Bobby was an iconic film where you had an iconic dialogue.
Yeah, Prem Naam Hai Mera…Prem Chopra. You won’t believe it. I was so reluctant to do that film because I was doing other films of parallel roles with Amitabh Bachchan etc. When Raj ji said that I want you to come and do a special appearance in my film, I was thrilled. I said, “Why not”. It’s a fabulous thing to work with Raj Kapoor. He used to drink every evening. So at that time, I asked him for a script. And he was always like, “I’ll tell you later”. So, when we went to Pune for the shooting, he told me about the scene. He then also told me that I have only one dialogue in the film. I thought it was funny. I went and met Prem Nath on set. I told him that Raj Ji has given me only one dialogue in the whole film. And he said a very wise thing. He said that this film is going to be a big hit and you’ll be the biggest hit.
Now, wherever I go, either in America or England, people demand that I repeat my dialogue from Bobby.
Now, cut their premiere in Delhi. The picture was, of course, superb. People were only saying my name outside the theatre.
You have a career that spans 60 years which is phenomenal. Would you be able to tell me one or two high points of your career?
I was graduated from Shimla. I came down to Bombay and I had no means to stay here. My father, who was an IAS, told me that either you become a doctor or you try for IAS. But while I was in Shimla, I started liking theatre. Amrish Puri was five years senior than me and we even did a play together in Shimla. I was in first year and he was in last year. So, when I did plays and even won awards during drama competitions, something started working in my mind. I told my father that I don’t want to come in your career. He said, “You can go, it is your choice but one thing I want to make very clear. I have a large family, 5 brothers and 1 sister and I am a government servant. I won’t be able to send you money. So, if you are going to Bombay, it is a place of opportunity. You can find a job first.”
So, I was fortunate that I found some odd jobs. I eventually got into Times of India. So, that is how it went on. But it was not easy in those days. It is easy nowadays. Because at that time, the only medium of entertainment was cinema. Now, people have TV, OTT, and Advertisements. Now, everyone can get a chance if they really want to work and if they deserve it.
So, we had to struggle. Everybody had to struggle. Amitabh Bachchan had to struggle. Dharmendra was saying that he had to sleep on railway station sometimes. I had to struggle but I was fortunate that I had a job. So, I was not starved or something like that.
I lived in a guest house. It had four people in the same room. But there was only one toilet.
If you stop struggling, it means you are a failure. I had to face many insults and humiliations in this industry.
I was spotted by somebody when I was travelling in train and coming to my office. On the way, he said, “You want to work in films?” I said that I do. So he asked, “Can you come with me right now?” I said, “Why not?”
So, on our way, he told that I am supposed to be the hero if the director says yes. But it is a Punjabi film. I thought that at least, I’ll get the experience. It was the film “Chaudhary Karnailsingh”. It was the biggest hit of that year. That film got the National Award. So, that’s how I took off!
So many people come to join the film industry, but on their way, they lose their confidence and they divert themselves to other things. But there were some people who were determined to be there. I was determined to be there in front of the camera. I was very devoted and disciplined to be in this profession.
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You never had any problems with any of the filmmakers, heroes or co-stars.
Yes, I never had any problem. If you communicate with each other, everything goes well. In those days, films were not made in isolation. Before the shooting, there used to be a roundtable where you could give your suggestions. For so many films, I gave my suggestions. If I would have been discouraged and left, I would have been working in Shimla somewhere.
Apart from your dedication and determination, I think luck is also important.
Yes, luck counts. But luck can only count if you are ready to accept and face all these failures, humiliations and insults. But when you become popular, then everybody comes to you. When you have everything, everybody laughs and smiles with you. But when you have nothing, everybody avoids you.
Has it ever happened that somebody maybe humiliated you during your struggle period and came back to you when you became a star?
Can’t name any specific but there were lots of people who were quite reluctant to work. Initially, I worked as a hero in 2-3 Hindi films but those films didn’t work. Here, the hero gets the maximum credit if the film is successful, and gets the maximum discredit if the film is a flop. Then I was open to other roles also. There was a film called “Woh Kaun Thi”. It was a suspense film. I had a small role where I got three films. But I was the suspense of the film. So, that became superhit.
When I was struggling, I went to Mehboob sahab. He said, “I see something in you. I’ll give you a break”. I used to live in Colaba and I went to his office every day and just sit there. He used to be busy with his pals. I kept waiting and then I thought that I am missing out on other work. So, I took the small role in “Woh Kaun Thi”.
