Monica Motwani Asrani, Screen - Mumbai,August, 2005
His consistently arresting performances, strong niche as a villain par excellence and tremendous star value, have earned him the tag of a living legend. After all, not many can claim of creating history with just one line, "Prem naam hai mera... Prem Chopra"
Prem Chopra, a stalwart of Hindi Cinema is on a professional high today. He is going international with a pivotal role in the English film , The Thread .It is the new venture of the co-producer of Bride & Prejudice and Bend it like Beckham Deepak Nayar and Philip Von Alvensleven. The film also stars Hollywood actors Linus Roache and Saffron Burrows of Troy fame along with Roshan Seth. Being directed by Mahesh Mathai who won acclaim for Bhopal Express, the film is evoking interest in the International arena. Especially for the role, Prem Chopra has now got a brand new all-bald look.
Screen meets up with the versatile veteran actor to talk more about this interesting happening in his career as well as his grand cinematic tenure spanning over four decades and 400 films.
Tell us more about The Thread ?
The Thread is a supernatural thriller. It revolves around the sanctity attached to the sacred thread and the fact that the thread is believed to protect you so you should not play with it. Basically the film says that you cannot run away from your past actions. If you have done something incorrect, you have to pay for it .And it is you who has to go through what you have done. No one else can atone for it.
What is your role in the film?
I play a religious man called Vashisht who has great principles & ideals. People look up to Vashisht as a philosopher & guide. He is not a usual Sadhu. The protagonist Ram, being played by Roshan Seth looks up to Vashisht for advice at all times. The role may not be very lengthy but it is a pivotal role with a strong impact. I am there throughout the film.
What is your take on the choice of the subject?
I think it?s a very commercially viable subject. The West experiences great intrigue when it comes to India. And after Manoj Shyamlan?s Sixth Sense, it has only increased. People like to see and believe in miracles. In The Thread too, one of the lead artists experiences dreams and premonitions and they actually happen in reality. People find this fascinating.
How did the film come your way?
Actually I was in London for a personal engagement. Simultaneously the producer who was in America wanted only me for the role. Somehow they traced me in London & the director Mahesh Mathai met up with me. He gave me the script. I liked what I read and everything fell into place.
So how did you feel signing your first International film?
It was a great feeling. I have achieved a lot as an actor. First as a hero, then as a villain & then as a character artist. I felt the time was right to do an International film. I was seeing my colleagues doing International films and I wanted to be one of them. Not that I was not doing much about it ! The Thread came out of the blue and just fell into my lap.
Any special preparation that you did for the film?
Firstly it was mandatory that I had to be physically fit. So I had to go through a fitness test. There were many other such formalities. Then the team suggested I go bald to give the character the correct look.
And you did!
Actually I was contemplating it for a long time. But just did not have the courage. I was scared of the reaction of my three daughters. I thought they would throw me out of the house. (laughs heartily)
And what was the reaction?
Quite honestly everyone has loved it. They feel I should have done it long back. So it has been worth it.
So a new look at a new brink of your career!
Coming back to the film, what made you the film-makers? choice for the role?
They wanted a powerful looking actor with a bold personality. Someone like Vivekanand. The makers thought as I have strong eyes and face, I would fit the bill.
How was the experience of working with an International crew?
I was truly impressed with their way of working. We were given call sheets everyday with the synopsis of the scenes. In our industry I have seen only Yash Raj films following this system. Of course getting a fully bound script also helped me to enhance my performance. Not just the artists, but every one from the light man, to the camera person to all the assistant directors were given the script .This kind of efficiency quickens the pace of a film to a great extent as well as improves the quality.
Any other observations?
Punctuality is taken very seriously. Also, there was a lot of comradeship during the shoot. There was healthy exchange of ideas & fearless sharing of experiences. I feel this strengthens the bonds and ultimately works greatly for betterment of the film. They were very open to suggestions. Its not true when people say that abroad they strictly stick to the script .
Where is the film shot?
Primarily in London. And Simla where most of my scenes are based. It was fun shooting in Simla because I grew up there. I used to be an ordinary man with stars in my eyes. It was great to go back. People were thrilled to see me as I was the only known face amongst the cast and crew...Being my area so to speak, I gave the whole team of the film a Himachali topi each. They were thrilled.
What are your expectations from The Thread?
If I may say so myself the makers are very happy with my performance and professionalism and have expressed a keen desire to work with me in their next project. They have been quoted as saying that I have ?a great international career? .Hope their prophesy comes true (smiles) .But you know we have a saying here, ?If a film works, I work?? So it all depends on how the film is accepted. I can only hope it will be a turning point where I am concerned .Dreams are always seen with the hope that they come true.
When is the film expected to release?
I think they are looking at a November ? December release worldwide.
