake and cried out aloud and ran out of the studio saying I didn’t want to do the film. That’s when the producer realized what was wrong. But they could not replace me as they had shot a lot of scenes. So they got an artificial snake and compromised. That saved the day!
Once I met Mehboob Khan. He told me he would give me a break as a hero in Hindi films. He asked me to be patient and not sign any role which comes my way. This was when he had completed Son Of India. At that time, he was very sick, but still, I waited, because to get a break from him, meant sure stardom. But things started getting out of hand. People offered me good character roles. Seeing Mr. Mehboob Khan’s condition, I felt it would not be advisable to wait. I did movies like Shaheed, Teesri Manzil and Woh Kaun Thi, and I also played the lead in a movie called Kanwari and one or two more. Of all these movies Woh Kaun Thi, in which I played a villain was released first.
I remember Mr. Mehboob Khan was the chief guest at the Woh Kaun Thi premiere. The next day when I was shooting at his studio, he came upto me and said ‘You have no patience. I told you to wait and you didn’t. Now you are going to be a villain because this movie I saw yesterday night is going to be hit!’ I was perplexed. He gave his verdict and that came true. Woh Kaun Thi was a success while the movies where I played the lead did not do well. Those days there was a void of good looking villains except for Pran. So I got lots of villain roles. Do Raaste, Kati Patang, Doli, Dastan, Prem Nagar…
One magazine put me on its cover and it read, ‘The man with the hero’s face becomes top most villain’. Rajesh Khanna who was a superstar at that time and myself became a strong team together. I have done movies with every conceivable hero. It is surprising that people who came with me and were doing so well are today nowhere.
In the beginning, I used to feel sorry that I missed a chance to become a hero. But now as I think back, if I had become one, I wouldn’t have been still around. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. One has to face a tremendous amount of discomfort working with very inferior actors who are doing better than you, both financially and status wise. But one has to learn to adjust. One has to stay dedicated. I have always believed in the four D’s which is the secret of my staying in the industry for so long — Dedication, Determination, Discipline and Devotion. It is not as easy as people think it is. Nowadays boys get one hit and they think they have become stars.
The best compliment I have ever received was from Manmohan Desai. He told me that I was one of the best character actors India has ever produced because of my expressions and flexibility. This compliment coming from such a knowledgeable man makes one feel really good. Also Raj Khosla, with whom I have done many movies would always give me complex roles and felt that I could do better than the best. Distributors used to come up to me and say that a particular picture had repeat value because of my performance. Like Kati Patang had Rajesh Khanna the superstar, but people said that the success of the film was because of my role. Even the publicity hoarding of Aas Pas had ‘superb performance by Prem Chopra’ written in bold lettering. Even recently, my dance in Sanam Tere Hain Hum ensured a house- full board for the movie.
I was a trend setter in many ways. My ‘Takya Kalam’ became a rage. Actually Yakub used to do it in his movies but I started the trend. In Bobby I was offered a very small role where throughout the movie I just had one dialogue which I keep repeating. Since Raj Kapoor was a relative of mine I should have been given a better deal than that. But he insisted and finally I agreed. The dialogue was ‘Prem naam hain mera, Prem Chopra’. It became a rage, On the roads, children would get in a mock fight and say this dialogue. Even some army officers told me that in the mess it was a common feature when people got drunk to repeat it. In Souten I did not have a significant role, but my Takya Kalam, ‘main woh bala hoon jo sheeshay ko patthar se todta hoon’. People got so enchanted by that dialogue that they brought me stardom. It was a terrific role, parallel to that of Manoj Kumar. In fact, Rajesh Khanna was selected for it. But since he was under contract of United Producers, they objected to him playing a parallel role. He was allowed to play only leads. So I got it and since then I never looked back.
But movies have their own set of hazards, like I was shooting for Keemat where I play a Don. There were a line of dogs sitting in front of me looking towards the hero. The shot started and I was to resound with vicious laughter. Hearing my laugh the dogs which looked quite small when sitting, stood up. They seemed taller than me and were growling ferociously at me. I somehow completed the shot after which I started shouting, ‘Bachao! Bachao!’ and ran for my life.
In Phool Bane Angaarey I played a politician from Udaipur. After the movie’s release the next time I went to Udaipur, a big group of people, introducing themselves as Congress (I) workers came and asked me to stand for the M.L.A. elections. When I asked them why me, they said that since I was successful in drawing almost the entire population of Udaipur onto the road for my victory procession in the movie, it meant I was very popular there, only second to Amitabh Bachchan! I told them I was not interested in politics and they went away. But the next day, double that amount of people came. They told me to just give my consent and that they would do the rest. All I had to do was come once or twice. But I refused. Maybe at a later stage, when I am ready for politics I will go there.
I make it a point to participate in all noble causes. I had gone to Singapore to raise money for a temple. In Bahrain I went to collect money to start an Indian school, I’ve gone for free shows abroad. I have always made myself available in spite of a busy schedule for helping any needy organization. It gives me personal satisfaction.
Disappointments are when a film where you have put in a great effort, flops. You are damn confident that this film will change your entire career and bring in the accolades. But it does not do well at the box office. I have had my share of ups and downs, But I have not been discouraged. I try to work harder the next time. I learn from people like Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Pran. These actors have been there for decades. They have put in so much hard work. If you work with Dilip Kumar, you will feel he is doing his first film, the amount of preparation he does. There were a couple of years when I was out of work. But that did not put me totally in the dumps, because I had so many other activities — reading, travelling…
Then suddenly a spurt of films came and I was back in the reckoning. There was also a low period where I tried to involve myself in the production of films. My brother Kailash Chopra made some pictures which were not commercial successes. We lost lots of money, in movies like Lagan, Nafrat, Shukriya. But this line is fascinating. You don’t lose the excitement. It is like a student appearing for an exam. You are always mentally busy and try to be more and more creative.
Being in films also has its negative points. Once I had gone to Delhi to attend the funeral of a close relative of mine. The public there forgot that one was there to mourn and not in the status of a star. When they see an actor, they go crazy and expect you to sign autographs. And, at that moment, you feel disgusted. You want to be left alone.
I am a one shift guy. It does not mean I won’t work for more hours but to go from one film shooting to another is very difficult. To get under the skin of a character, takes time. I also make it a point to see that I have days off for myself. Because if you are working 30 days a month, you get bored to death of work and become very monotonous. These gaps give me time to look back and prepare for future roles. It is probably these things that helped me to stay this long in the industry. Even today I am in a position to not accept everything that comes my way. There are old stars who still want to work but don’t get work. They cannot go out and confess their feeling. That gives them a complex. I don’t have to do that. And that gives me moral satisfaction! (Prem Chopra interviewed by Vijay Shekhar in 1992)