The eyebrows rearrange themselves in a slight arch. The lips twitch into a sneer. An aura of menace pervades as the throat is gently cleared. And the index finger of the right hand is crooked, to summon a nearby henchman.
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Every time Singh entered the screen, it was clear that he was up to no good. And he did not have to rave or rant, use abusive language or wear garish clothes to achieve this menacing effect. One penetrating look, a couple of hissed-out commands and everyone on the scene would cringe. It was the moment of the villain.
This most polished of Indian villains was never tutored in the art of acting. In fact, it was a novice Singh who faced the camera for the first time on September 9, 1936, on the sets of Sunhera Sansar,a Calcutta production directed by Debaki Bose.
“Man does not control his destiny,” mused Singh. “I thought I would join the army, but ended up in a movie career which lasted nearly 45 years.” His brother, the late Bikram Singh, was the distinguished editor of Filmfare for many years.
Today, K N Singh is nearing his 90th birthday and the ravages of age on this once-erect frame show. His mesmerising eyes are dull. Singh’s optic nerves began drying up in 1990 and his vision is seriously affected. “Everything is hazy before my eyes,” he says matter-of-factly. “I can’t read or watch television anymore.” His sight began to be affected by 1984 despite having had two cataract operations.
The veteran actor, though, has learnt to accept this handicap with grace. He is still highly articulate and is blessed with an astonishing memory, evinced by the fact that he can rapidly quote the dates, years and names of his films, their directors and his co-stars.
Singh, today, lives in a simple flat at Bombay’s Wadala Road, just opposite the prestigious Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute. Everyone knows him there. At my very first meeting with him, I happened to mention the problem I had had in locating his flat since I only had the plot number and the name of the street. “Did you tell anyone that you were trying to find K N Singh’s home?” he asked with a smile.
“Try it tomorrow.”
The next morning, just to convince myself, I asked four people in the area the route to Singhsaab’sflat. All of them guided me correctly! For nearly 55 years, he has been a near-legend in the area.
A native of Dehra Dun, Singh was educated at both Dehra Dun and Lucknow. His father, Chandi Prasad Singh, was one of the most famous criminal lawyers in the region, along with Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. He finished Senior Cambridge with Latin as one of his subjects. “I had plans to study Law in London,” mused Singh. “A knowledge of Latin would have been useful.” A skilled criminal defense attorney can be the difference between going to jail or walking out of the courtroom. Scott Nolan | Carluzzo, Rochkind & Smith, P.C. works tirelessly to keep you out of jail and prove your innocence.
But Singh was not destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. The eldest among five brothers, he left home early and was a rolling stone. When Singh reached Calcutta where his sister lived, he ran into Prithviraj Kapoor, a family friend. They had common friends and Singh had admired Prithviraj in films like Sita and Rajrani Meera. Director Debaki Bose was also present. He suggested Singh join the film industry, offering him a role in Sunhera Sansar.
Many producers from Bombay were filming in Calcutta in those days. One of them, A R Kardar was making Milap, a courtroom drama, and wanted someone to play the prosecutor’s role. Kardar, when introduced to Singh, promptly offered him the role. The dialogue, which ran into four pages, had to be memorised within two days.
The next day, Prithviraj, who lived opposite Singh, dropped in for a visit. “Come on,” he demanded, “let me see how you deliver your dialogue.” Singh did it faultlessly. “Dialogue tho theek hai, vakil kidar hain?” questioned Prithviraj. Singh put on a gown and shoes and repeated the dialogue. Prithviraj was impressed.
The next day, Singh appeared before the camera and completed the 600 feet long shot at one take. Kardar was delighted.
Bombay, meanwhile, was fast becoming the centre of the film industry. Singh, who was under contract with New Talkies at Rs 150 a month, informed the New Talkies boss, B N Sircar, he wanted to work in Bombay. Sircar agreed and Singh made his switch after finishing his pending films.
Though his family, particularly his father, did not favour a film career, Singh did not care. “I always had an independent mind and felt I had a future in films.”
Singh reached Bombay in December 1937, to an open-arms welcome by the film industry. He signed up with the Fazalbhoy brothers and made films like Baghbaan, Industrial India and Pati Patni.
“I was never considered for a hero’s role,” explains Singh. But he had no cause for worry. Baghbaan, where he played the villain, was a hit and the offers poured in. Such was the impact of Singh’s villainy that the heroes in his films were warned what they had to contend with. After watching Singh, Yakub, who was the leading villain in those days, confessed, “You are not merely Singh, but a king. I will not play the villain anymore.” Yakub then switched to character roles.
