Prem Chopra: He loved to be bad!

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Prem Chopra, who turned 87 on September 23, has been an actor for over six decades. Photo: Prem Chopra

He has been in prem (love) with his work now for over 60 years, and has loved to be bad for his fans and film buffs. On September 23, Prem Chopra got younger by another year. Technically, he touched 87!

But then he is still au courant. And retirement is the last word in Chopra’s lexicon, since he is still going strong as a character actor even after over 400 films. Interestingly in 2010 or so, his consent was also sought for giving the title to a Marathi play called Prem Naam Hai Mera, his famous line in Bobby.

And yes, there has been some international work too –Thread, My Husband’s Wife, Honour Killings, Line of Descent and Heartland. Yes, the last two decades’ sweeping changes in Hindi films has not affected the demand for Chopra.  Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (as the jolly family doctor), Koi…Mil Gaya, Dhamaal (in the cameo of the rich man who triggers the plot) and Rocket Singh – Salesman Of The Year as Ranbir Kapoor’s indulgent but principled grandfather have all seen him in memorable roles.

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Ask the secret of his sustained innings and the villain of a hundred leers and a thousand grimaces smiles broadly. “People are tolerating me still for only one reason – I am honest to the core in my work. Dedication, devotion and discipline keep me going. I have always believed that only good work gets you more assignments. I never believed in building up contacts, networking or manipulating. No one’s here to do charity, the game is commercial and if you are not able to deliver, you are out. Has every child of a big-name film celebrity made it in cinema? And yes, I am also my worst critic. When people are busy praising me, I am looking at my shortcomings.”

He adds, “Another reason could be that actors, by definition, must be able to do everything. This is why I did comic roles, like in Prem Tapasya. I also played a comic villain, soft emotional roles, breezy characters and everything else. I was hero in a few films and even sang songs.”

His final secret, feels Chopra, is “Adapting to changing times. I admire Yash Chopra and Raj Kapoor, who adapted to changes, as did B.R.Chopra-saab, who never left solid storytelling.”

The directors of the older era, he adds seriously, were much more passionate, which is why they made “great, original films that would be loved by centuries, like Mughal-E-Azam, Ganga Jamuna, Awara, Upkar or Bobby. They would be obsessed with their films.” But he admits to the improvements, saying “Today’s directors are technically more knowledgeable but less amenable to suggestions. In our time, everyone would make suggestions—Ravee Nagaich, for example, loved my idea of a glass eye in Kaala Sona. On the good side, there is freedom from branding today, with heroes doing villainy and comedy and no actor being branded. We are going the way Hollywood has always been.”

Prem Chopra hails from Shimla and studied in Chandigarh where his father was posted. “I was into college dramatics and after taking my degree thought of trying my luck in films. I joined The Times of India in Mumbai on a cushy, fun job with lots of travel involved. I kept looking for work too and landed a hero’s role in the Punjabi film, Chaudhary Karnail Singh, which released in 1960. The film was a hit and I even won a National Award! But it was only halfway through Upkar that I dared to risk leaving my job! I became a villain because my films as hero in Hindi flopped and those as villain became hits!”

Woh Kaun Thi?, Shaheed, Teesri Manzil (1966),  Jhuk Gaya Aasmaan, Doli, Himmat, Purab Aur Pacchim, Kati Patang, Dastaan, Daag, Do Anjaane, Des Pardes, Dostana, Kranti, Betaab, Prem Deewane and Khiladi were among his many standout roles and films. Incidentally, he was Zeenat Aman’s love interest in her debut film, Hulchul!

“I had a very strong emotional role in Jadu Tona as the disturbed father of a possessed girl that few noticed because the film flopped. But after Do Raaste, my ‘negative’ pairing with Bindu too was a sensational success. After a producer told a distributor that his new film had the superstar Rajesh Khanna, he was asked, ‘Yes, but do you have Prem Chopra and Bindu?’”

Giving the very interesting trivia that he is the only actor to have worked with the entire Kapoor bloodline from Prithviraj Kapoor in Sikander-E-Azam to Karisma in Jaagruti¸ Kareena in Agent Vinod and Ranbir in Rocket Singh and even with Babita and Neetu Singh (“Though I missed out on Geeta Bali and Jennifer”), Chopra is happy that he also became famous for some other one-liners like “Main woh balaa hoon jo sheeshe se patthar ko todta hoon” (Souten) and “Nangaa nahaayega kya aur nichodega kya” (Dulhe Raja). There was also a unique side-effect of all this. “People love watching me perform and I have done stage shows where I sing, dance and recite these one-liners,” he reveals.

His biggest triumph in this direction, of course, is “Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra!” from Bobby. “Krishna Raj Kapoor and my wife are sisters and that’s the only reason Raj Kapoor could persuade me to accept that tiny cameo. But Raj-saab was very confident, which shows his acumen. ‘If the film is a hit, you will always be remembered,’ he told me. How right he was! A million spent on self-promotion would never have given me the mileage and popularity this film gave me, and continues to do so! Till today, almost 50 years after its release, whenever I go to a public function, I am asked to speak the line! It is amazing! This line has been spoken endlessly on television shows and stage performances by every artiste and mimic. And to think that even on the first day of shooting I was pretty disturbed that I had no other dialogue!”

Friends all—Prem Chopra (Second from left) with Rakesh Roshan, late Sujit Kumar, Jeetendra and late Rishi Kapoor. Photo: Prem Chopra

Which of his professional associations moved on to personal friendships? “Manoj Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra, Rakesh Roshan, besides the late Dilip Kumar-saab and Rishi Kapoor,” he says. What about heroines? Chopra jokes, “I was friends with all of them. You forget that I used to rape all of them! But on a serious note, I never misbehaved with them and have been brought up to respect them!”

Here’s a man with whom 24 hours will not be enough for the ocean of memories he has, many of which are recorded in his biography, “Prem Naam Hai Mera,” written some years ago by one of his three daughters, Rakita Nanda, who is married to publicity whiz Rahul Nanda. Rahul is the son of late celebrated author and film writer Gulshan Nanda. Prem’s other daughters are happily married to actors Vikas Bhalla (Punita) and Sharman Joshi (Prerna).

In the last few years, Chopra has also been, seemingly, on an award-collection spree: he has won four prestigious Lifetime Achievement awards—from the Goa, NOIDA and Jaipur International Film Festivals and from Star-Screen. The actor’s study is literally crowded with awards, honors, felicitations and trophies won over the years. Chopra has been even conferred the Mother Teresa award for his social work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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