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!”