In a 1987 interview, when Amjad Khan was told, “Aapka kirdaar, aapka yogdaan Bharatiya film industry main bohot raha hai (Your character and contribution have been immensely important for the Indian film industry) ,” he immediately interjected with, “Yeh aapki rai hai. Bohot log muttafiq nahi hai isse (That’s your opinion but I’m afraid not many people agree).” Even though the actor later rubbishes the notion that he has been typecast and thanks his directors, it’s hard to dismiss Gabbar Singh’s impact – and chokehold – on Khan’s trajectory. Despite being a gifted actor who began as a theatre actor, Khan was often cast as an exaggerated caricature, usually that of a villain. When his name was suggested for Nawab Wajid Ali Khan in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), director Satyajit Ray was initially unsure. Sholay had released only two years before Ray’s Hindi debut and Gabbar loomed large over Indian cinema. Ray decided to take a chance with Khan and the actor’s first day on the set had him performing the tragic “Jab chhod chale Lucknownagari” scene. According to stories, Khan moved the 200 people watching him to tears. Ray’s film was perhaps the first glimpse of how versatile Khan truly was. On his 82nd birth anniversary, we look back at some of the roles that showcased the benevolence, humour and depth of the actor Amjad Khan.
When Satyajit Ray decided to adapt Munshi Premchand’s story, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, into his first Hindi film, nobody expected him to give such importance to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah – a minor character in the original short. The Nawab of Awadh is a far cry from the bandit Gabbar: bejewelled, sad-eyed, and passionate about the arts. Khan imbues the Nawab with a quiet grace, carrying the dignity and defeat of being the last Nawab to lose his kingdom to the East India Company. The film’s album contains a melancholic song, “Tadap Tadap Sagri Re Guzri”, sung by the actor in a husky voice. Considered one of Khan’s best performances, the role is a revelatory glimpse into his range as an actor.
Khan brings much of his past experience to his role in Feroz Khan’s Qurbani. He plays a police inspector called Amjad Khan and his character’s unfazed confidence seems borrowed from Gabbar Singh, albeit in a more sophisticated form. When Feroz Khan’s character, Rajesh – a thief who is escaping with stolen goods – first meets Khan, he has no idea he’s speaking to a police officer. Khan smilingly indulges Rajesh. For the first few minutes, there are no dialogues from Khan but he uses his physicality splendidly, projecting righteous arrogance and the moral upper ground with just his body language. When Rajesh attempts to go his merry way, Khan fires two shots at the other man’s feet before introducing himself: “Mera naam Khan hai. Amjad Khan. (My name is Khan. Amjad Khan.)”
You might remember Yaarana for the banger that is “Saara Zamaana” (and its light-bulb jacket) but the film also marks one of the few times Amitabh Bachchan and Khan didn’t play arch-enemies. Instead, the two are undying friends: Khan as the rich and rotund Bishan and Bachchan as the thin and poor Kishan.Yaarana is the ultimate example of the wildly whimsical formulas that worked back in the day. Case in point: when Bishan returns from London, he tells Kishan that he has with him a “vilaayati patang (foreign kite)” — only to send the poor man hang-gliding down a cliff. Calm and earnest, Bishan is the perfect complement to Kishan’s loud, dehati (dialect)-spouting persona. While it would be completely understandable for an actor to be overshadowed by Bachchan at the height of his fame – especially when he was playing to his comedic strengths – Khan stood out for his own comic timing. That year, Khan won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Everyone expected Love Story to do well – it was a launch pad for star children Kumar Gaurav, son of Rajendra Kumar; and Vijayta Pandit, the youngest sister of singer-actress Sulakshana Pandit. But nobody expected it to become a blockbuster, catapulting Gaurav into instant (though short-lived) stardom. The film has the excess of the Eighties and much of it is hard to take seriously in 2022. However Khan as constable Sher Singh remains one aspect that has aged well. Affable, silly and easily fooled, Sher Singh is responsible for finding the two youngsters (Gaurav and Pandit) who are on the run. After losing them once, he ties a rope to the shared handcuff between them when he finally catches them again. The two manage to untangle the rope and tie it to a stray buffalo, which Sher Singh unknowingly guides all the way to the lead inspector in the police station. It’s an idiotic gag, but Khan makes it work. His eccentric Sher Singh may be caricaturish, but as Khan switches swiftly from tears to laughter to fear, you can see an actor enjoying himself despite the regrettably underwritten role.
Girish Karnad’s Utsav is nothing if not experimental. It endeavoured to adapt the 5th century play Mrichakatika (The Little Clay Cart) into a contemporary narrative. The film chronicles the courtesan Vasantsena (Rekha) and so a large part of the story unravels in a veshya-laya, or brothel. In that court of pleasure sits the brahmachari Vatsayana, played by Khan, who lectures the young sex workers on his newest findings. Khan’s rendition of Vatsayana is a delightful example of his comedic repertoire, like when he earnestly laments about not finding the 29th new “asan” for his book. The enthusiastic narration of his voyeuristic findings could have easily been crass, but Khan’s diligent Vatsayana has a comical earnestness to him that makes the pioneering sexologist great fun to watch.