It was once said that mothers would not name their newborn sons Pran for fear that they would become like the evil of the screen. We still remember as quintessential evil of Hindi cinema, Pran’s name became synonymous with evil in movies, ranging from the 1950s to the 1980s. Such was the aura of his personality that the audience simply knew that if Pran was in the film, he would not be good at all, so when he played a positive role for a change, the audience was speechless.
This first happened in 1967 when Pran played a rather positive role in Manoj Kumar’s Upkar. Based on Lal Bahadur Shastri’s motto “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan”, Upkar was a propaganda film that highlighted the sacrifices of farmers and soldiers and their role in building the nation. This happened shortly after the Indo-Pacific War of 1965 and Sastri’s death in 1966. The country needed something that could be mobilized, and Upkar did the trick. Here, Pran played Mangal chacha, Bharat (Manoj Kumar)’s trusted and moral compass, who is the light that guided him. The audience watching today may not understand the importance of Pran playing this role, but at the time, it was the most unexpected role he could play, and yet the audience loved him for it.
With films such as Madhumati, Jis Desh Men Ganga Behti Hai, Kashmir Ki Kali among many others, Pran had established himself as the bad guy. Pran was well aware of the power of his name on screen, so even in the titles, his name would appear at the bottom of the cast list as “… and Pran” in large bold letters, so that the public knew what was in store for them.
In Upkar, we see Pran singing “Kasme vaade pyaar wafa sab…” and sympathizing with the man who may have been deceived by society at times. As he sings “Duniya vale tera ban ke, tera hi dil todenge…”, you understand his cynicism, but you appreciate how he supports Bharat despite his personal reservations. His fight for Bharat against the bad Charandas (played by Madan Puri) until the end was something Pran had never done before.
Upkar is not really a movie that would connect with the public in 2022. It is an exaggeration, and every emotion is called to the maximum, but it is obvious why a movie like this would work at that time. The closest analogy we have to that today is the kind of patriotism Akshay Kumar that works for the larger population of cinema.
In recent years, Pran has played many roles that could not simply be classified as good or bad – such as Zanjeer, Amar Akbar Anthony, Don among others. In fact, his performance in Hrishikesh Mukherjee ‘Guddi, which was a behind-the-scenes look at the film world, gave the audience a sneak peek at the difference between his wheel and his real personality.
Upkar was a big step in the life of an actor who would eventually become known as the greatest villain of all time in Hindi cinema and his legacy is stronger because of characters like Mangal chacha who broke the expectations of the cinema-goers.
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