Guest post: KN Singh

ajay_kn

When KN Singh’s nephew Ajay (left above) introduced himself in a comment, I was thrilled. KN Singh has long been one of my favorite character actors. So I asked Ajay (whose father is KN’s younger brother) if he’d be willing to write a guest post and share some of his memories of that elegant, dapper, charismatic man. He has graciously sent me the following, hope you enjoy reading it as I did!

(I think he looks a bit like KN, don’t you?)

I knew KN Singh as the patriarch of the family, the grandfather figure who had seen the world and had white hair and familiar bushy eyebrows that had been his cinematic trademark for over six decades. I grew up in the family hillside residence in Dehradun, where my father served as the local district attorney. This is where I spent most time with “bade papa” every summer, or “big daddy” as my cousins and I called him affectionately. Why? I always wondered as a child. I thought probably it was because of his large physique. But then it may well have been for his age and place in the family hierarchy, eldest of the brothers. Lately I am also inclined to think that title may have originated in the heyday of KN’s success as a well known film actor and his larger than life persona.

KN Singh acted in over 300 films. The ones in the last decades were merely cameo performances for the sole purpose of getting the lead actors to appear on time, as no one dared being late if KN Singh was on the sets. Poor directors! This was the last trick in director’s arsenal when the big stars had them stranded for months.

Through most of the 40s and 50s, KN Singh epitomized the character of a villain on the Hindi movie screen. That, like every thing else, was on his own terms. He would decide how villainous or how mean his character would be. No one dared speak to him disrespectfully, on screen or off. Awara, Barsaat, Baaz, Baazi, Jaal and Howrah Bridge were some of the well-known movies of the day in which he starred.

KN Singh and his friends Prithviraj Kapoor and KL Saigal were considered the pioneering stars of the Bombay talkies. Here I share some anecdotes for Memsaab’s readers.

The year was 1935 and a well-built young man was chomping at the bit for a chance to compete at the Berlin Olympics! He was cleared as a part of the Indian delegation for Short Put and Javelin events. KN Singh worked hard; he was an early riser and would run miles and train every day religiously. After all, this is what he enjoyed doing most. His father was a well-known barrister at law in Dehradun.  CP Singh was an erstwhile prince who had to accept a deal with the British years ago and surrender all rights to the estate. The young KN had the rebellious streak in him and sports were the only way to keep him out of trouble.

As KN packed bags for his dream mission, things changed. His sister was awaiting an eye surgery in Calcutta while her husband was away in England. As the elder boy he would have to be there. Like it or not, it’s the way things work in India; without much ado KN was dispatched to Calcutta. Not Berlin. But such are the ways of life.

When KN Singh reconnected with a friend in Calcutta who was aspiring to break into films, he walked in to this friend’s simple living quarters one morning. There stood a smiling Prithviraj Kapoor ironing his white satin kurta and pajamas!

Before he knew it, the athlete was acting. KN Singh’s first movie was Hawaii Daku where he was the protagonist. No records exist of this movie now; at least I have not been able to trace them. Then came Vidyapati, Anand Ashram and Milaap. This was still in Calcutta. Soon came the offer from Bombay.

Stories exist of the strong bond of friendship and camaraderie that would live with Prithviraj and KL Saigal when they came to Bombay. KN Singh considered his Baghban (1938) which performed a ‘golden jubilee’ (meaning a 50-week run) his magnum opus. It convinced him that he was there to stay.

There are stories of how the ‘three’ would gather in KN’s living room in the evenings.  Crowds would form out on the streets, as KL Saigal was known to sing and entertain his audience. Inside the kitchen on many occasions were a young Kishore Kumar and my father listening in. Often they would fall asleep on the kitchen table and carried off to bed by a devoted man Friday.

A generous and benevolent man, KN was ferocious on matters of principles. His principles. Stories abound of numerous falling outs with people from whom he was most to gain. Most notable in this list is his falling out with Raj Kapoor after their huge success of Barsaat and Awara.  This was particularly poignant, as Raj had literally played in his lap as a little boy and the son of his dearest friend. KN had followed and supported Raj’s career as a young director. Their rift was permanent as KN refused to work with him ever again.

I was hanging out with my teenage friends at home one day as bade papa wandered in. All conversation ceased. He smiled with his bright gleaming dentures and gleefully checked our biceps. A disapproving glance was cast and a frown went up. Then he offered us his own biceps for inspection. We were suitably humbled as he proudly announced that he was an old man of 83.

Indeed no story is complete without the context of time and place. In this case, he is a man who had lived through all changes and scientific advances of the twentieth century. He had lived through the two World Wars. He knew something of the country’s struggle for independence. Above all he knew the ways of the world. As we sat in the verandah of the house, I learned a lot from his stories. Sometimes the narrative would cease halfway and his eyes would focus far away beyond the trees and a smile would cross his face.

