City City Bang Bang, Columns

Pran: The power of the bad-turned-good

My decisive Pran moment came in Johny Mera Naam, perhaps not his most memorable role. Dev Anand played Johny, a CID inspector in disguise, while Pran was Mohan, main baddie Prem Nath’s accomplice. Mohan suspects that Johny is not who he claims to be and they come to blows over this. After the customary few punches that the hero endures, when he gets up to fight, both of them realise from their boxing styles that they are long lost brothers. Johny is actually Mohan and now the forces of good have doubled! Much cathartic clapping happened in the theatre, and as a child, i remember being enthralled.

The idea of the bad-turned-good has a power of a special kind. In the pleasure that we derive from this thought, lies buried our sneaking admiration for the power of evil, a wistful acknowledgment that the bad understand strength in a way that the good cannot, that force of any kind needs a visceral instinct for evil. The good wins because that is the script, but the victory becomes a bit more plausible when it is aided by the unmistakably potent forces of the once-bad. When the bad turns good, what was illegitimate admiration can now become frank joy, for now we can harness the secret knowledge that evil has about bending the world to one’s will. We may deny the power of violence in our everyday lives, we may decry its use, and build fences against its application, but we are seduced by its ability to provide simple answers to complex questions. If the good-turned-bad is unsettling for it confirms what we suspect, that civilisation is a lie we tell ourselves, the bad-turned-good gives us a temporary feeling of relief that for now, we have in our midst the steel of evil.

In Pran’s case, the first part of his career made the second half possible. Before the interval, Pran earned his spurs through acts of unremitting evil, without any justification or apology. Unlike more recent villains, who perform villainy with other-the-top flamboyance, for a bulk of the characters played by Pran, villainy was not a costume that he donned, it was just who he was. Someone who could have been a regular guy, a friend or brother-in-law of the hero, a potential suitor of the heroine, but someone who just happened to be bad. Other villains had their trademark characteristics- Prem Chopra was a man overwhelmed by the weakness of the flesh- he represented the craven form of evil that sprung up from weakness. K N Singh traded in the power that came along with evil, using it to exploit and ruthlessly dominate. Ajit understood that only the evil could be truly cool, and revelled in the trappings that accompanied it. In Pran’s case, evil was an implacable fact of life, one that allowed him to act as a counterpoint to the hero. If the hero had money, he wanted it instead. If he had the girl, then that was Pran’s goal. Pran evoked fear because he was close at hand, he represented the dread of evil that breathed heavily down the neck of good fortune, the inevitable catch that sprung up after the interval. Pran had a certain karmic inevitability about him- any road to heroism had to negotiate Pran.

When Pran started assaying roles full of nobility, he added an edge to it that normal character artists could not. Even he played straight-up ‘good people’, we knew that deep down, he was not just an ordinary, regular guy, he was Pran, someone substantial. His most remembered roles are where he plays a good, bad man- Majboor, Zanjeer, Don, Amar Akbar Anthony, Dharma ( his almost-solo starrer) all roles where the two ideas of Pran are allowed to mesh together to create a presence of some potency. The other character that he played several times was that of the jailor/police officer, again roles where the steel we saw in him translated into the credibility that he generated on screen.

In Pran’s career, we catch a glimpse of the close relationship that exists between the good and the bad, and the complex nature of our reaction to these seemingly opposite ideas. We valued Pran’s goodness that much more because of his previous badness; a lifetime of evil made him a powerful good man. In some way’s Pran’s career follows a single, almost seamless trajectory for in the earlier part of his life, he was Pran even before he entered a film and we knew what to expect and in the later part of his life, he carried over that memory that we had of him into every role he played. What remained etched in our minds was the common thread of integrity that he displayed, whether to evil or to righteousness. We could never domesticate Pran in his old age, even when he played role of a father, more often than not, it would be as a stern autocrat. Unlike an Ashok Kumar, who represented the idea of a cuddly form of paternalism, or Nasser Hussein, who made a career out of falling down staircases clutching his heart, Pran would always carry a touch of the gruff in him, no matter if it hid a melty golden heart.

Today, villainy has for all practical purposes moved into the dimensions of the hyperreal. To be considered a villain, one has to maim, savage and disembowel a large number of people, preferably in slow motion. The simple pleasures of villainy- getting someone to sign a will, marrying the girl at gunpoint, succumbing to the hero’s blows after a climactic showdown involving jeep chases, cliff edges and construction sites with dynamite going off every now and then- have all been lost. Even the notion of the bad-turned-good has lost the power it once had, for the line between the two is irredeemably blurred today.