K N Singh – The King
His career in films can be blamed on a series of fortuitous accidents where he happened to be in the right place at the appointed hour. Had he not traveled east to Calcutta like a responsible brother to comfort his ailing sister, K N Singh had his passage booked West to represent India in shot-put and javelin field events at Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936. And while in Calcutta had he not walked in unannounced on his friend, an aspiring actor one morning, he would have missed meeting Prithviraj Kapoor, busy ironing his white satin kurta-pajama who would introduce him to director Debaki Bose.
And had Bose allowed him to knock around the laboratory and directorial departments at the East India Film Company’s studio a while longer instead of hiring him to play a doctor in ‘Sunhera Sansar’ (1936), film fans would have forever been denied the delight of his screen presence. But God, the big casting director had his plans for K N Singh in place, without his knowledge.
He had four scenes in the film and petrified of seeing the rushes. It wasn’t the acting or dialogue delivery which worried him, it was something usually neglected as inconsequential – his on-screen walk.
“Every actor knows that doing a long stretch of walking in front of the cameras is the worst possible ordeal for a newcomer. The camera is a harsh, relentless observer; a one-eyed monster all eyes for the smallest gaucherie,” he recalled later, “The wise Debaki Bose held me by my hand and spoke to me when I was trying to run away from the screening – Don’t ever run away from things. You have to face facts. Subsequently, I’ve tried not to run away from situations in that ornery, delightfully cussed thing called life.
Born into a family of distinguished lawyers on 01 September 1908 in Dehra Dun, Krishan Niranjan Singh was being prepped for carrying with the family profession and even studied Latin at La Martiniere School, Lucknow. Then one day, he witnessed his father skilfully defend a known murderer, who was finally acquitted of the crime and the idealist rebel turned his back on the courts forever. “Even though my father won, it was a miscarriage of justice.” Then, a career in the army beckoned before he surrendered to the arc lights.
After his début, Singh did another four films in Calcutta with ‘Hawai Daku’ as a hero. After gaining some experience in ‘Anath Ashram’, ‘Vidyapati’ and ‘Milap’, he was compelled by director A. R. Kardar to move with him to Bombay in December 1937.
He signed up with the Fazalbhoy Brothers where Kardar cast him in ‘Baghban’ (1937). Singh commented of this role, “It is this role and film to which I owe my continuance in films. It was a villain’s role but the violence, instead of physical was subtly mental. Cast as an evil-minded engineer who woos the heroine, I didn’t have to flex my muscles but had to do a lot of intellectual gymnastics. There was a scene in which the bad girl of the film (played by Yasmin) throws a dagger at me, a real one. The blade grazes me and sticks quiveringly on a bit of wood behind, making a scratch. Sneeringly I tell her, ‘See, even my blood is white.”
As his contract with Fazalbhoys ended, he signed up with Nanubhai Desai and finally joined Sohrab Modi’s Minerva Studios getting around Rs.500 a month.
His growing clout as a reliable villain also saw his persona being set in stone, recognizable even today as he is caricatured by mimic artists like Johnny Lever in variety shows – a trend started by Kishore Kumar in his films.
The fluid calisthenics of his bushy, arched eyebrows as they rearranged themselves every few seconds put a seasoned Kathakali dancer to shame. As the deriding Elvis curl of his lips permeated the atmosphere, the slight shake of his head called forth a menacing aura.His imposing frame, always decked out in hats and fitting suits with scotch and smoke in tow, towered over most of his heroes. One seldom found him screaming, screeching or abusing on-screen – with a voice softer than a viper’s kiss but deadlier, he never needed to. Just a dismissive command “Chup raho” or “Bakwaas band karo” was sufficient to send down the chills. His mere entry was a sign of impending doom. Every trademark of his persona was unique. After watching Singh perform, Yakub, the leading villain of era confessed to him, “You are not merely Singh, but a king. I will not play the villain anymore,” and he switched to character roles.
Other films which followed were ‘Ek Raat’ (’42), ‘Ishara’ (’43) in which a younger Singh played Prithviraj’s father. He made Dilip Kumar nervous in his début film ‘Jwar Bhata’ (’44) and did historicals like ‘Sikandar’ (’41), ‘Maharathi Karan’ (’44) and ‘Laila Majnu’ (’45).
When Devika Rani offered Singh a contract with Bombay Talkies, she asked him how much 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 contracted for four films a year at Rs.1,600 a month plus the privilege of being picked from and dropped to his home by the studio car.
Mostly working under top directors like Amiya Chakraborty and Shakti Samanta, he read numerous books on the subject and was most impressed with Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. A quick learner, he studied his roles thoroughly like when he played the role of a Victoria (horse-drawn carriage) driver in Samanta’s Inspector (’56), “For days together, I studied how the drivers sit, stand, talk and work. These are things no director can teach you. When I finally enacted the role, Shakida was highly impressed.”
Practically all his working life, K. N. Singh has lived in the same ground-floor flat in a leafy avenue in Matunga, a survivor, like himself, of a different era. He counted K L Saigal, Prithviraj Kapoor and Madan Puri as his friends and neighbors. The camaraderie which existed in the profession was remarkable. Even payment scales were very rational. At the height of Saigal’s fame, his salary for a film role was just three times more than that of Singh, the villain in the same film. “Considering that Saigal had not only to act but to sing, it was a very fair deal,” Singh said.
Raj Kapoor, who often snoozed in Singh’s lap as a child, grew up and directed him ‘Barsaat’ (’49) and ‘Awara’ (51). Raj Khosla and Guru Dutt, both eventually to make their marks as directors, used to visit Singh before they began their careers. Singh said he was the one who gave Guru Dutt the final, decisive push towards the pot of greasepaint, making him an actor to solve the problem of a growing dissent between Guru Dutt and Dev Anand, his chosen actor.
Reminiscing about some of his roles, “In Guru Dutt’s ‘Baazi’ (’51) I played the meaty role of a proprietor of a hotel with a Jekyll and Hyde personality – a domesticated father of a daughter and a gambling den. In K. Asif’s ‘Hulchul’ (’51), I played Dilip Kumar’s elder brother. Ironically, Balraj Sahni, those days in prison for political activities, had a jailor’s role. Police used to escort him from the jail to the set and back in the evening. At pack-up time, we used to joke with Balraj, ‘Going home’? There were a few sympathetic roles like ‘Mehlon Ke Khwab’ (’60) and ‘Funtoosh’ (’56) but in the main I got carried away in the stream of villainy”.
Like Singh had dethroned Yakub in 1930’s, it was Pran who did the same to Singh in the 1950’s. Although he kept acting in hit films like ‘Barsaat ki Raat’ (’60), ‘Woh Kaun Thi (’64), ‘An Evening in Paris’ (’67) and ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ (’71), he became a victim of self caricature and the directors didn’t intervene.
Clocking 300 films and working well into the 1980’s, Singh never fell shy of mentioning his debt of gratitude to Prithviraj Kapoor. ” One evening, when I thanked Prithvi for starting me on my career, he quietly walked up to the electric switch on the wall, turned off the light and turned it on again, ‘You see, there is a bulb here and current. I merely brought them together. And so it was with you.’ It was very generous of Prithvi to put it that simply but all the same I owe my career to him.”
Practically blind due to optic nerve decay, Krishan Nirajan Singh died on 31 Jan 2000.