Slick and Slimy
V Gangadhar, Rediff - September 27, 1997
You hate him on sight. And when he laughs -- "Huh, huh, huh" -- a frisson of disgust runs down the inside of your vertebra. Natural reaction, if it's Prem Chopra who's playing the villain.
Chopra is far less difficult to meet than many actors. In real life he is far more articulate, well-read and intelligent than many of those who beat him up on screen.
"Do you believe that acting can be taught?," we ventured.
Chopra, who turned out to be highly intelligent, well-read and articulate, paused a bit and replied, "Acting is mostly experience. We learnt it step by step and worked hard at the profession." He pointed out that some of India's greatest actors like Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar had never been to acting schools.
"They became great because of their commitment," said the veteran. "Even today, when they work in a film, they work as if it was their first film."
However revolting he is on screen, actually because of it, the biggest banners still make a beeline to his door. Even though Chopra is picky about his movies now.
He is also starring in a TV serial, Andaz, and was, at one time, reputed to be the highest-paid actor in TVdom.
Speaking to Prem Chopra is an exhilarating experience. He has a vast library that he repairs to often, and is well-versed in modern cinema.
We discussed Marlon Brando and Dilip Kumar, two of Chopra's favorites.
"Both of them moved with the times," he says, adding, "Movies have to be constantly chaining and reflect the times in which they are produced."
His father, who worked at the attorney-general's office wanted the son to study for medicine. But when Chopra discovered theatre in college, he decided a medical career was out and settled for a degree in arts.
"Dad was, no doubt, disappointed," recalls Chopra, "But I promised him I wouldn't seek a film career until I had graduated."
Shimla had a strong theater movement in those days and Chopra revelled in it. He watched a lot of Hindi and English movies and, after graduation, came to Bombay in the early 1960's and joined the Times of India's circulation department. He visited the studios in his spare time with bundles of photographs but the response was not encouraging. But he kept at it.
Finally, while travelling by the suburban train one day, fortune grabbed him by the arm. A stranger accosted him and asked if he was interested in joining films. Chopra nodded quick agreement and was carted off to Ranjit Studios where the producers of Chaudhari Karnail Singh was in search of a hero.
Prem Chopra fitted the bill. the producer said. He was handed Rs 2500 for the role. The movie took almost three years to complete.
"I played a Muslim boy in love with a Hindu girl," recalled Chopra. The film was a big success and won a national award. So Chopra acted in some more Punjabi films. But payments were low, shooting schedules, erratic, and recognition, miniscule.
Chopra wanted a big break, a national hit, but it was tough getting a break. He got minor roles in Hindi films Kawari, Doli and Main Shadi Karne Chala. It was during the shooting of MSKC that someone suggested that he become a villain. Fewer people wanted to play the nasty and competition faded beyond Pran and Jeevan.
Chopra didn't mind. He felt he could bring new dimensions to the villain's role. When he played the villain in highly successful films like Teesri Manzil and Woh Kaun Thi, a film magazine did a cover story on him, titled, "A man with a hero's face becomes a villain".
There are few now who will back the mag's opinion but that could be, in part, due to Prem Chopra's own ability to spawn dislike while on screen.
And it was a smart decision, the move to baddie. Chopra's portrayal of slick and slimy villainy made him a longer lasting star than many of the heroes. Consider, his career has outlived Shammi Kapoor's, Rajesh Khanna's, Amitabh, Bachchan's... He's still going strong people like Bachchan are trying to squirm back in.
“There was a time when I felt I had made a mistake playing the villain all the time. I saw inferior actors all around me becoming heroes. But then most of these super-heroes did not stand the test of time. But here I am, still doing well . Now, I don't have any regrets about choosing to play the villain.”
Chopra wasn't certain he had found his calling in films despite his successes though his company's general manager, J C Jain, encouraged him to act. But when Manoj Kumar's Upkaar, where he had an interesting role, became a hit, Chopra decided that TOI could manage its circulation without him. And became full-time scoundrel on celluloid.
There was no stopping him then. Hit after hit followed. Kati Patang, Do Raaste, Kala Pathar, Himmatvala and Bobby brought him money, fame and security. Prem Chopra was now a star, albeit an evil star.
And there was this nagging similarity in his roles, that dulled viewer's hate into a uniform resentment.
"But actors have to innovate," says Chopra. "I did this in most of my films -- a one-liner here, a comic touch there and some grimaces elsewhere." All these, of course, after consultations with the writer and director.
But it was Raj Kapoor who made all of India hate him with an intensity till then unheard of.
When a grinning Prem Chopra swaggers up before Rishi Kapoor and said, "Prem naam hai mera. Prem Chopra," the audience bristled. "I wondered if the lines would click," muses Chopra. "But Rajji was supremely confident. And he was right."
Does a villain have to be flamboyant, like Mugambo, who dressed up in outrageous costumes and offered that the hero be punished with a dunking in a crocodile pool?
"Not really," grins Chopra. "A villain can be absolutely normal and still be effective... If the accessories fit into the character, then I guess it’s okay.”
If Chopra has any complaints, it is that there are few writers coming up with interesting plots. There was so much money involved in films that producers, directors and writers are afraid to try out something different.
What about those rape scenes he acted in, beginning with Laat Saheb. “It is part of the job,” he shrugs. “Good actors and actresses do not react to these scenes. “Chopra explained that most rape scenes are done shot by shot and so were not convincing. But Manoj Kumar did somehting different in Purab aur Paschim. “The impact," says Chopra, "was terrific.”
Chopra reads a lot, watches movies and is a keen sports fan. He never misses telecasts of cricket matches.
“I play the game myself,” he says, adding that he had often been adjudged man of the match in film star matches. He also takes part in commercial shows all over the world, doing skits, repeating famous lines of dialogue as well as compering the shows.
When he isn't thus involved, he spends some quiet time with his family -- he has three daughters, professionals in their own right.
And if they aren't around, Chopra watches English, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil films on the video, constantly refining his method.
“If I come across something, I try to use it at suitable occasions in my films. An actor who does not try to learn new things can never succeed in a big way.”