Om Prakash – Prima Donna
Om Prakash (19 December 1919 – 21 February 1998), by turns, was temperamental and gracious, sparkling and pensive, cantankerous and generous, acerbic and witty. He was the prima donna of the Hindi Screen character actors. Producers wrote movies based on him. Stars leaned heavily upon his generous measure of talent by insisting that producers sign him up whenever there happened to be a meaty key role in their projects. Shootings were frequently based upon Om-jee’s dates which, incidentally, were always heavily booked!
Stories were told about his romances – he was a close friend of the handsome Lothario, Shyam, a leading man of the thirties and forties and the two of them used to ‘swing’ together – that would pale into insignificance the amorous doings of the present-day crop of actors. Anecdotes spun around something daring, amusing or instructive that he may have said or done on or off the sets and these perpetuated his legend.
Born of well-to-do parents who owned vast estates and property in both Lahore and Jammu, Om Prakash spent a wonderful life: six months in Kashmir and Lahore respectively. A keen film fan, he decided he wanted to be an actor and in 1933 came to Bombay, where he joined Saroj Film Company on thirty rupees per month. He was paid this salary though he ever got a chance to act, the monsoon having broken with a vengeance which made shooting impossible. That was the end of his acting for some time and also the end of his studies since he refused to return to school.
In ’36, while holidaying at Jammu, he decided to start working, went off to Lahore and purchased a laundry and dry-cleaning establishment for sixteen thousand rupees. The urge to work apparently didn’t last long and the business faded away due to neglect and was eventually sold by its disgusted, and now bored young proprietor for seven thousand rupees. For another year or so, Om did nothing but while away time in the manner of a rich young playboy, till in ’38 another yen to do something loomed up and he joined All India Radio in Lahore as a drama artist.
He featured as the character, Fateh Din in a rural program which he also wrote and instructed peasants on how to combat agricultural challenges. The program, which was a daily of ten minutes, proved immensely popular and resulted in a staggering fan mail of three to four hundred letters a day. This spot of work lasted for six years despite the incorrigible Om’s irregular timings.
In between, in 1940, he got married: “The happiest and saddest incident in my life,” he said with solemnity, “The happiest because I got so many new suits and hundreds of presents, but later,” a heavy sigh, “I realized it was very sad,” he related with a thoughtful look at his charming laughing wife and then smiled.
After his resignation from All India Radio on June 1st, 1944, Om went to Srinagar and was astonished receive a telegram from producer Dalsukh Pancholi, offering him a role. However, he didn’t believe it possible, that it was a joke and forgot about it, till he met music director Ghulam Haider, also vacationing there, and mentioned it to him.
On being told it was no joke and urged to go to Lahore, Om left Srinagar and met Pancholi. He signed a contract at eighty rupees per month and was cast in a small role in ‘Dassi’ on September 1st, 1944.
As Om recalled, “Dassi became a hit, and I was again in Kashmir, in that very same house, when I got a letter from the concern terminating my services! The picture was over, so perhaps they didn’t want to go on paying me a salary! Then one evening, I was sitting with some friends in the bar of Plaza Cinema at Lahore when in walked Pancholi! He was amazed to find me there and asked me why I had done a disappearing trick?
“Disappearing trick!” I exclaimed. “Your general manager fired me!”
“To hell with my general manager,’ said Pancholi Saheb, or some words to that effect. ‘Come to the office tomorrow morning!’
“I went, and he paid me five months salary in one lump sum for that period when I had been off the pay-roll! I went to work in ‘Dhamki’ and my salary jumped from Rs.80 to Rs.1,000 per month!” Then followed ‘Shahar se Dur’, ‘Pagdandi’ and Madhok’s ‘Al Bahar’ in which he played the romantic male lead and which he believed flopped for that reason!
Then came 1947 and the Partition with its horrendous riots. The family moved off to Brindaban, lucky to escape with their lives, and on 07th August Om Prakash came to Bombay in search of work. For nearly a year he starved, walked from studio to studio, asked, pleaded and even begged for work. There was none but there were people who helped him, gave him shelter and a share of whatever they had.
In March of ’48, he met director Jayant Desai at a party and was offered a role by him in ‘Lakhpati’. He was given Rs.1,000 as an advance against a salary of five grand. That money was like wine and no sooner had he cashed the cheque after walking to the bank, that he taxied home, collected his friend Khushiram and went off to a tobacconist’s where they purchased all the cigarettes the man had; 300 packets, their first in three months and treated themselves to a stupendous dinner at a first-rate hotel.
His first break in Hindi films had come in M Sadiq’s ‘Char Din’ (’49) and the role, the publicity and the billing he shared with Suraiya and Shyam established him in a position from which he never looked back. He next worked in Jaimani Dewan’s ‘Chaman’ which was a great Punjabi hit all the way from Delhi to Peshawar. He received Rs.3,500 for that picture and for the next one, the far more successful Hindi hit, ‘Sargam‘ (with Raj Kapoor) he was paid Rs.2.000 per month.
There were two incidents that the raconteur Om ji narrated with relish. The first involving a big ticket producer associated with a long line of hits.
