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‘My name is Prem, Prem Chopra’—India’s favourite villain is more than a Bollywood bad boy

With over 400 films to his credit, Prem Chopra remains one of the strongest pillars of Bollywood.

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Much like Britain’s fictional suave spy James Bond, Prem Chopra’s distinct introduction in the 1973 film Bobby resonated with millions of fans. The film brought him international recognition when it became one of the top 20 biggest blockbusters of all time in the erstwhile Soviet Union.

“Prem naam hai mera…Prem Chopra (My name is Prem…Prem Chopra),” became the iconic lines that catapulted this dapper actor from a small Himalayan town to instant stardom. Best known for his unique style of acting, Chopra’s way of handling villain roles in films like Upkar (1967) and Do Raaste (1969), to name a few, included elements of manipulation and treacherous superficial sweetness. His interpretation of the characters added colour and texture to the films.

At the age of 87, he remains one of the pillars of Bollywood. Brought up in Shimla, Chopra grew up with a strong appetite for theatre and both Hindi and English cinema. His father wanted him to become an IAS officer, but acting was his calling. His passion for the stage aligned with Shimla’s strong theatre movement. He acted in several plays during his college years and after graduation, moved to the bright lights of Bombay to court Bollywood.

While working in the circulation department of the Times of India, Chopra would make arrangements with agents in other states to get them to visit him at the train station instead of an office. This way, a 20-day tour was cut to just 12, and saved him enough time to visit film studios, where he would often linger in the hope of catching a break.

Bollywood opened its arms to the aspiring actor in 1960, in the form of his debut film, Mud Mud Ke Na Dekho. While the film didn’t do well, Chopra still managed to bag the lead role in Punjabi film Chaudhary Karnail Singh, which was released the same year and won a national award for best feature film in Punjabi.

Also read: ‘Acting is not for you’—how Rajendra Kumar braved rejection to become Bollywood’s Jubilee King

Bollywood’s favourite villain

Prem Chopra’s versatility as an actor is extraordinary. He has acted in close to 400 films. “The villain changed through the decades, reflecting the socio-economic circumstances of each era. The ‘50s’ munim gave way to the ‘60s’ dacoit who stepped aside for the ‘70s’ smuggler who fell by the wayside for the ‘80s’ politician, who to his credit, still reigns strong,” he recalls in Prem Naam hai mera, Prem Chopra, a memoir written by his daughter, Rakita Nanda.

He has shared the screen with Bollywood superstars like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, but carved his own niche as the top villain. “The turning point was playing the villain in Raj Khosla’s ‘Woh Kaun Thi?’ (1964) and Sukhdev, a grey character in Manoj Kumar’s ‘Shaheed’ (1965),” he told the Times of India in a 2019 interview. But it was only by 1967 when he was “doing double shifts” that he felt for the first time he could settle in Mumbai.

From Ajnabee (1974) to Souten (1983), Chopra and Rajesh Khanna went on to make 19 films together, of which 15 were box office hits.

As the quintessential Bollywood villain, Chopra was often worried about how his children would perceive him every time he got beaten up on screen by ‘angry young man’ Amitabh Bachchan. In his biography, Chopra says that his children were constantly reminded their father only played the ‘bad man’ in films and that they shouldn’t believe what they see on screen.

Chopra reveals in an interview with Filmfare about the time he received compliments from women watching his movies because they found him more handsome than the heroes.

Also read: Dhool Ka Phool: Nehruvian secularism of Yash Chopra’s first movie is worth remembering today

More than a ‘bad boy’

I know how to exhume the fire I started.” This dialogue from Kati Patang (1969) compliments Chopra’s relationship with his wife Uma and his three daughters Rakita, Punita and Prerana. Uma, Krishna Raj Kapoor’s sister, was already cognisant of how the film industry functioned and understood the professionalism her husband had with the actresses—something an outsider wouldn’t quite have grasped.

His daughters had their share of apprehensions about their father’s roles in films, but never felt embarrassed. Rakita, in an interview with Rediff.com, revealed how she and her sisters would feel depressed seeing their father ‘die’ in a film. But Chopra would always make it a point to sit down and explain how play acting worked, often taking them on visits to show how one scene required four to five takes. Prem Chopra is a loving grandfather to half a dozen grandchildren.

Also read: ‘Leke Pehla Pehla Pyar’ dancer Sheila Vaz was ’50s icon but Bollywood forgot to give credit

Responding to death rumours

In late July earlier this year, there were fake reports of Prem Chopra’s death sending shockwaves through social media platforms and news channels that thrived on sensationalism. It was to such an extent that the actor was being bombarded with messages and calls. In an interview with The Economic Times, the actor responded that he is doing well and absolutely hale and hearty. He reacted that somebody was ‘deriving sadistic pleasures’ by spreading these rumours.

At 87, Prem Chopra the actor is still evolving and is seen in positive roles over the past decade in films such as Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), Golmaal 3 (2010) and Bunty Aur Babli 2 (2021).

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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