It’s not my habit to yell actors’ names out loud at my TV screen when they enter a film but that is my customary greeting for Pran, 2013’s winner of the Dada Saheb Phalke award. Although he is known best to many film fans as one of the all-time great villains, he’s not someone I love to hate, the way I do, say, creepy Jeevan, wild Amrish Puri, or hammy Ajit. Pran is an actor I love to love because he is, simply, just that: an actor. He’s never cardboard and never sleepwalks through a performance, even after more than 400 roles, many of which start to look similar if you were to list the basic attributes of the characters. When his name appears in the credits, you know that there will be at least one reliably interesting and thoughtful performance in the film. He can menace a heroine with steely brutishness that feels disarmingly reel but he is just as effective as a sort of a noble loner in a track that parallels the hero’s story or as an enemy who winds up a brother-in-arms of the side of right. Several articles noted when the actor was awarded the Phalke that Pran, “Bollywood’s Black Gold,” as NDTV calls him, inspired new respect for villains from the film industry (DNA).

He’s never cardboard and never sleepwalks through a performance, even after more than 400 roles, many of which start to look similar if you were to list the basic attributes of the characters. why we love PRAN, the recipient of 2013’s Dada Saheb Phalke Award.

– The Indian Trumpet’s Debut Edition

Zanjeer, 1973

Part of Pran’s appeal as a performer is that he makes the very most of the tools available to him. Most striking is that creaky, slightly nasal, very distinctive voice that renders him unique no matter what else he’s doing or wearing in a scene. In his villain roles, his voice lends just a touch of that uneasiness that comes from something unusual, making him somehow more threatening.

In his more noble characters, it makes him sound more resolute. There is also something especially dignified about his physical bearing. Though not a tall man, heroes don’t overshadow him, and he looks equally comfortable in whatever the wardrobe department gives him, whether a three-piece suit, a police uniform, or a dacoit’s moustache and an earring.

Johny Mera Naam, 1970

My personal favourite performances by Pran come from the later period of his career when he plays roles that link him with, rather than set him up as opposing, the hero. These roles tend to be a little more complicated than straight-up villains and give him even more room to shine as an actor. Do Badan (1966) is a nice example of him getting to be the villain and to show some depth, as his character realises the tragic impact of his wrong doings too late to do anything about it, rendering him impotently weepy along with everyone else in the film’s finale.

Phaansi (1978) also has him as an ethically layered character, this time in reverse: he is a reformed dacoit from the beginning, part of the film’s introductory pronouncements about the patriotic value of following the law, contrasted with the selfishness of crime, and continues to be a moral centre for the story, embodying the value of reform over revenge.

Phaansi, 1978

Could we overlook his turn as the reluctant criminal circus performer and grieving widower and father Jasjit in Don (1978)? Koi chance nahin! It’s similar to his role as the wronged patriarch of the infamously demographically distributed family in Amar Akbar Anthony but Don sets up an even better back story. Pran balances the filmi, the absurd, and the poignant just as successfully as the injured Jasjit makes his way across a very slack tightrope over a busy street with a child under each arm. When considering the physical traits characteristics the role would seem to require, Pran is a ridiculous choice, well into his 50s when the film was made, but when it comes to the actual performance, no one else could have made it work so well. And he’s even convincing, in that masala film sort of way, as a physical opponent to Amitabh Bachchan, just as he is in Zanjeer, a few years earlier. It’s a fascinating character: Jasjit’s life is high-stakes throughout the film, but he swings back and forth between desperation and arrogant bravado.

I love the 2006 remake of Don but to me casting Arjun Rampal in a role that has so much room for actual expression was a huge mistake.

Dharam Veer (1977), probably one of the most fantastical works of the golden age of masala, establishes Pran as a noble lone wolf, a dignified centre of discipline and loyalty in the complicated story of not-yet-realised family identities.

Surrounded by a film full of mind-boggling plot twists and history-bending costumes Pran’s consistent gravitas somehow reinforces just how unflinchingly ethical his character is, making him a perfect parallel and partner for the queen of the local royal family. Plus he has a sidekick who is every bit as principled and proactive as he is, the respectfully credited Sheroo the Wonder Bird. Only Amitabh Bachchan gets such strong support from the animal kingdom.

My very favourite Pran film, Gaddaar (1973), all but makes him the hero. Vinod Khanna is around to provide some of the services traditionally rendered by leading men, but Pran is the story’s emotional centre. Gaddaar shows the unravelling of a gang of thieves after one of them turns traitor and runs off with their loot. Pran, as the mastermind of the group, is the most invested in the recovery of the money and in the punishment of the traitor. And watching him slowly unravel as his ambition keeps slipping out of his grasp is a delight. The film is full of other star character actors like Iftekhar, Ranjeet, and Manmohan, and in a rare turn as something other than side acts, they interrelate and get a little more depth than they usually do as the token police inspector or henchman. It is perfectly appropriate that Gaddaar has Pran as the literal leader of the character actors, for 40 years after its release that is still a significant component of his legacy.

Again, as I mentioned before Pran is an actor foremost, a villain later. He is simply an actor I love to love. 

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