Rajendranath: A legacy of laughs

Rajendranath in Teen Bahuraniyan. Photo: Trailer Video Grab 

When he appeared on screen, it was enough to make you break into a chuckle, if not more. With his priceless expressions and crazy antics, like his tendency to immediately repeat his lines translated into English, Rajendranath was a treasury of mirth. And though he did put on funny costumes or make clownish faces, his special feature was his facial mobility and way of speaking that spawned instant chortles.

Born on June 8, 1931, Rajendranath Malhotra remains one of the finest comic legends of all time in Hindi cinema. Brother to the famous actor Premnath (his younger brother Narendranath too was an actor later), his elder sister, Krishna, was Raj Kapoor’s wife, while the younger one, Uma, married Prem Chopra.

Rajendranath had landed in Mumbai from his hometown Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, though his family had roots in Peshawar. He was initiated into professional theater (after working in college plays) by his brother and did Prithvi Theatres’ Shakuntala, Pathan and others.

After small roles in films like Patanga (1949) and Shagufa (1953), the young man was given the side-hero’s role in Premnath’s production Prisoner of Golconda (1954). The film did not do well, and Rajendranath had to struggle until Dil Deke Dekho (1959), which established him as a comic talent.

Rajendranath’s 250-plus films included a Nepali movie, Maitighar, and some Punjabi films like Jatt Punjabi. He also did a few TV serials. His memorable roles include An Evening In Paris, Teen Bahuraniyan, Pyar Ka Mausam (in a comic track with composer R.D. Burman as co-actor), Jeevan Mrityu, Julie, Prem Rog and so many others. But his dominant identity still remains the character of Popatlal that he essayed in his iconic 1961 breakthrough,  Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai, starring Dev Anand and Asha Parekh.

Of course, all these films came after due struggle. From the 1960s, the actor’s peak phase began, and he was doing so well as a funny man that he even got his younger sister married to Prem Chopra in 1966. However, tragedy lurked as he fell asleep at the wheel while driving home from the wedding ceremony and had a serious accident.

Having missed some assignments because of this, Rajendranath then decided to turn producer too and launched The Gatecrasher in the early 1970s, a film with Randhir Kapoor and Neetu Singh, both then at the top. However, despite considerable shooting, he could not complete the film and almost lost all his lifetime’s earnings. A principled man, he paid off everyone’s dues by doing a lot more films as an actor, remembers comedian Birbal, a close friend.

Rajendranath’s nephew, TV producer-czar Prem Krishen Malhotra of Cinevistaas and veteran Prem Chopra also filled in the image of the lovable actor and human being. Says Prem Krishen: “He was more like an elder brother than an uncle to me as he was much younger to dad (Premnath). He was such a great guy, with a terrific sense of classy humor. I remember my dad being called “Lion” at his peak. When a producer called up and asked to speak to Lion Premnath, my uncle told him, ‘The Lion isn’t here. This is Tiger Rajendranath and there is also the lion’s cub Prem Krishen! Who would like to speak with?’ One-liners and punches came so naturally to him!”

Prem Krishen added that Rajendranath did try his hand at all kinds of roles, but soon stuck to comedy. He was like a second hero in Prisoner of Golconda and in Shashi Kapoor’s Holiday in Bombay and Vachan, and the villain’s sidekick in Gulam Begum Badshah (1956), but ultimately, everyone realized that his real strength lay in comedy. Of course, some comic roles blended drama and emotions too, like his character in Teen Bahuraniyan.

The actress as Popatlal (right) in his 1961 breakthrough, Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai. Photo: Song Video Grab

Rajendranath’s popularity as Popatlal even led to some humorous offshoots: the actor would then stay in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade and had cultivated a terrace garden. He named it Popatlal Park. He also used this name much later in the famous TV series Hum Paanch. And as actor Prem Chopra recalls, “He had a MG two-seater sports car, and he would take his head out of the window so that people saw and recognized him as Popatlal! Two men on a bike did, but were very rude. Sternly, he stopped the car to accost them, but when he saw their sizes, became very meek and polite and spoke to them gently!”

“My uncle’ sense of humor was unique,” adds Prem Krishen. “During a wedding function of my younger brother-in-law, there was sudden, heavy downpour, and while everyone else rushed in, he stayed there, took a chair and inverted it over his head. In the car later, he wore an umbrella cap. And people laughed away!”

Prem Krishen, however, feels that his uncle became very quiet after his cataract surgery, following which his health nosedived. Birbal, however, says that he was a “sober” person whenever he was alone. But the live shows they did together, many of which were held in America as well, were hilarious riots of laughter. Films, serials or shows—Rajendranath did them until his health permitted.

Rajendranath was very close to Premnath and his celebrated wife, actress Bina Rai, and they were almost like second parents to him. “My mother guided him in his investments too,” recalls Prem Krishen. “Uncle was also close to Raj, Shammi and Shashi Kapoor and so many colleagues, including fellow comedians.” Having married Gulu (who passed away on May 30 this year), he has two children, Yuvraj and Rakhee, none connected with the profession in which the effortless actor has left behind a timeless legacy of laughs.






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