MUMBAI — The legendary Prem Chopra came here in the late 1950s to be a hero. “I came when the industry swore by so many big stars. They gave so many hits. Then their films began to flop and producers stopped signing them. But 60 years after I started out, I am still working!” says the 84 years own youngster-at-heart, who does not look a day over 65.
Today, when he is almost always a “good” man in films, Chopra is glad about being bad. He has just wrapped up his work for Yash Raj Films’ “Bunty Aur Babli 2” (he was the first to reveal to me that Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji were doing the film when we had met by chance. This was before the release of “Mardaani 2,” at which interview, Mukerji had denied this outright!).
Also released recently is his latest English film, “Line Of Descent,” with an international cast, and he is all praise for the makers of both films. For a veteran of 400-plus movies (overwhelmingly in Hindi but also in Punjabi, Gujarati and English), that’s almost like a certificate for them.
Here’s an artiste whose filmography of directors includes Raj Kapoor, B.R. Chopra, Manoj Kumar, Raj Khosla, Manmohan Desai, Yash Chopra, Vijay Anand and Rakesh Roshan, the cream of heroes and heroines and even the best of fellow-villains from Pran to Danny Denzongpa, Amjad Khan, Ranjeet, Shakti Kapoor, Kader Khan, Gulshan Grover and Amrish Puri.
Of late, when he just keeps busy rather than over-busy, Chopra has been seemingly, on an award-collection spree: he has just 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.
Long, long ago, this writer had met Chopra for the first time, the son of a government officer who would have preferred him to be a doctor, but when the son wanted instead to follow a future in the movies after participating in dramatics in his academic years, had no objection.
Chopra Sr.’s only precondition was that his son should take up a steady job while trying to make his hobby his profession. After all, Chopra was a graduate. “So I joined The Times Of India in Mumbai on a cushy, fun job with lots of travel opportunities and a nice salary of Rs 2500 in the late 1950s!” he recalled.
Soon, Chopra landed a hero’s role in the Punjabi film, “Chaudhary Karnail Singh” which released in 1960. The film was a hit and won a National Award. But there was little progress in Hindi cinema until the 1964 “Woh Kaun Thi?” and the 1965 “Shaheed.”
Chopra thus owes a lot to common co-star of these films Manoj Kumar, who also wrote the latter film. “I shot to big-time as Manoj Kumar’s villainous brother in the 1967 “Upkar,” which was a significant film in my career, as it was halfway through its shooting that I dared to leave my job! I became a villain because my films as hero flopped and those as villain became hits!”
Of course, apart from lead roles in Punjabi, Chopra later did the occasional sympathetic role in Hindi as well, even attempting comedy in the 1990s. Of late, most of his characters have been just like his personality—benevolent and cool!
Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor, Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan were among the actors who worked frequently with him as “villain” and the stardom these men saw ensured Chopra’s gravy train for decades.
Asked to now list his fave films, Chopra, in a phoner, says that there are so many. But he as a special affection for some flops wherein he was appreciated for a key role, like in “Aas Paas” and “Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year.” His successful favorites include “Do Anjaane” that won him the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor), “Himmat,” “Do Raaste,” “Kranti” and brother-in-law (their wives were sisters) Raj Kapoor’s “Bobby.”
“But what I think isn’t important. The audience should appreciate me, and for that the picture should be a hit!” he says decisively. Chopra’s one-liners in “Bobby” (“Prem naam hai mera. Prem Chopra”), “Souten” and some other films were so popular that that he would even do shows of his own, in which he would also sing! Even now, Prem Chopra’s mimics earn their living through doing items on him, and the generous actor blesses them if they meet him.
The actor treasures his association with other big names and his specific memories about them. “Dilip Kumar was among my inspirations and is very fond of me. When I was termed “better” than him in “Bairaag” by a critic, I was afraid Dilip-saab would get annoyed, but he wasn’t! Dev (Anand)-saab was another darling. He would call me “Premi” and was planning “Hare Rama Hare Krishna 2” when he left for London, from where he never came back. ‘Premi!’ he said over the phone. ‘We are both older now, but you and I will be together again in my picture!’”
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, son of late celebrated author and film writer Gulshan Nanda. His other daughters are happily married to actors Vikas Bhalla (Punita) and Sharman Joshi (Prerna).
Prem Chopra’s late brother was Kailash Chopra, who produced many films beginning with “Lagan” (1971) and ending with “Shukriaa” (1989). None of these were, however, successful.
Ask him the secret of his long innings, and he just smiles and says, “Hard work. I always tried to do something new in every role.”