IMMORTAL ACTS OF AMJAD KHANby Aparajita Krishna August 18 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 28 secs
Aparajita Krishna asks commentators, including his wife Shehla Khan, son Shadaab Khan and daughter Ahlam Khan Karachiwala, why and how Amjad Khan was a great actor.
Looking at his amazing range of acts in just these few films affirms an astounding range: Sholay (1975), Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), Qurbani (1980), Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), Lekin (1990). In a film-career of nearly 41years, which started with him as a child-actor aged 8 years in Nazneen (1951), he worked in over 132 films. Did Hindi cinema do justice to his talent? He died young, even before completing his 49th year. If only he had lived to do more roles!
Herein wife Shehla Khan, son Shadaab Khan, daughter Ahlam Khan Karachiwala and some fine film-minds articulate their assessment of the actor, the man, and their pick of his best performances along with personal anecdotes.
SHEHLA KHAN (Wife)
As youngsters Amjad and I were neighbors in Bandra. He was 8 years older than me. When I was 14 years old, he would tell me, “Hurry up. Grow up. I am going to marry you.” He would send me kairi (raw mangoes) every day. His father would say, “Jab dekho acting karta hai.’ Amjad, brother Imtiaz and his friends had a theater group - United Stage Artistes. In college he was very active on stage and would participate in the All-India Collegiate Drama Competition.
He also served as an apprentice in journalism. He never aspired to be a film actor. Stage was his passion. I would bunk studies and go watch his plays at Birla Matushri and elsewhere. Me and my band of girls. He did his Masters in Persian. My own father, Akhtar-ul-Iman, was a noted writer for B R Films. Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar would come home and work with my father on their Urdu diction. I myself graduated from Aligarh. I had completed my two semesters for MA when I contracted jaundice. When I came to Bombay Amjad said, “You better marry me else your dad may not allow it. Even if you do not do MA, you will be an MA. Mrs Amjad!”
I grew up after meeting him. I saw my first adult film, Moment To Moment, with him. We got married in 1972. Shadaab was born in 1973. Amjad was himself a very down to earth person. He could speak every dialect of Punjabi. In fact he could speak every Indian language. He even learnt Malayalam for a film. Even Ahlam, my daughter, is very good with languages. Like her father she chose theater as her calling.
Amjad had a huge range in acting. Even buffoonery he would take to another level. Take Hum Se Badhkar Kaun (1981) as an example.
After Sholay he got catapulted to such fame! I remember Sholay released on a Friday and we both along with little Shadaab went to Juhu Beach on an outing. Amjad suddenly said to me, “Now run!” I wondered why? Then I saw people had started to follow him and were gearing up to chase him. We ran to the car and drove off. It was amusing for me. His stardom bemused me. Later I would ask myself, “Is this for real?” After Sholay released we went to Hyderabad. From the airport we had to be sneaked out. All through the drive people were standing on both sides of the road. I would wonder why? I asked him, “Are these people waiting for you?” He replied with a poker face, “Ya! Even Kalidasa’s wife thought he was a fool.” We were innocent to the concept of stardom. Those were different times. My father-in-law (veteran actor Jayant) had only seen the rushes of Sholay. He died a few months before the release.
There were so many nuances in his acting as Wajid Ali Shah in Shatranj Ke Khilari. He becomes effeminate when he talks of thumri etc. Then again he becomes Wajid Ali Shah. I remember after Qurbani released; we were at London airport. Girls ran after him at the airport. They were saying, ‘You acted in Sacrifice!’. They meant Qurbani.
My husband was a very good human being. As a person he was very generous. As also with his money. I would at times forewarn him regarding say a particular person. His standard reply would be, “I can see through that fellow. I am letting him make a fool of me. Let him.” There was an incident with a producer. Those days a lab-letter would be required for a film print release. Actors had to give lab-letters. Lot of actors whose payments were due would not give. This one producer who owed Amjad money came for his lab-letter. It was a Wednesday. He begged. He had come with his house-papers to leave as a mortgage. Amjad asked him to pay his fees. He was obviously not interested in the house-papers. The distraught producer got up and left. Leaving the paper behind. Amjad ran after him, brought him back, gave him back his house-papers, served him lunch and signed the lab-letter on the spot. We never saw that producer again.
We were married for 20 years. Before retiring for the night, he would go look at his children asleep. His eyes would turn moist. It is not that Amjad and I did not have our share of fights. But we maintained a daayra, a fine line. There were unwritten rules. He would never shout. He was very clear that we resolve our marital problems within the four walls of our room. We never slept over a fight. Instead, we sorted it out and laid to rest the fight. He was a very indulgent father. No question of even shouting at the children.
I was 6 months pregnant with Ahlam when on an outdoor shooting that car accident happened near Goa, at Sawantwadi. He was on the wheels. He started to flip the cassette. He anticipated the accident and rammed the car into a tree. It was a very major accident. He broke his rib-cage and got hospitalized in Goa. I went into premature labour. I too was badly injured. He had to be airlifted from Goa to Bombay and straight driven to Nanavati Hospital. He remained there for months. He was a fitness freak, but post the accident physical activities got affected.