A story he loved to tell was how during the years of prohibition he and his entourage were regularly served whatever they wanted in the most prominent of Bombay establishments. One such evening Vijay Laxmi Pandit (Governor of Bombay and sister to Pandit Nehru) walked in on them at the Waldorf Astoria. She walked over to him and said, “Kishen, I am not just your governor. I am your governess too!”

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33 Comments to “Guest post: KN Singh”

  1. Wow! That made very interesting reading indeed. K.N. Singh is definitely one of my favourite character actors – he always managed to portray villains who were villanous but had a certain dignity that you couldn’t deny.

  2. Super! This write-up is so much fun to read. He seems to have been a larger-than-life character even in real life! And I agree with you about his nephew looking a lot like him.

    K. N. Singh was my favorite screen villains of all times. He never needed to don outlandish disguises, wear ridiculous wigs or do crazy things, yet he was the most menacing villain of them all!

  3. madhu and bollyviewer: Glad you’ve enjoyed it. I always love to see KN Singh, along with Pran and Iftekhar he is one of the most elegant and charismatic (non-hero) actors. Big Daddy, indeed!

  4. How wonderful! Please thank Ajay for for thsoe memories and the filmi history. I too have enjoyed K.N. Singh’s wonderful performances and it is nice to know he is so well remembered by those who were close to him, as well as by his fans.

  5. That was fascinating! I especially enjoyed the mental image of Mr. Singh flexing his 83-year-old muscles. :-)

  6. ohhh KN Singh is fantastic! He was always my favorite villain from the 50’s! Great post ajay and memsaab!

  7. Lovely post. Thanks, Ajay and Memsaab. K N Singh is one of my favourites too.

    A few years ago, I was working on a Dutch documentary on ‘Food’. One of the stories the director did was with K N Singh’s daughter. She filmed the huge tiffin that used to go from their house to the sets when K N Singh was shooting. I wasn’t there for that part of the filming, but I saw some pics, and I think the tiffin was about 3 ft. high. Because he’d have lots of people wanting to share the food that came from his home. :-)

  8. Hey Memsaab…it was truly wonderful to read this Guest post. Though we all love and admire KN Singh for his character and villainous roles but his comic timing was superb too…remember him playing Khadak Singh the funny villain in Kishore Kumar’s Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi (1974)…he was totally hilarious….

  9. Michael: hopefully Ajay will read these lovely comments :-)

    ajnabi: LOL! me too!

    Rum: me too on this as well!

    Banno: great story about the tiffin…and a documentary about Food sounds like a lot of fun to make.

    toonfactory: you are so right about his comic timing too. He could do pretty much anything he wanted, in my opinion.

  10. Thanks to Memsaab for all her work. Thanks for all the comments too.The tiffin story is fun too, except that he never had a daughter- that I am aware of! I would love to find “Badti Ka naam..’ , does anyone know where to find it?

  11. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi is only available (so far) on VCD, and it’s hard to find at that…

    Re: no daughter, did he have granddaughters? or nieces? just curious :-)

  12. A niece yes. No issues of his own though he adopted another cousin of mine. He produces ad. films. His kids are pretty young still.

  13. Now KN is someone who should have passed on his genes! I guess you and your cousins are close enough, though :-) Was he married?

  14. Thank you ajay and memsaab both! I adore KN, and this was a really fantastic post- I am completely blown away/stumped/speechless in hero-worship here.

  15. Just wanted to add a “me too” about K.N. Singh – definitely one of my favorite villains also. Good post!

  16. Wonder account of a legend. This is making me yearn to watch a KN Singh starrer now.

  17. He’s one of my favorites, for sure. Lucky for us he was in a LOT of films!

  18. Lovely right up. As I see, you know a few people connected with Bollywood- K N Singh’s grandnephew, Raj Kumar Hirani, Boman Irani etc.

  19. Ajay is KN Singh’s nephew, not grandnephew :-) His father is KN Singh’s brother…and I don’t know nearly as many people connected with Bollywood as I would like to!

  20. Very interesting to read. Thanks a lot, Ajay and memsaab.
    I have always been a fan of KN Singh. I just saw Howrah Bridge the other day, so memories are fresh.

    The dignified manner in which KN Singh used to bring his presence on screen – you could see that he had an aura about him that made you notice.

    I did not know much about his background but this article tells me a lot. Thanks, thanks, thanks.

