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Sunday, January 28, 2001

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Padma Bhushan Pran -- Fine actor, finer man

By M. Shamim

FOR LATA Mangeshkar the honour was long due and Dev Anand has been picking honours as frequently as he is still making films. So the surprise of the pack in the President's honours list released on the eve of Republic Day this past week in the category of cinema artistes was none other than Pran, the man who has probably lost count of the films he has appeared in, and would not care to remember which was his last film to hit the silver screen before he slipped into relative inactivity after going well beyond the Biblical age limit. He is now 81.

So when I rang him up this Saturday after a gap of more than three decades I was wondering if he would still remember me. He picked up the phone at his Mumbai residence himself and left me in no doubt that his memory is as sharp as ever. He accepted my congratulations very casually which was just like the Pran I had known all along: always calm and composed and always at his gracious best. ``I am very ill and I do not go out these days,'' he said apologetically when I said I would like to see him. I explained to him that I wanted to come and see him. ``I am really unwell,'' he repeated, and added, ``maybe after a couple of days.'' That probably was his way of telling me that though the spirit is willing the body is not and that was that.

One could discover Pran only gradually. Pran the actor was vastly different from Pran the man. The man would hardly ever talk about the actor and the actor would never look like the man, Pran Sikand, who began his career in Lahore long before Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand or Dilip Kumar's name hit the marquee. He had played the lead opposite Noor Jahan in Pancholi Art Productions' Khandaan in the early 1940s. Some of his old films like Shahi Lutera which had survived Partition were still running in Pakistan in the 1960s, making him the most popular actor of Pakistan.

I remember the shock of my first meeting with him. Here was an actor who filled the screen with savage brutality, rape, murder, arson and worse. But the man I met was so polite and gentle he could not even say ``Boo'' to a house cat. And with that gracious lady who was his wife around, he looked hopelessly henpecked. I picked up one of the many photographs lying on his drawing room table. ``Who is this in the picture,'' I asked, ``an elder cousin?'' The resemblance was quite remarkable. ``No,'' he said with a boyish grin, ``he is my son who lives abroad.'' That was in 1963.

How did he manage to look so young? ``The discipline of total devotion to work,'' he replied in an even tone. The only worthwhile assets of an actor are his looks. He went on to explain why he tried to wear a different kind of look, costume or make-up in every film. ``If an actor keeps repeating his mannerisms and keeps looking the same in all films, he is not likely to go far.''

He had to be persistently prodded to talk about his career and yet Pran was not a man of few words. Most actors of his time after they had had a peg or two would say things they would like to forget quickly in their sober moments next morning. Not Pran. After he settled with his scotch in the evening, he could recite Iqbal, the complete works of Asghar Gondvi, the mystic poet; entire Ghalib, and good selections of Mir Taqi Mir, Nazir Akbarabadi and such other classical poets. The only ones who could remember more of Faiz than Pran did were the likes of Ali Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi. All that made him the finest example of India's composite culture.

``He is one of the finest human beings,'' says the seasoned film director Lekh Tandon. ``A very devoted actor with total involvement in what he is doing.'' Veteran actor Manoj Kumar recalls that during the shooting of Upkaar one afternoon he found Pran looking very tired and exhausted. Upon enquiry, Pran amid tears said he had lost his sister the previous night. She was in Calcutta. ``He did not go there,'' says Manoj, ``because of his two producers who would have suffered heavy losses due to his absence.''

For an actor who began his career playing ``Sita'' during Ramlilas in Simla opposite Madan Puri who played Ram, Pran covered a lot of territory. His forte was the rhythm he established with his co-actors. Watch him in Victoria No.203 with Ashok Kumar or in Dil Diya Dard Liya with Dilip Kumar. When Pran was on a song he was formidable. So complete was his command over the medium that during the shooting of Dil Diya Dard Liya after giving a shot none other than Dilip Kumar would look at Pran to ascertain whether he had got it right.

Pran made and broke his own images. He was a hero in Khandaan, played villain in hundreds of other films, and also switched to comic characters at will. In Upkaar, going against the counsel of Raj Khosla and others Manoj picturised a song on Pran and was none the worse for it. If there were ten markings for movement before the camera you could trust Pran not to miss a single one of them, according to Manoj. If he understood the camera so well, it was because he began his career in the camera department of Pancholi's Studio in Lahore.

Bollywood has changed and is changing further rapidly. New faces appear each successive year. Rajesh Khanna, Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Naveen Nishchol and others have come and faded but the film industry remembers Pran, not only for his consummate artistry but also for what he is. ``He is the only actor who stands up to receive a female artiste on the sets even if she happens to be a debutante,'' says Manoj.

Alas, they do not make actors like him any more!

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