‘Raj Kapoor told me to say Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra’: Bollywood’s iconic villain on his innings

As Prem Chopra turns 86, the veteran actor speaks about how Raj Kapoor gave him his memorable dialogue, the way negative roles impacted his life and how the villain gradually died out of Hindi cinema.

‘Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra’. The dialogue itself was enough to send shivers down the spine of a generation of filmgoers, and also give them their money’s worth. The veteran actor who turns 86 today, has acted in almost 380 films over six decades and enjoyed fan mania that was normally accorded to the top stars of the day. Those were simpler times too. Away from social media scrutiny and 360 degrees coverage, stars were magical beings for the ticket-paying audience. A film ticket brought you three hours of sheer escape in the velvet darkness of the cinema hall. “Villain ko dekh ke darr jaate the log, and stars ko dekh ke pighal jaate the log,” as Chopra tells indianexpress.com in this interview. The actor revisits his innings, working with Raj Kapoor and how the showman’s Bobby gave him something that is remembered to this day.

Excerpts from the interview:

You were synonymous with cinema’s bad guy for decades. Did people take it literally and did this impacted your life?

When you do so many negative roles convincingly, people get a negative impression about you. But that’s my profession and I take it as a compliment. That’s the only way I got work and survived. In order to play these roles convincingly, an actor has to get under the skin of those characters, and that’s what I was doing. Then I also started adding comedy and satire to my characters.

However, there was one instance when my daughter was affected by my performance. I had taken her for a movie preview because she wanted to see her papa’s work. Throughout the movie she was silent and watching every scene carefully. After the movie was over, and we stepped out she kept staring at me and didn’t speak to me. She was scared. She thought what had suddenly happened to her father who is a joker at home. So I had to sit her down and explain to her that her joker will always remain a joker and that what I do in films is only my work, and it is important because that’s how we could afford to put her in a good school and buy the big new car. It took her time to understand that, but then she ultimately did understand the difference.

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What is the story behind ‘Prem Naam Hai Mera… Prem Chopra’?

(Laughs) That’s from Bobby. When Bobby came to me, I was already a star, I had won some awards also and accolades for my work. So, when Raj Kapoor offered me a special appearance role, I was reluctant to do it as I was doing parallel roles with the lead actor in several movies. So I told him that other directors were offering me chunky roles, so why should I do his film. And he said, ‘I don’t care, you have to do this!’ I did it, how can one say no to Raj Kapoor?

He loved to drink and one day we sat together. I kept asking him to give me the script so I can learn my dialogues; it was a Raj Kapoor film after all! All he had to say was, ‘Batayenge batayenge, fursat se’. He only told me that a young couple has eloped and I have to catch them. I had to say ‘Prem naam hai mera… Prem Chopra’.

When I heard that for the first time, it did not register. During the shoot, I met Prem Nath and told him that I was unhappy with the role. His advice was to do it and believe in Raj Kapoor. He was sure that the film will be a big hit. With his encouragement, I did it to the best of my ability and the dialogue clicked. Even today, wherever I go in the world, people either introduce me with that dialogue or want me to say it. It is so close to my heart that even my book is named Prem Naam hai mera… Prem Chopra.

Why do you think the era of great, larger-than-life Hindi film villains is over?

With time, everything changes. We used to do those kind of roles because the films required them, because every role was written like that. Now, such roles are not written as heroes themselves want to essay grey shades to prove their versatility. Every character has a backstory, so when a hero goes towards the dark side, there is a reason for that and it creates sympathy for them.

Nowadays so many actors are doing such a great job, you never know the arc of their characters, they are so layered. Characters and films are written for several platforms now. When we started working, there were no televisions, radios or OTT platforms. Our generation was about audiences coming to the cinema halls for total entertainment and they would clap. Now, people critique every story, every character and have accepted actors playing multifaceted roles. They have accepted heroes playing negative roles and villains turning positive.

Did you not want to be the hero?

Everybody who enters showbiz wants to be a hero, even I wanted to be a hero. I also tried doing positive roles. Later in my career, I did such roles in Bunty Aur Bablo and Rocket Singh and they worked with the audience. It wasn’t possible back then.

Now actors are offered the entire spectrum, but we were typecasted. ‘Villain ko dekh ke darr jaate the log, and stars ko dekh ke pighal jaate the log’. Also, now negative roles are not very important really, there is no scope or glamour attached to them.

I tried doing positive roles, but they were flops. When a film is a superhit, the hero is given all the credit, and when the film flops, he is stripped off all the good work. So then the actor’s career becomes very risky and short. It is best to accept whatever work comes your way and do full justice to your character. I have had a long career only because of this.

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