So, when the premiere of the film happened, Mehboob Sahab was the chief guest. He saw the film and coincidentally, the next morning, I was shooting for a Punjabi film in Mehboob studio only. He came to see me. He said, “I had told you that don’t take small roles and I’ll you the break. Now you’ll play the villain. The film is very good and you are an established star.”
Then I did films like Shaheed, Sagaai, Teesri Manzil, Mera Saaya and 3-4 Punjabi films, while I was doing my job at TOI also. Maybe, luck played in my case that I got good opportunities. I was well-noticed after Teesri Manzil.
You were born in (now) Pakistan. Do you remember anything of freedom?
I was very small but I was aware of where I was staying. There was chaos everywhere. So, because my father was a government officer, he had the opportunity to leave the place a day earlier. After that, the mess started. We first came to Ambala and we stayed there for few days. Then we shifted to Shimla. So, my education and everything happened in Shimla.
So, you were about 12 years old when we got freedom. Do you remember the day of independence?
Yes, I remember the place I was staying. Now recently, somebody from Pakistan made a documentary on me and he discovered the house where I was staying in Lahore.
Would you like to tell me any films you did with Rajesh Khanna or any story behind it or your relationship with him?
I had a good friendship with him. The first time we worked was “Do Raaste”. In “Upkaar” I did the role of brother but I was not the first choice. The first choice was Rajesh Khanna. Even his costumes were ready and it was one day left for shooting. He was selected by the panel of united producers. He was very happy that he was going to work with Manoj Kumar who had already established himself as a very fine director. When he told those producers about his role, then they collectively told him that this role has a negative shade and we are trying to cast here as a hero. So, he panicked. He discussed it with Manoj and then I was offered the role. Then we did many films like “Kati Patang”, “Prem Nagar”, “Doli”… so many films which were super duper hit. He was a name to reckon with in those days.
Is there any story or incident you would like to tell me about Rajesh Khanna?
Rajesh Khanna was a misunderstood man by some people but he was very genuine where the work was concerned. The only problem with him was that if there was a 9 o’clock shift, he would come at 12. So, I had some incidents. I was doing a film in Madras called “Haathi Mere Saathi”. The film’s producer, Chinnappa Thevar, was a very strict man. So, he would send a man to pick up Rajesh Khanna at 6’o clock. But even then, Rajesh Khanna would arrive on set by 11 or 12. After all, he was a very big hero. So, Thevar had appointed a man. The moment Rajesh Khanna would arrive, Thevar would beat up that man and abuse him. He would yell, “Don’t we give you money? Why do you come late?” Rajesh Khanna understood what was happening. He became regular afterwards.
How did you work around actors who were not disciplined because you were very disciplined?
Because I was minding my own business. If I am told 9 o’clock, then it is 9 o’clock for me. I had no ego that if he comes late then I should also come late. I was very punctual. I think my honesty and my hard work have kept me on and on for a very long time in the limelight.
You have also done a lot of films with Amitabh Bachchan. Can you tell me something about Amit?
Amitabh Bachchan was a very quiet sort of a man. Introvert but brilliant. Very hard-working, very punctual and well-prepared before he comes to the set. He explodes on the screen. I did a lot of films with him. I was very impressed by him because he was very dedicated to his profession. He was very honest and hard-working. He was director’s dream actor. He had that immense talent in him.
He also had to struggle a lot. I am surprised to see his stamina at this age. He is doing every ad. He is doing “Kaun Banega Crorepati”. He is doing very prominent roles in very big films. How does he take the time out and how he works so hard? It’s amazing. It’s incredible. His body of work is biggest as compared to any actors in the past, present and I think, in the future also. He is still in the category of superstars. He is a very intelligent man.
When you were first working with him in earlier days, did you ever think that this man has it in him to be what he is today?
We did some films but they were flop. So, he was rejected in the beginning for a couple of films. He was replaced. But he was determined also.
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Prem, what about Manoj Kumar? You have had a great association with him.
Yes, I have great appreciation for him. I think he is one of the finest directors we have in this country. He is an institution by himself. His way of taking the shots is incorporated by many big producers and directors. He is a complete cinema man. The best thing about him was, he used to write his own scripts, used to operate the camera also sometimes and worked with the team on lyrics also. To me, he has been a career-making man. I could not dare to lose my job if I had not worked in “Upkaar”. We are still in touch with each other.