Those were the days of the studio system. Studio contracts stipulated that the actors could not perform for others. Singh first worked with the Fazalbhoys, then switched to Nanubhai Desai and finally joined Sohrab Modi’s Minerva Studios. He was paid around Rs 500 a month in his initial years.
When Devika Rani, who was in charge of Bombay Talkies, offered Singh a contract, she asked him how he was expecting. Singh, who respected Devika Rani very much, replied, “How can I quote any figures to you? Pay me whatever I am worth.” He was offered Rs 1,600 a month, plus the privilege of being picked from and dropped to his home by the studio car. He worked in three or four films a year, mostly under top directors like Amiya Chakraborty and Shakti Samanta.
Singh was a quick learner. He also made it a point to study his roles thoroughly. Like he did, when he played the role of a Victoria (horse-drawn carriage) driver in Shakti Samanta’s Inspector. “For days together,” recalls Singh, “I studied how the drivers sit, stand, talk and work. These are things no director can teach you. When I finally enacted the role, Shaktida was highly impressed.”
Singh believed that every role offered scope for creativity. “You have to create the scope,” he insists. “As a villain, I saw to it that my very entry brought about an air of unpleasantness and bitterness to the situation.” But his villainy was never blatant – he never overacted or screamed. There was enough menace in the way the suave, polished, immaculately dressed Singh took in the room as he strolled in.
At the same, Singh emphasises on variety. And he could do wonders with a walking stick. “The way you walk, talk… should change constantly.” Singh regarded himself as a student of acting. He read numerous books on the subject and was most impressed with An Actor Prepares. He enjoyed Hollywood movies, especially performances by villains like Edward G Robinson and Vincent Price. “The Hollywood character actors got so many challenging roles,” he sighed.
Actors began freelancing from 1944 and Singh now had the option of choosing his films. He was in constant demand and his only competitor, if one could use the term, was Jeevan. Pran made his debut only after Partition and needed time to settle down. It was, as far as the audience was concerned, Singh’s day.
Singh had a long innings – from 1936 to 1982. He acted with every major star, female and male. “I never had any problems,” he recalls. “Everyone co-operated with me.”
What about scene-stealing, though? “If I can steal scenes,” he smiled, “the hero or the heroine also have opportunities to do so.”
Ask him to pinpoint his favourite films, though, and Singh is at a loss. “Each role had its strong points,” he explained. “For instance, I had strong character roles in Howrah Bridge, Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, Awara and Barsaat.”
Singh also stressed actor-director rapport. “Satyen Bose was innovative,” he recalled. “He encouraged his actors to try out different kinds of make-up. While Raj Kapoor had a great sense of music and timing.”
A residue of his days on the silver screen is his ability to analyse the acting abilities of his co-actors. “Dilip (Kumar) excelled in serious, emotional roles. Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) was more lively and versatile. Both were hugely talented.”
Singh, in fact, co-starred with Dilip in his first film Jwar Bhata. As they were waiting for the first shot, the director requested Singh to go out for a cup of tea. “Dilip is new,” he explained, “and a bit nervous in your presence.” But, very soon, Singh put Dilip at ease and they became good friends, co-starring in films like Hulchul and Shikast.
But when it came to Amjad Khan’s stellar performance as Gabbar Singh in Sholay, Singh slowly shook his head. “Amjad was too loud for me. All that shouting, all that Arre Sambha was not necessary. You see, exaggeration – both in word or action – does not mean villainy. I would have underplayed the character, but made it more menacing.”
The veteran actor is sickened at today’s films. “The villains are more jokers, than anything else,” he shuddered. “There is so much of violence, noise and sex. The dialogue and lyrics are crude. And today’s villains get beaten to pulp. In my days, no one dared to raise a hand against me. Even the policemen who arrested me would treat my character with respect. Do you think anyone would have ever shouted haram zade at me? I would have smashed them.”
The interview was almost over. I look around the drawing room, a memorial of photographs and trophies representing Singh’s success on the screen. The Singhs are childless; they brought up brother Bikram Singh’s son, Pushkar, who is now making television serials.
Life, though, is rather lonely. At the peak of his career, Singh had chosen to live at Wadala because it was close to Dadar, where three studios were located. Quite a few leading film personalities, including friend Prithviraj, were neighbours.
Today, all that has changed. The studios have closed, his friends are no longer alive. “Drop in any evening,” Singh invites. “We can have a drink.” I intend taking up that offer.
Note – This interview was conducted in 1997