Do you agree with the viewpoint of our actors who feel that Indians get only ethnic international roles?
It is true to an extent. But for me it?s more important how a role is projected and exploited. The final impact is what matters at the end of the day. Whatever the role may be!
Do you think the perception of Bollywood has changed overseas?
From my interactions, I gathered that the westerners still find it difficult to sit through a typical Bollywood film. But there have been some films that have been appreciated. The acceptance level has definitely increased. That?s why there are so many Indo ?British and Indo- American films are being made.
What are the other projects you are working on?
There?s an interesting film called Umar, which Karan Razdan is making .It is about the dignity of the elderly & revolves around three people being played by Satish Kaushik, Kadar Khan & me. A very contempory subject, which will be an eye-opener. But it?s no tear-jerker. It?s optimistic and fun filled. Then there?s Anupam Kher?s Maine Gandhi ko nahin mara, K.C. Bokadia?s Bold & Dev Anand?s Prime minister, amongst others? I feel Maine Gandhi ko nahin mara is going to be a much talked about film. In fact it is this film which was greatly responsible for the producer of The Thread deciding on me for the role of Vashisht .And mind you in Anupam?s film I am just doing a guest appearance .
All the films have you in positive roles?
Yes. Except that in Prime Minister I am an opposition leader. Now that character can create a lot of gadbad (smiles).
You have been a part of recent hit films like Bunty aur Babli and Koi Mil Gaya!
It?s always nice when you are associated with successful films. I had a brief role in Bunty aur Babli but I am amazed at the response I have got for it. When Shaad Ali called me for a special appearance in the film, I just could not refuse. They said even Aishwarya Rai is doing a special appearance. Moreover Yash Chopra is a dear friend. I have done half a dozen films with him including hits like Daag , Kala Paththar ,& Trishul.
And how was it working in your good friend Rakesh Roshan?s Koi Mil Gaya?
I had never worked in any of Rakesh Roshan?s earlier productions - Although he had directed me in Sujit Kumar?s Khel. We may be the best of friends but friendships are not based on give & take. It?s about mutual acceptance and suitability a role. And that opportunity came with Koi Mil Gaya. I enjoyed working with him in the film.
How do you look back at the last 4 decades?
My innings have been very satisfying. Few people have been fortunate as me to have stayed on for so long. There were many top heroes who came, stayed for a decade or so & then went. But I was lucky to get roles that kept me going and going.
So you think its good you did not make it as a hero!
Absolutely. Although I came to be a hero, my films as a leading man flopped. Which was good in a way because a whole new world opened in front of me. There were so many more roles I could do. When I established myself as a villain it could continue for years.
It must have helped that you did not have any hang-ups about doing any kind of role !
Adjustability is very important. You have to mould yourself according to circumstances. There were times I used to feel let down seeing people less deserving than me making it bigger. But all I did then, was to get more involved in what I was getting the opportunity to do. Today there are truly no regrets. I am still working. People are still tolerating me . (laughs)
The concept of villainy has changed over the years?
During those days, there was a hero and a villain .Villainy was all about achieving a goal. It could be in a straight manner or then through crooked exaggerated means .Today however, when in comes to a negative role, the ?Why? & ?How? has come in to the script. This analytical element attracts all the top stars. Today every one has done or is doing negative or anti-hero roles. Be it Amitabh, Shahrukh, Ajay, Salmaan? Even Hrithik is doing one in Dhoom 2. It gives the actor a lot of artistic satisfaction. I remember when I created an impact as a villain, an editor had said in her magazine ?An actor with a hero?s face becomes a villain?. Today that thin line dividing the two has disappeared.
What other significant changes have you observed?
In the earlier days, cinema was the only significant mode of entertainment. So even an average film would enjoy a decent run. These days that?s not the case. Today a film has to be really good .People are a lot more educated and much more exposed. They will not accept anything mediocre. Films nowadays also have so many technical aids to enhance the effect. Of course none of them work if the story is not good. A story is primarily important.
What would you like to tell the aspiring actors of today?s generation?
If you have the 3D?s : Desire, Dedication & Determination, then this is the right place to be in. And however successful you are, be that much humble. Success is short lived. But the honesty & hard work you put in your work, lives for ever. When you associate more with that aspect, you are always humble .You feel that things just went right and you feel modest . That sense of normalcy is very important.
You yourself are a humble person!
I have always noticed that people who are truly big don?t need to be arrogant. You know, when we were all in Amsterdam some time back ,we were going to meet the King of Amsterdam. We were given a briefing to be extra-nice & polite to him and to be very careful of what we say. When we actually met the King, he was so casual. Dressed in Jeans & a T-Shirt ,he was so approachable. By the end of it he was like our long last pal. It?s a lesson to all our young stars ?I remember, during my college days I was totally in awe of Dilip Kumar. When I was to shoot with him for the first time, I was wondering how he would be. But when he came on the sets he was warm and behaved like a good friend although I was new. Such is the greatness of the man.
