A Villain’s Story
It has been an incredible journey, a success story generally told in fables. A young man named Gopal Bedi from North Delhi’s Model Town, not really aspiring to be an actor, arrives in tinsel town in September 1968, courtesy a friend-philosopher-guide gets the privilege of basking in the company of legends like Raj Kapoor, Chetan Anand, Sunil Dutt and others and almost instantly, within a week, launched as an actor in a villainous role in Reshma aur Shera (1971)– in the august company of actor-producer, Sunil Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Rakhee, and Amitabh Bachchan trying to find bearings as an actor in his second film. Though Mohan Sehgal’s Sawan Bhadon (70) with debutant Rekha Ganeshan and Navin Nischol was the second flick, he began shooting for it first and it was also his first release. The tall, dark, rugged-faced young man was given the screen name: Ranjeet. As it turned out, Reshma aur Shera turned out to be his third release, the second being Sharmeelee (71), co-starring Shashi Kapoor and Rakhee.
Although Pran Sikand, together with KN Singh, personified the bad man on the Hindi screen, followed by many others like Madan Puri, Prem Chopra (later Ajit, Prem Nath, Amjad Khan, Amrish Puri, Danny, Shatrughan Sinha, Gulshan Grover etc, not to talk of lesser mortals), none of them came anywhere close to the former’s popularity. But in the 1950s and the 60s although the character was bad, he wasn’t vicious, as it turned out to be in the 70s and parts of 80s. That viciousness and dreaded look came in the form of Ranjeet, the rapist. It is a tribute to his non-versatility that no big set-up was complete without Ranjeet, and he slogged 18 hours a day, at times doing as many as eight shifts reporting for different films, bathing in soda water to keep his eyes open. And, reportedly, yet finding enough time for one-night stands, and unromantic dalliances with socialites, star wives and whoever caught his fancy. He was, indeed, Bollywood’s ladies killer, though another character-actor and close friend, Danny Denzengappa provided him with the sobriquet, Goli (uncle) Chacha.
This columnist was pleasantly surprised when Ranjeet walked into his Delhi residence almost unannounced. Although both of us had never severed links over the past over three decades, sending into a nostalgia of sorts, post his much-hailed little cameo in the star-studded romcom Housefull 2 (12), returning out of virtual retirement except for an occasional appearance here and there in the last decade (barely 20), and a couple of television productions where, contrary to his negative image, he essayed positive characters. According to him he has roughly worked in nearly 500 flicks in a career spanning four decades, though Wikipedia lists merely 200-odd. And contrary to what he does on screen, he is a peace-loving, non-smoking, occasional drinker, generous host though a strict vegetarian himself. A trained graphic designer who graduated from the capital’s National Institute of Fashion Designing.
There was no looking back in the two decades after the noticeable debut as three more releases hit the single screens across the country in 1971, followed by 4,6,11 in 1974—Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye, Khote Sikkay, Imthian, Aap ki Kasam, Amir Garib and Haath Ki Safai being some of them, leading to a close friendship with Vinod Khanna whom he later went on to direct in his first home production Karnaama (90) opposite Kimi Katkar (though he had been the de facto producer of Lalchee, attributed to brother Prem under the banner of Satya Movies named after their mother). He also later directed Gazab Tamasha (92) with the then hot favourites Rahul Roy and Anu Agarwal both of whom seem to have disappeared without a trace. So did Ranjeet the producer-director, and went on to complete 80 films on the floors.
But the real breakthrough was Feroz Khan’s stylishly-produced Dharmatma, earning him the second sobriquet – the rapist—making him an inseparable part of every major production as the main villain, later fracas with Amitabh Bachchan notwithstanding, now almost immortalised by references to him as such in Sajid Khan’s Housefull 2. The peak years being 1975-85 during which he worked in 150-plus films, or more: Gumrah, Dharam Veer, The Burning Train Viswanath, Amar Akbar Anthony, Khoon Pasina, Muqaddar ka Sikander, Suhaag, Laawaris, Namak Halaal, Satte Pe Satta, Sharabi (all with Amitabh Bachchan).
“There is no baddie role that I haven’t done, from a rustic dacoit, urban ruffian to a malicious cop. I laugh it off when people call me filmdom’s numero uno rapist. That was my job and I tried to do it to perfection because that’s what I was being paid to do.” Talking about the factor of the image becoming a restraining factor, he said: “No one can rise above his level of mediocrity, or excellence. The same is true of actors. If you look at Hindi cinema alone, every hero was the prisoner of his own image. In my student days I admired Dev Anand as an actor, watching and memorising (and without a notice he goes on mouthing bits of dialogue not only from Guide and Hum Dono—watching them as many as 20 times—but even imitate Prithviraj Kapoor in Mughal-e-Azam). You see, no artiste can rise above a role, and the image he has been cast in, specially a character-artiste. Similarly, the director has a vision and a concept of a role and the way he wants the artiste to perform a particular scene.”
For the records he clarifies that it was him, and not bête noir Amjad Khan who had been offered the role of Gabbar in the iconic Sholay after Danny declined the offer. “I might have done it if they had been able to procure Danny’s ‘no objection’ letter, which they could not get. We were both then shooting for Dharmatma in Afghanistan. I did not even bring up the subject with him then, only later. So if I am remembered even today for the kind of ‘image’ I went on to acquire, Amjad is not even talked about for any other role than that of Gabbar in Sholay. The industry is a vast place, and there is place in it for every performer. I have not been an exception.”
By Suresh Kohli