Prem Chopra - Bollywood's Dark Knight
By Screen Weekly, March 18, 2009 - 10:34 IST

From his debut as hero in Chaudhary Karnail Singh to his portryal of a wheeler-dealer Lalaji in Delhi-6, veteran Prem Chopra rewinds to his 47-year long journey of over 400 films!

Prem Chopra is an early bird; he begins his day at the crack of dawn and turns in by ten at night. However, that doesn't keep him from socialising with his old-time buddies - Rakesh Roshan and Jeetendra. He swims regularly and does Yoga. His 14th floor duplex apartment in Pali Hill, Bandra in Mumbai rings with the gigles of his grand-children. He is jovial and enthusiastic throughout the photo-session as we insist on more changes. He throws open his walk-in wardrobe to us and points to his collection of caps and hats for choice. Chopra is full of verve as he displays his proud family picture with his wife Uma and daughters - Prerana, Punita, Rakita and respective sons-in-law Sharman Joshi, Vikas Bhalla and Rahul Nanda.

Chopra begins by listing out his forthcoming films. "I play the Maharaja of Bikaner married to a young bride played by Konkona Sen Sharma in Vinay Shukla's Mirch. In Sunil Shetty's Loot, I play the don; Sanjay Sharma's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron pitches me opposite Anupam Kher. Vinod Chhabria's My Husband's Wife in which Rati Agnihotri plays my bahu is also ready," he enumerates breathlessly. Talk about being busy and he brushes off the suggestion saying he's certainly "not as busy as he used to be!" He restrains himself to meaningful roles, he asserts. He enjoys living in present and the glorious past is just a happy memory.

Chandni Chowk In Rajasthan

When Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra approached Chopra for Delhi-6, he was all gung-ho about his part of Lalaji, the none-too-scrupulous moneylender. The entire set of Chandni Chowk used throughout the film was put up at Sambar village in Rajasthan, but Chopra had a fall at home and doctors advised him not to travel. Chopra decided to back out of the project but Mehra intervened saying," We will wait." As luck would have it, the schedule was postponed and by then Chopra was back on his feet. He shot in Sambar village for over four months and he's all praise for the hospitality which comprised of "immaculate arrangements and good security". Chopra rues that the film wasn't a winner," So much hard work had gone into it," he sighs, shaking his head. It's noteworthy that even after 47 years in filmdom, Chopra is still so concerned about the box-office outcome of his films.

Punjabi Hero

He has come a long way since he left his hometown Shimla to "try his luck in acting". His father Ranbirlal Chopra, a high-ranking Government official, would have much preferred his "studious and focussed" son to join the Indian Administrative Services. The third among six siblings, young Prem was already bitten by the acting bug. He took part in college dramatics enthusiastically and was very popular as well. At his father's insistence he completed his graduation and then came to Mumbai. "Although my father felt that there was no future in acting, he allowed me to go the land of opportunity," he admits gratefully. While he stayed at various guest-houses in Colaba, Mumbai, he landed himself a "pretty good job" in the circulation department of a publication house.

He embarked on the arduous route of visiting film studios and displaying his portfolio and to his great surprise Jagjit Sethi, a Punjabi producer, gave him the break as Jabeen's hero in Chaudhary Karnail Singh. "It was a Punjabi film but I felt it was a good way to gain access to Hindi movies," he reasons. As luck would have it this Hindu-Muslim romance set against the backdrop of Indo-Pak partition turned out to be a big hit and even won the National award. Subsequently, Chopra starred in three more Punjabi films including Sapni. But of course, his heart was set on Hindi films.

Jaldi Kar Di...

Noted director Mehboob Khan was so impressed with this strapping, six-footer that he promised that he would launch him as the hero in his next film. But the veteran filmmaker fell ill and in the meantime Chopra ended up playing a three-scene negative role in Woh Kaun Thi? "Mehboobsaab was the chief guest at the premiere, although he got angry at me for doing a wrong film, he predicted that it would be a hit and I would be popular after it," Chopra reminisces. Prem did Shaheed in a sympathetic role but was soon signed up as the main villain of Teesri Manzil and Mera Saaya, both hits. The die was cast and Prem Chopra became the star-villain of his times.

His friends and well-wishers felt that his looks and personality ought to have landed him lead roles. Close associate composer Jaikishan felt, "Jaldi kar di", but Chopra has no regrets. "By the grace of God I am still around acting," he counters.

My Idol - Dilip Kumar

Chopra couldn't believe his luck when filmmaker B R Chopra cast him opposite Dilip Kumar in Dastaan. "My father had told me if I wanted to be an actor I should be like Dilip Kumar and indeed Dilip saab was my inspiration! And here I was, doing a film opposite him! Initially I was really nervous but then I steeled myself, I had to prove my worth," he relates. Dilip Kumar put his young co-star totally at ease by giving him some useful tips that have stood him in good stead all along feels Chopra, "Don't play it loud," was one such acting tip. Dilip Kumar was evidently pleased with the young villain whom he signed in his film Bairaag. Kranti and Duniya are two more films in which he got to work with the thespian.