“I visited this great showman – producer at his studio. Day after day, I went to see him and he kept me waiting. Then he told me, ‘Show me a film in which you’ve acted!’
“I went to Baburao Pai’s office and asked him to lend me a print of Dhamki. He did but how to cart it all the way to that studio? One ring was all l had left on my hand. I sold it for twenty five rupees and took the print to the ‘great man’ in a taxi. Still nothing happened. I was hurt deep inside at the sadistic treatment I was getting, and eventually I made the mistake of telling him I was desperate for a job.”
“He took out a fiver, offered and said, ‘Here, if you’re so badly off, go and have a meal!’ That hurt me deeply. The entire holocaust of the partition could not have hurt me more deeply. Turning my back on his fiver I walked out of the studio, tears in my eyes and a prayer on my lips. God, please give me a chance to have my own back!”
A couple of years later, when a few of Om Prakash’s films had clicked, he got a message from the ‘great man’ to come to the studio. “Both my wife and my friend Khushiram were very happy and said that if I could get to work in one of his films, my career was made. The message was carried by music director Shyam Sunder that the ‘great man’ required me for a film that Najim Naqvi would direct for the studio.”
“When I entered the room, the ‘great man’ was sitting with his legs across the table with Najam Naqvi, Nakshab and Shyam Sunder. We talked about the film to be made but as soon as I got the chance, I narrated that entire sordid episode without naming him.
Najim Naqvi jumped up and shouted, ‘By God, who is that bloody bastard?’
“Calmly I stood up, and pointed, ‘There he is’, I said coldly, ‘He is the producer who wants me to act in his film today! And I walked out…”
Fifties onwards, began the era of the Om Prakash starrers as his worth was recognized by the Filmic Stock Exchange. Films like Azaad, Bhai Bhai, Asha, Howrah Bridge, Chacha Zindabad, Sanjog, Hariyali aur Raasta, Tere Ghar ke Saamne, Rajkumar Padosan and Mere Humdum Mere Dost spread his legend further.
He got offered main roles in films like Budhha Mil Gaya, Chowkidaar and Chupke Chupke, his physical appearance irrelevant to his box office draw. He held a special weakness for his role in Dilip Kumar starrer ‘Gopi’ directed by A Bhim Singh. “I had the pleasure of working with both of them in Gopi which many of my fans think is my best performance to date. Much of my characterisation grew out of suggestions made by Dilip Kumar, and the actual fashioning was done by Bhim Singh.”
He worked in almost all of Prakash Mehra’s films, the first one being Zanjeer. His roles opposite Amitabh in Sharaabi and Namak Halal are now part of acting schools. He retired after 56 years in service of cinema, with over 300 films to his credit.
His favorite incident of course happened in Britain and this is how he narrated it:
‘It was in 1969, that a big team of artists visited the UK to collect money for the Ghalib Centenary Celebrations. We had stalwarts like Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. Before we left, I had made only one stipulation to the organizers that throughout the tour, at any cost, I wanted a hotel room with a bath attached. Those days, in Europe a room with bath attached was a veritable luxury and I hated going to common bathrooms.”
“The entire tour went off excellently with shows packed to capacity with fantastic gate collections. And then, I remember, in Bedford, it happened! The hotel had no vacant room with a bath attached that day and I made an issue out of it. I needed rest and a bath very badly. I was due to put over two big shows the same night. On re-checking the register, the hotel receptionist said that there was one room with a bath but it would be available only after lunch, as the occupant wasn’t returning, and that his briefcase would be checked-out by his secretary. Would I care to spend some time in the lounge?”
“Pleased, I went into the lounge, watched television and drank a lot of beer. Then about 2-30 I took the key to the room. As is my habit, I left the key hanging outside, shut the door and got into bed.
“Some time later I awoke abruptly when I heard the door open and saw an imperturbable-looking Englishman puffing away at his pipe as surprised at seeing me as I was at seeing him! Before he could say anything I gave him a thing for having such bad manners as to enter my room without knocking! So he went out, and a few moments later entered again, this time after knocking!
He was accompanied by a couple of other people, who looked quite bewildered!”
“Again I gave them a good yelling and chased them out of the room! Then I turned over and went off to sleep! Sometime later there was frantic knocking and again someone rushed in! This time I intended give them a real good volley, but I turned around to find only Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt!
“Sitting up, I told them about what was going on.”
“That’s just it!” they said, “The hotel people have made a terrible mistake and they’re begging us to set you out of this room!
“Why?” I asked.
“So you know the gentleman you turned out of this room a little while ago?”
“No! Who is he?”
“That was Harold Wilson!”
“What?” I jumped out of bed hastily.
“Yes!” they said, “The Prime Minister of England was occupying this room! He was scheduled to return directly to London after addressing a meeting in this town but due to some reshuffling in his program he came back to his hotel room and encountered you!”
“The following morning,” Om Prakash concluded, ‘”All the local papers had the news on their front pages as a box-item!”
This respected artist died of a heart attack on 21 February, 1998, aged 78, leaving behind an unending stream of outstanding performances.