Prem Chopra Turns 86: 'Nobody Offers You Free Lunches in Bollywood'
In conversation with Prem Chopra on his birthday.
“Prem Naam Hai Mera, Prem Chopra.”
One dialogue, and you know we are talking about none other than one of the most iconic baddies of Hindi cinema. But beyond the mask of the villain, Chopra is a man of affable laughs, measured words, and a life lived with honesty and hard work. And a meeting with him at his Pali Hill house can take you back to the time when films were less of monetary projects, and more about sincere collaboration. Here are a few excerpts from an exclusive interview with the actor, marking his birthday:
Q: You have completed over 50 years in the industry. What do you attribute your success to?
Prem Chopra: Well, I have done about 400 films and that is the result of being very involved in my craft, by being very honest and hardworking. I attribute my success to these factors. I got the love of millions of people in India, and wherever I go, in India or abroad, people recognise me and they love my work. That is the best of all achievements.
Q: Do you think the concept of acting has changed over the years?
Prem Chopra: Of course. Previously, there was no other mode of entertainment like TV, internet etc. Cinema was all we had. Actors were classified according to the roles they played. So, there was a hero, and there was a villain. They classified me as the bad guy because I was more successful as that and I did more films like that. Earlier, it was very difficult for people to digest it when one actor would play different characters. But now things have changed. People now are open to different kinds of entertainment, and they accept good performances, whether the same actor plays a positive or a negative character.
Q: But you had the lion’s share in playing the baddie during those times. Did it frustrate the actor in you?
Prem Chopra: The tag is still there. It depends on how you look at it. I started as a leading man, but that didn’t make much news. Here, nobody offers you free lunches. If you deserve it, you take it. Meanwhile, I got into negative characters which were offered to me. And those films became superhits. And I never stopped.
Q: Did you always want to be an actor?
Prem Chopra: I spent my childhood in Shimla. There I did some stage plays which got me a couple of awards, that encouraged me to think, why not try films? I had the ambition of becoming an actor, I never knew that I would be as successful as I am perceived to be.
Q: Did you face any resentment from your family for your choice of career?
Prem Chopra: My father was an IAS officer. He warned me that I was getting into an insecure profession. I told him that I had made up my mind and that I wanted to try it. In turn, he told me that he didn’t want to stand in my way. But he did want me to find a job. So that if it didn’t work out, there would be something to fall back on. I struggled for about 4-5 years. But I could sustain myself because I had a job with The Times of India. So, I’ve survived by taking on opportunities that were available, and working to the best of my abilities.
Q: What do you think of the films being made today?
Prem Chopra: I think people are churning out films. They are just interested in making a quick buck. There’s also quite a bit of plagiarism. Films now run for 3-4 weeks, but in our time, they ran for 100 weeks, 75 weeks, 50 weeks and so on. But now, you can’t even dream of running a film for even 10 weeks at a stretch. Also, there are very few films that have a social message these days. Otherwise, the intentions are mostly centered around entertainment. But, they’re right in their own way, so much money has been invested after all.
Q: Any actors you idolised?
Prem Chopra: Only Dilip Kumar. He had this dynamic personality and a unique sense of aesthetic. He didn’t have the loudness of a hero, he never looked unnatural. The present generation still copies him. He is the textbook of acting. He made that possible by innovating himself all the time. I had the opportunity of working with him in half a dozen films, like Dastaan (1972), Bairaag (1976), or Kranti (1981). We became very good friends. He is such a great actor and a great human being.
Q: What kind of acting style do you prefer, method or instinctive?
Prem Chopra: I am actor who’s always involved in his work. I believe the more relaxed you are, the better you look on screen.
Q: Most of your contemporaries (villains) were gregarious on screen, but you had a sly, soft spoken style. Was that a conscious decision?
Prem Chopra: It was conscious. I wanted to be different. And I realised that shouting loudly or making faces unnecessarily would not enhance my performance. It was the understanding of the role which would improve my performance. I kept learning from my mistakes, kept improving. I may not have been a great actor but I have improved myself step by step this way.
Q: Could you share any famous roles that you were unable to do?
Prem Chopra: I couldn’t do the role in Himmatwala (1983) which was later played by Kader Khan, and his life was made. My dates were clashing with Betaab. There were many other films at that time, that I could not do, thanks to money or date issues.
Q: How do you see relationships in the film industry of today vis-à-vis your time?
Prem Chopra: There’s lot more competition now. And competition evokes some sort of isolation for everybody. Competitiveness is so dangerous; you have to be on your toes all the time to stay here. I have adapted myself. Even Amitabh Bachchan has adapted himself so well. There have been people who could not adapt, they faded out. I am not doing much work, but I do whatever I get.
Q: What’s your daily routine to keep fit?
Prem Chopra: I try to be more relaxed most of the time. I do free hand exercises in the morning, and then I go for a walk or a swim. I try to avoid late nights as far as I can, but sometimes you can’t. And I read lots of books.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)
(This story is from our archives and was first published on 23 September 2015.)
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