Starry Encounters

Manoj Kumar is another star who has been "a consistent strength in his career". He recalls with pride about his role as Sukhdev in Manoj Kumar's all-time patriotic classic Shaheed,"It was shot on real locations like the Ludhiana jail where the martyrs were detained. We also shot in the death cells where they were kept in isolation," he explains. The film was made with a shoestring budget; at times they even used tennis floodlights for night shoots! Upkar was another of Manoj Kumar's films that catapulted him to further starry heights.

By now, Chopra had to give up his "regular job" as his acting commitments took up 20 days in a month. This was the time, the reigning villain Pran was shifting to character roles and Prem Chopra was the appropriate younger option. He played the main villain opposite most of the stars of his times including Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor, Jeetendra and Rakesh Roshan.

Chopra raided the box-office with Rajesh Khanna; they made a popular pair in as many as 15 films like Do Raaste, Kati Patang, Prem Nagar, Ajnabee, Doli etc. al. "We shared many pleasant evenings together, but he was quite cold towards me when I met him recently," he adds with a shrug.

Prem Naam Hai Mera ...

It was time for the top villain of his time to settle into matrimony and his concerned father came down with this single-point agenda. Noted writer-director Lekh Tandon brought the proposal of Uma, the younger sister of Krishna Kapoor, Prem- nath and Rajendranath. It was in 1969 that the two were married, and they were blessed with three lovely daughters subsequently. By now, Chopra had become synonymous with on-screen villainy. When co-brother Raj Kapoor cast him in Bobby, he would keep asking about his "character" and Kapoor would wave him off saying," It's a role that will get you publicity worth millions." Chopra was rather skeptical when all he had to do in Bobby was to hold Dimple's arm and add menacingly, "Prem naam hai mera...Prem Chopra." But the film was a big hit and hitherto wherever Chopra is invited this is one-liner that he has to say on popular demand.

One-liners became his forte and cinegoers would remember the film by those. Some of his popular one-line punches are - "Main woh balaa hoon jo sheeshe se patthar ko todta hoon ." (Souten), "Bhains poonch uthayegi to gaana to nahin gaayegi, gobar hi degi" (Aaj Ka Arjun) "Nanga nahayega kya aur nichodega kya" (Dulhe Raja).

Obligardo Bachchan

His association with Amitabh Bachchan dates back to days when the star was but a struggler and they co-starred in Raaste Ka Patthar. "Even then he was a very good actor and very disciplined and he still is," he remarks. He recalls their two-week-long The Great Gambler outdoors in Rome and Lisbon fondly. "Oh, we had such good times together, we laughed so much. He's a private person but when he opens up he's does so beautifully," he adds. Chopra recalls how Bachchan would watch his rushes again and again, seeking self-improvement.

He illustrates how "refined" Bachchan is," I had a trial of Dostana and Bachchan also wanted to show the rushes to his parents who were in town then. When I got delayed owing to some pending dubbing that I had to wrap up, he came up to me and apologised for 'barging in' saying it was my trial after all." Chopra shares a great camarederie with the superstar still and whenever they meet they hail each other in Italian as "Obligardo!"

Tough Competitors

Although his senior in age, Amrish Puri had played Chopra's henchman in Dostana and Imaan Dharam. But he emerged a great adversary after his stellar role of Mogambo in Mr India. Likewise, super villain Amjad Khan's Gabbar stole the thunder from Chopra. Misguided by industry advisors, he thumbed down Himmatwala. Such missed chances resulted in a short lapse in his career. But Prem Chopra sprung back into action with character roles in Betaab and Andhaa Kaanoon. "People started casting me in elderly roles. I am happy that I am still around playing substantial roles. It's sometimes good to be not too ambitious," he reflects.

With his three daughters settled in their own right - Punita runs a school, Prerana is an artiste and Rakita is a graphics specialist. What Chopra really celebrates is the fact that there are filmmakers like Dev Anand who will cast him in every film of theirs. He's also awaiting the release of his English film, The Thread, a thriller co-starring Roshan Seth. "I play the main character in the film - someone who believes in the ritual of the thread-ceremony," he elaborates. He was spotted in amiable roles with Hrithik Roshan in Koi...Mil Gaya and Abhishek Bachchan in Bunty Aur Babli.

And he concludes candidly, "No one in showbiz wants to retire, and I am no exception to that!" The celebrated villain enjoys being a non-controversial family-bound man in real life.

Screen India

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