He died in 1992 at the young age of 48. But God gave him, in those relatively short years of working as an actor, the kind of reward for which people have to work all through their long lives. I was too stunned by his death. I did not cry or shed tears.
This 17th August 2022 would have been our 50th marriage anniversary. We were together in marriage for just 20 years. But in those years, we lived a lifetime. If he was alive today, he would have been very happy seeing his children, as they have grown up to be. They had a very good childhood with him. I do wonder, “Was death a foreboding thought that played in him? Did he know that he had less years left?”
SHADAAB KHAN (Amjad Khan’s son, actor and writer/novelist)
Yes, definitely Amjad Khan was a great actor! This is evident from the fact that although it’s been 47 years since the release of Sholay, his portrayal of Gabbar Singh is still considered the benchmark of not just on-screen villainy, but film acting in general. To this day his performance is copied, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, by actors from even the current generation, but not as yet surpassed, despite this being the golden age of Indian cinema that’s flush with talent across big-ticket film entertainment and the fast-emerging OTT universe. I can mention a number of his onscreen performances to further drive home my point, but all it takes is this one example that has withstood the test of time, to underline his brilliance as a performer.
Did Hindi cinema do justice to his talent? For me, that question does not sit right, because it gives away too much power to the place and very little to the people who shape it. The power to do justice to any actor’s talent is not in the hands of the medium. It’s always in the hands of the actor who exercises that power through his selection of roles and projects, not to mention his choice of filmmakers. All of this contributes to the longevity of his career. This, however, is easier to practice in today’s day and age, where the mantra is quality over quantity. Today’s actors are extremely selective with regards to their choice of projects, production houses and directors. But during my late father’s time, it was the other way round. Quantity over quality was the general rule. Yes, had he been alive today and in the running, just like a number of his esteemed contemporaries, he too would have practiced the modern-day norm. That would have given him a far better platform to showcase his tremendous range as a performer, firmly cementing his legacy as not just Indian cinema’s greatest villain, but a wonderfully versatile all-time great. But God willed otherwise.
AHLAM KHAN KARACHIWALA (Amjad Khan’s daughter and actor)
Dad passed on in July of 1992. In October he would have turned 49. I was 15 then, in the 10th grade. I remember connecting with Dad over movies even at that age. There used to be a gentleman named Mr Talreja who would come home every fortnight with a briefcase full of cassettes. And we would choose what to watch together.
He was a family-centric man and if he hadn't seen us for a few days because of his schedule, he would wake us up in the middle of the night, just to spend time with us. And he would try very hard to keep us away from school the next day. We have great memories of accompanying him for his shoots during our summer holidays.
As far as college goes, yes Dad won many accolades in the drama department. Dad went on to direct plays for various colleges independently. The early film acting roles were in Ab Dilli Door Nahin (1957), Maya (1961) with Dev Saheb and Mala Sinha, Love and God by K Asif in which he also assisted.
Theatre was always his first love and he was happy to act on stage and to direct plays. He hadn't really planned on acting in movies. He was apprenticing under a journalist named S S Pillai in the hope of becoming a journalist. His ‘theatrics’ led him to the film talent hunt where he was selected as the best actor. He was judged by Mr Chetan Anand and Mr Balraj Sahni. The former gave him a break in Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973).
Before this while he was doing a play called ‘To this night, a dawn’, Mr Ramesh Sippy who watched him, approached him for a role in Sholay. He had signed Charas by Ramanand Sagar, another by K Amarnath and Hindustan Ki Kasam before Sholay and Mr Sippy requested that Sholay be his first release. The others were kind enough to postpone their release dates.
Dad's success in Sholay came with a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears. He was thrown in the midst of all these established popular actors and he was a newbie. Insecurities ran high for him and much was at stake. People had already written him off claiming that his voice was too weak and that maybe he wouldn't be a strong enough villain. Son Shadaab was just born and his responsibilities were very high.
Keeping all this in mind I cannot be entirely objective about his performance in Sholay, but all things considered it was a very confident performance and there is a reason that it has become legendary. Maybe his theatre background had something to do with this, for his research and character work was thorough. He changed the character’s look from dhoti-kurta to a military uniform because he had researched about an actual Chambal dacoit who wore military clothes in order to fit in.
Which are the films/roles that you would hand-pick from Amjad Saheb’s repertoire? Shatranj ke Khilari, Sholay, Qurbani, Plot No 5, Laawaris, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Dada (He won the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor).
RAMESHWARI SETH (actor)
He was a fantastic actor. Sholay was path-breaking. It will be remembered even after 50 years and beyond. His role was iconic. No one else could have been Gabbar Singh. The unkempt look, the mannerisms. Today you have image-makers and a retinue of shooting-staff to look after an actor’s look etc. Not back then. Still, he was fabulous. Shatranj Ke Khilari was another path-breaking portrayal. In Qurbani he was so good. He had the comic-streak in him. Subtle. He was an intelligent actor.
He did manage to get his due in the short time he was in films. He died early. Else he would have had a career-span like Amrish Puri. Only in a career of 17 years he made a big mark and was in top gear till the end. I recall we both were signed for a film that never got made. Amol Palekar was to be the director. Footpath. During our meetings I noticed that he and Amol would talk about films, filmmaking. I respected that.