You think it is important for an actor to be a good human being?
I think it is integral because it reflects in the work. Also a person should be laced with a sense of humour. It makes the atmosphere very light & a person more likeable. No one cares for an aloof person. Especially on an Outdoor schedule if a person is not easy- going he will be left alone and that affects the work.
You have three daughters & none of them are a part of the Industry.
Actually all three of them got a lot of offers, but they were never interested. It was more because they are basically shy. They have been brought up in a very matter-of-factly manner for which credit goes to my wife Uma.
But all your there son-in-law?s are from showbiz! Destiny??
(Laughs) Yes, Rahul (Nanda) is a leading publicity designer & Vikas (Bhalla) & Sharman (Joshi) are actors. It feels good that they are associated with the film industry. The tradition goes on? We communicate in an intimate manner as we share a common ground. We are like friends and have a lot of fun when we meet.
Your poetry is quite talked about. One always gets a taste of it at public functions!
I was always fond of poetry. Earlier it was amateurish. I used to just recite them to close friends. Mostly they were other people?s poems and I would pass them as mine (chuckles) . Later of course I developed a taste of it and started writing my own Poetry. People would enjoy hearing it so I would end up entertaining them at gatherings. I was initially also a bad narrator but I have cultivated a habit of improving my self, whatever sphere it may be.
What else do you enjoy doing?
I love traveling. It?s fascinating to see different places, different environments & different people- How they sit, behave, react? It?s strange, that when you are a known face, people everywhere know you. And if you are an actor, they react even more. So you are never alone anywhere in this world.
So there is no business like showbiz!
Undoubtedly! Its ecstasy when you succeed and misery when you fail. But even in the case of the latter, the desire to overcome failure is enough to keep you excited.
What are the kind of roles you would like to do now?
I would certainly like to do strong, memorable roles. The character should have something to say and must be able to project me as an actor in totality. Right now of course I am hoping that The Thread opens new avenues for me.
THE DYNAMIC DOZEN
Prem Chopra recounts the 12 roles which he holds close to his heart. He admits that it is a difficult choice as numerous roles have been memorable for him.
TOP SIX POSITIVE ROLES
Sikander-e-Azam : This was at the beginning of my career .I play Abhimanyu .I was the son of Prithviraj Kapoor and brother of Premnath in the film.
Kunwari : I was the leading man in this film. So naturally it will be special to me.
Shaheed : Undoubtedly one of my favourite films . I play the role of Sukhdeo the freedom fighter who sacrifices his life for the country. This film on patriotism was made with great economic difficulties, but it came across as one of the most honest and pure films. People who see this film even now, cry unfailingly.
Jaadu Tona : This film was based on the English film Exorcist. I had an absolutely positive role in the film where I play the father of the little girl who is possessed. I consider it one of my superlative roles.
Prem Pratiggya : Dasari Narayan Rao directed this film. Here I play a Doctor who sacrifices a lot for his sister. It was a noble character .
Chori Chori Chupke Chupke : Again I am a Doctor in this film. I do not play a family Doctor, but a Doctor in the family. He is the confidante who helps the protagonists in taking a very bold decision.
TOP SIX NEGATIVE ROLES
Upkaar : In this film I had a role which had various shades to it. In the beginning I am a dutiful, then the role gets shades of grey when I become a city boy and finally the character becomes negative. It was a good test for a performer. And since the film was a great success, it helped me in attaining a star status .
Do Raaste : This is an evergreen family-oriented film. I had one of the best roles in the film. It was applauded by critics who went on to say that the hero of the film is Prem Chopra. This despite the fact that my portrayal was negative - That of the 'bad son'.
Kati Patang : Another popular performance. The story was interesting and the heroine Asha Parekh nearly ruins her life because of me. I remember, after films like Kati Patang ,Do Raaste and Daag ,Rajesh Khanna and I were considered a lucky pair and distributors used to tell Rajesh Khanna that we don?t care who your heroine is ,all we want to know is whether Prem Chopra is in the film.
Do Anjaane: This film got me many prestigious awards. The role was very interesting and I had full scope to perform .Notwithstanding the fact that the immensely popular Amitabh Bachachan was the hero, my performance was much appreciated.
Dostana : I was pitched against two powerful performers, Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha . But I got my share of acting honours. My role was godfather-like but I tried to give it a different perspective by essaying the character with normalcy and without any exaggeration.
Phool Bane Angaarey : This film revolved around Rekha and me. Although Rajnikant was there in the film, he dies before the interval. My role of a Minister had many variations and went on to become very popular.