Before Amjad came to films he was a theatre actor. His first film was as a child artist at the age of 17 in the film Ab Dilli Dur Nahin (1957). He had assisted K. Asif in the film Love and God in the late 1960s and had also made a brief appearance in the film which would have been his official film debut. But the film was left incomplete after K. Asif’s death in 1971 and it ended up releasing in 1986. In 1973 he made his debut in Hindustan Ki Kasam.
Amjad Khan along with Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra Deol and Sanjeev Kumar at the sets of Sholay (1975). The role of Gabbar, the dreaded Chambal dacoit, remains Amjad Khan’s most powerful and memorable performance.
In 1975 he was offered the role of a dacoit Gabbar Singh for the film Sholay (literally meaning flames) by Salim who was one of the film’s writers. For his preparation for the role Amjad read Abhishapth Chambal, a book on Chambal dacoits written by Taroon Kumar Bhaduri (actress Jaya Bhaduri’s father). Amjad shot to stardom with the movie. His portrayal of Gabbar Singh is considered by many to be the first depiction of pure evil on the screen in Indian Cinema; a totally evil character who doesn’t make excuses for its evil. His mannerisms and dialogues have become an integral part of Bollywood lexicon and had since spawned numerous parodies and spoofs. Sholay went on to become a blockbuster, and, as of yet, it is the highest grossing movie in India. Although the movie boasted an ensemble cast of superstars including Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, he stole the thunder with his unorthodox and eerie dialogue delivery that was perfectly apposite to the total lack of empathy his character was supposed to convey. Even after thirty five years people fondly remember his dialogues and mannerisms. He later appeared in advertisements as Gabbar Singh endorsing Britannia Glucose Biscuits (Popularly knowns as “Gabbar Ki Asli Pasand”), and it was the first incidence of a villain being used to sell a popular product.
After the success of Sholay Khan continued to play villain roles in many subsequent Hindi films in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s – superseding, in terms of popularity and demand, the earlier Indian actor, Ajit – portraying more sophisticated and urbane criminal bosses, mastermind of bank robberies, murders and conspiracies to seize power. He often acted as villain opposite Amitabh Bachchan as the hero.
Khan was also acclaimed for playing many other unconventional roles. In the critically acclaimed film Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), directed by Satyajit Ray, Khan played the helpless and deluded monarch Wajid Ali Shah, whose kingdom, Avadh, is being targeted by British colonialists from the British East India Company. It is the only movie in which he dubbed song. He played a positive role opposite Amitabh Bachchan in Yaarana (1981) where he played Bachchan’s character’s best friend and in Laawaris as Amitabh’s father. In the art film Utsav (1984), he portrayed Vatsayana, the author of the Kama Sutra. In 1988 he appeared in the Merchant-Ivory English film The Perfect Murder as an underworld don. He also excelled at playing comical characters in films such as Qurbani (1980), Love Story, and Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986). In 1991, he reprised his role as Gabbar Singh in Ramgarh Ke Sholay, a parody of the legendary film which also included look-alikes of Amitabh Bachchan and Dev Anand.
He also ventured into directing for a brief period in the 1980s directing and also starring in Chor Police (1983) ,which was a success and Ameer Aadmi Gareeb Aadmi (1985) which failed to do well at the box office.
Amjad was also the President of the Actors Guild association. As mentioned earlier, he had been a leader in college and was respected in the film industry too. He would intervene and negotiate disputes between actors and directors/producers. There was one such dispute in which Dimple Kapadia had agreed to play a role of a mother in a movie and later backed down. The entire film producer community tried to boycott her. Amjad did intervene on behalf of the Actors Guild.