  21. I have some more information about K.N.Singh which i want to share with all his fans.
    K.N.Singh (Krishan Niranjan Singh) was born on 1st Sept.1909 at Dehradun(U.P.).He passed his Law Degree from England but not having much interest in pursuing career as a advocate he went to Lahore in search of some alternative career,after which finally in Kolkata he met with Prithviraj Kapoor and Debki Bose and decided to try his luck in films.
    For the very first time he faced camera for the movie “Sunhera Sansar”(Producer:East India Fim Co.,Director:Debki Bose,Music:K.C.Dey,Cast:Rampyari,Gul Hamid,Mazhar Khan,Menka,Azurie,Nand Kishore,K.N.Singh) as a Hero on 9 Sept.1936,though in the same year he did another film “Bandit Of Air” alias “Hawai Daku”(Producer:Modren India Talkies,Director:S.R.Choudhry,Music:Motilal Naik,Cast:Hashmat,Manjari,Mazhar Khan,K.N.Singh) but Sunhera Sansar was the first to release,hence is credited as his 1st film.
    His last released movie was “Danveer”(1996).

  22. Is that the same Mazhar Khan who married Zeenat? He must have been a kid if so :-)

  23. Ajay Singh has told you about K N Singh in Dehradoon. Let me tell you of my experience in BOMBAY. I went to Don Bosco High School at Matunga Bombay from where I passed out in 1966. Across the road from my school were, the then famous, Adenwala and Masani streets. And that’s where the stars lived. Prithviraj Kapoor with his son Shashi, K.L. Saigal, Madan Puri, Manmohan Krishna, Jagdish Sethi etc. and of course K N Singh whose house was just opposite the VJTI College.
    Often during lunch break a few boys would get to gather and go knocking on the doors of these actors for their autographed photo. I too went to K N Singh’s house that was on the ground floor and the door faced the main entrance to the building visible from the road. K. N. Singh opened the door. In his typical style he asked “Kya Chahiye ?” = “Aapki photo chahiye” we stammered. He thought for a moment, then said “Thehro”. He closed the door and returned after a short while with his full length photograph in a suit and holding a cigarette. He gave each of us one.
    We went back to school and started showing off to every one. My friends got excited and a boy named Vasudev Shetty, decided he would go the next day. He requested us to show him the house.
    Next afternoon we showed him the door of the house from outside the building and waited outside. He rang the bell and the door was opened once again by K N Singh. They spoke something and the Vasudev came back empty handed. We asked him what happened, he said that he asked the man if K N Singh was at home and the man told him that K N Singh had gone out. Vasudev Shetty did not know what K N Singh looked like and K N Singh had kicked him out. This funny incident always tickles me till this day.
    However I had also managed to get pictures of Prithviraj Kapoor in a similar exciting manner. Let me leave that to be told some other time.

  24. I have recently watched Parwana on a VCD released by Nupur video. This movie starred Kl saigal, Suryya and KN singh. The story of the film is that Kl saigal is a married man but falls in love with Suryya, a young girl. The film ends with the tragic death of Suryya. Kn Singh plays the role of brother of Suryya. This movie is a must watch not only for its story, acting of Saigal, Suryya and Kn singh but for all time classics of Saigal and Suryya. Saigal’s AE PHOOL HANS KE BAGH ME KALIAN KHILAE JAA, SHABNAM KE ASHK APNI HANSI ME CHHIPAE JAA. JEENE KA DHANG SIKHAE JA, KANTON KI NOAK PAR KHADA MUSKARAE JA. And Suryya’s PAAPI PAPIHA RE PI PI NA BOL BARRY, PI PI NA BOL are gems.

  25. Hey, that was really exciting to read about Mr. K. N. Singh. Thanks a lot Mr. Ajay.

    @memsaab sorry to tell you that Mr. Ajay doesn’t look like Mr. K. N. Singh (no one can match him). Also, I want to know his full name was Mr. Krishan Narayan Singh or Mr. Krishan Niranjan Singh. Wikipedia states his wife as ‘Parveen Paul’. Is she the same actress who worked in movies like Bandini, Aarti, Saraswatichandra, Padosan, etc.

  26. As a child, I watched Shikari (1963), and had nightmares over K.N.Singh’s role as Dr Cyclops. One cannot see K.N.Singh’s role being performed by another villain. He used his suave style,dialogues, and mannerisms like raising eyebrows and neck stretching perfectly to portray pure evil in a way which was unequalled by other villains.Recently I watched this same film on You-tube, and his character still sends chills down my spine. Now at last I know what “K.N.” stands for!
    Thanks for sharing this info.

  27. I was surfing youtube and located Badti Ka Naam Dadhi which I downloaded. Ajay Ji, if you have not located it so far go for it on youtube. Jimi Lenka

  28. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve long been a fan of K.N. Singh- one of the most suave actors Hindi cinema has ever had. Singh has a special place in my heart due to the fact that he apparently bore a strong resemblance to my grandfather (who passed away before I was born). Every time I see him on screen, I imagine that this is how my grandfather must have looked.

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