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Obituary: Ajit

AJIT WAS Indian cinema's most successful villain. Acting in over 200 films in a career which spanned nearly four decades, Ajit delivered his outrageously evil, double entendre one-liners with a deadpan face which inspired a genre of outlandish jokes and eventually made him into a national folk hero.

With his Clark Gable-style pencil moustache and imposing physique, Ajit gave a twist to villainy in Bollywood, India's film capital city of Bombay. He ably portrayed the ruthlessly suave, archetypal thug constantly surrounded by an army of "heavies". He was invariably accompanied by a vacuous moll named something like Silly Lilly or Mona Darling and a side-kick called Robert or Mike.

In one of his movies he nonchalantly confines the hero, already beaten to a pulp and chained to a dungeon wall, to a living hell by ordering him to be dipped into a drum full of liquid oxygen. "The liquid will not let him live and the oxygen will not let him die," he cries. In another film he tells Mona Darling, "The password is `Legs'. Spread the word."

Ajit's dialogues were a hilarious mix of Hindi and pidgin English which captured the public's imagination and led to hundreds of Ajit jokes that are still in circulation today. In one such quip Ajit is asked by his sidekick Peter to suggest a name for his newly born son. "Call him Re, Peter," comes the unblinking response. Ajit himself was vastly entertained by these jokes, which continued long after his retirement from films in the early Nineties. "I used to download them from the Internet and read them to him and he would laugh heartily," said his son Zahid Ali Khan.

Ajit was born Hamid Ali Khan in 1922, near Golconda in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He was the son of the personal driver to Osman Ali Khan, the Nizam or ruler of princely Hyderabad, who was believed in the Fifties and Sixties to be one of the world's richest men, because of his fabled treasure trove of rare diamonds, strings of grey pearls and exquisite jewellery.

Fascinated by films, the young Hamid ran away from college in Hyderabad after selling his text books for the train fare to Bombay. He changed his name to Ajit and managed to secure a role as the hero in Dholak ("Drum") in the early 1940s. The film flopped but Ajit's determination paid dividends almost a decade later when he earned the role of a Hindu chieftain in the Mughal king's army in the magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam.

But this success was temporary and Ajit failed to land more roles playing the hero. In 1966 he switched to playing the villain in Suraj ("Sun") and found that he was perfectly suited to the role - soft-spoken, forceful and unmitigatedly evil. And for nearly 25 years thereafter he perfected his skills in box office successes like Zanjeer ("Chains"), Ram Balram, Jugnu and Kalicharan, often improvising his part as he went along and acquiring a huge fan following in the process.

Ajit stopped acting in the early 1980s after heart surgery and moved back home to Hyderabad. But Bollywood could find no villain to rival his popularity and lured him back around 1985 to act in Police Officer. His last film, in the early 1990s, was Gangster, after which he returned to Hyderabad, claiming that the pace of Bollywood life was too fast for him.

Ajit had a subtle sense of humour and was well versed in Urdu poetry, which he loved reciting.

Hamid Ali Khan (Ajit), actor: born Golconda, India 1922; married (three sons); died Hyderabad, India 21 October 1998.