Then I had the good fortune to work with Mr. Dilip Kumar. I worked in 5 films with him- “Kraanti”, “Dastaan”, “Bairaag”, “Duniya” and one more. We had to do a film but he fell sick. When I came to Bombay, my inspiration was only Dilip Kumar. I didn’t have enough money but whatever I had, I used to watch his films. I used to wonder how he acts and how he is so natural compared to other actors who were very loud. Other actors looked like they were creating a drama. When I came here, my ambition was to see him. But I had no opportunity.
When I was established in the industry. BR Chopra sent me a message for “Dastaan”. He said, “Dilip Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, yourself and Bindu”. I went to meet him. It was like my dream come true. When I met him on the sets for the first time for a scene I was doing with him, he was extremely hardworking. For each shot, he put in such a labour till the shot becomes perfect. The director would assure him that it’s a perfect shot but he would insist on doing one more time. That’s why he became an all-time legend. Nobody can replace him. He was the best actor India has ever produced. He was the best actor in past, now and in the future also. You can’t use ‘was’. You can only use ‘is’ for him.
You also had a great friendship with Rakesh Roshan and Jeetendra. Does that continue?
Yes, of course. But we don’t meet too often. They have their own hobbies. Rakesh has his bungalow in Lonavala. He goes there. He stays there for 3-4 days every week.
How did your friendship with Rakesh Roshan start?
My brother became a producer. That was the wrong thing he did but he wanted to get out of job and wanted to work in the film line. Anyway! I had seen Rakesh Roshan at a funeral and the spotlight was on him. I think it was his father’s funeral. So, I suggested to my brother that you should seek this boy because he is very popular. We signed him. I was also working in my brother’s film. That’s how it started. Then we became very good friends.
And what about your friendship with Jeetendra?
Jeetendra and I were best of friends. We stayed in same building in Colaba near Colaba post office. Both he and I were struggling actors. Nikalte the hum maidaan-e-jung mein. And we used to come back in the evening with dull faces. One day, we thought that we should travel together in the same car since we used to go to the same place. Otherwise, we had to spend on petrol two times. We had very funny moments together which I cannot tell in the interview.
What about the films that you did together?
I did many films with him. He was underestimated as an actor but he was a very natural actor. That’s why he stayed for 30 years as a leading man. No leading man has stayed for that long.
Then I worked with Mr. Dev Anand also. I did 5-6 films with him. He was full of energy. He was a man with so much passion for filmmaking. He used to write his own dialogues in English. It was an experience to work with him. He was so energetic that he also became an inspiration for other people. Even if his films didn’t work, it never gave him a complex. He was such a positive man. He died with his boots on. He had gone to London for treatment and before going, he told me that I should be ready for “Hare Krishna Hare Rama 2”.
I never saw him talking against anybody. He was not a politician. Other people were. He was a very disciplined man.
You are related to the Kapoor family.
I have relationships right from Prithviraj Kapoor to Kareena and Ranbir Kapoor. I was joking with Ranbir that when your son is born, I will be working with him.
I did films with Raj Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor.
What about Rajiv Kapoor?
I don’t know what happened but he was a great talent. He knew about cinema very well. He made a film that was very good but it was beyond time. It was about remarriage of a widow. People did not accept that subject. But otherwise, he was very talented. So, what happens in this industry is either you hit the bottle or you get depressed. That’s what happened to him, he was drinking all the time.
Tell me about Rishi Kapoor.
He was a very jolly person. We worked in many films together. The last film we did together was Rakesh Mehra’s “Delhi 6”.
You are also related to Prem Nath. Isn’t it?
Yes, he is my brother-in-law.
When did you first meet Uma?
We had our first meeting at her brother’s house- Mr. Rajendra Nath. We just had a very little formal conversation and after a gap of one year, we decided to go ahead. So, it was an arranged marriage.
We never heard anything scandalous about you.
I was very much involved in my work. And then, to get into such kind of politics is a dirty thing. People do it for the sake of publicity. I never wanted publicity like that.
You have been married for how many years?
What is the secret behind 52 years of a happy marriage?
We have adjustments. We tell each other everything. We don’t hide anything. Nowadays there are no adjustments.
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You are 87 and still working. What’s the secret behind it?
There’s no secret. I have knee problem but I am exercising every day. I go for physiotherapy. So, things are going on.