VINOD PANDE (director, producer)
Though I became quite close to Amjad Khan during the month-long strike of all sectors of the film industry in 1986, for being fellow-members of the Show Committee, our relationship began on a bit of a sour note. An innocent quip by me during a lunch touched a wrong fuse as it unwittingly reflected on his girth. Out came his rage, which was festering since 1980, for my audacity of presenting a filmstar in bad light in my first film, Ek Baar Phir. While his reaction stunned me, what surprised me the most were the reflections that Rajesh Khanna, Anil Kapoor, Vinod Khanna and a few other stars made, to say that I should have known that Amjad Bhai can’t take even an oblique joke about him being fat. Kaka (Rajesh Khanna) even remarked, “Joke about me; I don’t mind, but never make even a tiny joke about Amjad.” However, when I went into a little sulk, it was Amjad Bhai who broke the ice by volunteering an apology.
Ice had melted and now we even became pretty close, in as much as that he came on board to do the central role of a fat don in a film titled Parivartan, that I planned to make as a desi adaptation of an American film. During the script narration and workshop, he was to lightly tell me once, “You know Vinod, hum actor log bade kuttee cheez hote hain. On the first day’s shoot of a new director, we sense him out from the very first shot he takes. If we feel that he doesn’t know his job then he has had it. We make almost a slave out of him and make his life hell. On the other hand, if he knows his job, we become his minions thereafter and quietly take all the shit he gives us.” Such was the honesty in Amjad bhai. Our repartees had become more and more interesting and mutually unsparing day by day. Unfortunately, Amjad bhai tricked us all and left us with just sweet memories about him.
I think his huge stardom in the aftermath of Sholay didn’t let us discover the immense depth of his talent as an actor, though Shatranj Ke Khilari did provide a glimpse of his scale. His nuanced work was yet to come when he bid goodbye. Alas!
NINA ARORA (film-journalist, writer)
He was an all-rounder. A family-man, loyal friend, proud Pathan. A giant in more ways than one. Extremely knowledgeable in all aspects of cinema. He’d started acting on stage whilst still a student and grasped the rudiments of filmmaking as K Asif’s assistant. However, three factors made him a tour-de-force. His own God-gifted talent and great sense of humour, his passion for unusual characters (he collected a veritable library of books and films), and the fact that destiny led Salim-Javed to insist on him for Sholay though he was totally unknown.
Evidently, a film that is still watched and loved by each fresh generation, is bound to indelibly imprint Gabbar in public memory, but as an actor Amjad also excelled in emotional roles like Dada. Moreover, when it came to comedy, he walked all over his co-stars there too. Barring Mehmood and Dharmendra, nobody was as at ease in comedy as Amjad. One can see Amitabh, Rishi or Feroz Khan literally struggling to be funny whilst on the other hand Amjad’s spectacular comic range spanned from quirky sarcasm (Qurbani) to bumpkin (Love Story) to pumping up weak material with physical comedy.
I’d interviewed him several times. Emotionally, he belonged to an era where a man would give up his life for a friend, but would not bend before power. Consequently, his response was no surprise when Amitabh Bachchan, who was a close friend all through their rise to stardom, let him down when Amjad wanted to cast him in his first directorial exploration. As expected, Amjad didn’t molly-coddle him. Instead, he blew off steam before the press. Foregone conclusion - speaking Truth to power cost him his career.
ASHOK MISHRA (NSD alumni/film-writer/actor)
It is not necessary for a commercially successful actor to go on to do innumerable films. There can be many reasons for it. There could have been an attempt to typecast him – in variations of Gabbar. There is this pressure in our film industry. But he went on to address different kind of roles. It is also possible that by nature he was satisfied doing roles that he chose to do. He had already got such huge fame. Also, financially he may not have felt the need to run after money. It is possible that he may not have come across many scripts that were capable of doing justice to his talent and caliber. It is also possible that he may well have wanted to return to his world of theatre. Who can completely fathom the mind of a genius artist! His performance in Sholay was so fabulous that in public perception a Dacoit meant Gabbar. A good actor obviously elevates the script. Amjad Bhai was one of his own kind. He knew how to give longevity to his characters.
SMM AUSAJA (author and cine-archivist)
He was an artist of phenomenal depth! On the one hand you see him essay Ramesh Sippy’s Gabbar Singh in a spectacular debut, on the other you see him as Ray’s effeminate Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, which was a controversial portrayal, and got a fair bit of criticism. Yes, Ray responded to all that with equal conviction in the press, thereby settling the issue. Then you see him matching brilliant comic timing with Amitabh Bachchan in the famous ‘drunk’ scene of Raj Sippy’s Satte Pe Satta. My personal favourite is his stylish gum-chewing cop-act in Feroz Khan’s Qurbani. Two more portrayals that stayed with me - The Perfect Murder and the bumbling kind-hearted hawaldar of Rahul Rawail’s Love Story.
And so Amjad Khan stays beyond death, to live on in his roles!