A journey to redemption makes for a compelling narrative. No wonder, in many Bollywood-obsessed families, Pran’s legendary onscreen transformation, from a villain to a good man, has often been recounted with much righteousness and an accompanying sense of relief at the restoration of the moral order. As the physically challenged war veteran Malang Chacha in Upkar (1967), Pran embodied the essential code underlying Manoj Kumar’s film: Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. He lip-synced to the melancholic Manna Dey song, Kasme vaade pyaar wafa sab, and made the audience weep buckets. It was as though the countrywide flood of tears forgave him his earlier sins and trespasses.
But the man who dominated for over two decades as a villain, who defined the ‘bad man’ in the popular imagination before the Gabbars, Shakaals and Mogambos took over, also played a loverboy in his early years. His first film as a romantic hero happened to be Khandaan, back in 1942, with the famous singer-actress Noor Jehan. Pran’s villainy spanned the 1950s and ’60s. He was the man who mattered the most in the industry other than the triumvirate of heroes, Dilip-Dev-Raj. What’s more, he even outlasted them and carried on successfully into the Shammi Kapoor-Rajendra Kumar and later the Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan eras.