The genius of Prayag Raj, who did 15 films with Manmohan Desai

Prayag Raj was an all-rounder, though his primary interest was in writing and direction. Photo: Publicity Photo

The affable man was so articulate that when I discovered that Prayag Raj’s first interview of mine was not recorded because of a technical gaffe in my Pressman recorder, I wrote it easily from memory a day later because he had been so precise in answering my questions! And he had liked what I had written!

In his long innings, Prayag Raj Sharma had been actor, writer, lyricist, composer, singer and director. He straddled three media—stage, screen (Indian and British) and television. He passed away on September 23 at the age of 88, was the son of the famous poet, Ram Das ‘Azad’, and was named after the old name of his hometown, Allahabad.

Prayag began working at the age of nine as a child actor with Prithvi Theatres in their stage productions. “I gradually took interest in everything, including writing and direction, in my 16-year sojourn with Prithvi, while continuing my formal education alongside,” he had told me. “I got close to Shashi Kapoor, who was around my age, and we struck up a close friendship.”

Prayag played every kind of role, on stage and backstage, at Prithvi. “I played important roles and also was understudy to Raj Kapoor-saab, Shammi Kapoor-saab and Shashi. When the company closed down, I became an apprentice to Raj-saab as well as to M. Sadiq (of Chaudhvin Ka Chand fame) and to Lekh Tandon on Professor. My first films as actor were Aag (1948) and Awara (1951).”

Prayag Raj’s flirtations with acting continued in small cameos, like in Professor itself. Primarily interested in writing and filmmaking, he then wrote Phool Bane Angaarey, Juari, was overall assistant on the blockbuster Jab Jab Phool Khile, wrote dialogues for Jhuk Gaya Aasmaan and began, thanks to Shashi, a lasting association with Britain-based filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory from The Householder, for which he wrote the dialogues of the Hindi version.

In their next, Shakespearewallah, he even composed and wrote a song, Dil dhadke rendered by Mubarak Begum, and was given separate credit in the film’s soundtrack album that had music by Satyajit Ray. Prayag was associated with Merchant and Ivory though many films all the way to important roles in Cotton Mary (1999), and In Custody (1993), besides being second-unit director on the latter.

Prayag’s most fruitful, memorable and successful association as co-writer remains with the box-office whizkid Manmohan Desai—in all his 15 films since Sachaa Jhutha in 1970. He also played a key role of the tea-vendor in it, wrote lyrics in some films like Mard, and also directed Coolie (1983)—that year’s biggest hit. “Man-ji was great enough to give me top billing as director, because if he had let on that I had directed the film, it would have fetched a price of only Rs 4.5 million, but with him as director, and his track-record, it got Rs. 8 million!”

Shammi Kapoor hollers Yahoo in Junglee in the high-decibel voice of Prayag Raj. Photo; Trailer Video Grab

This was also one of the three films in which Prayag sang crucial high-decibel parts of a song—the word Allahrakha in Shabbir Kumar-Asha Bhosle’s Accident ho gaya (he also wrote the song) composed by Laxmikant Pyarelal. His other two songs were also big hits—he gave us the refrain Yahoo in the title-track of Shankar-Jaikishan’s Junglee and the words Affoo Khudaya in Kalyanji-Anandji’s Jab Jab Phool Khile, both sung by Mohammed Rafi. He thus features among the playback voices of Amitabh Bachchan, Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor!

Prayag also turned director with Kundan in 1972. “For some reason people do not call it a success and I am baffled – because it recovered thrice its investment! I introduced Shatrughan Sinha as a hero!” he had said. Among his later directorial outings, Ponga Pandit, Chor Sipahee and Geraftaar were successes too, the last-mentioned featuring Kamal Haasan, with Amitabh Bachchan and Rajanikanth in cameos.

Prayag’s later work in the 1990s and millennium included the first 75 episodes of the super-hit TV serial, Chandrakanta—“the peak phase of the serial” as he had put it, and the serial, Betaal. Also on the faculty of Direction and Writing at Vasant Talreja’s Digital Academy, he also came out with a CD of Ram Ganguly’s compositions for the 1940s Prithvi plays. He has recreated the tunes and supervised the notations and interludes. Called Songs Of Prithvi Theatres, it was a piece of nostalgia. In the 1990s, the Indian films in which he was involved included Shashi Kapoor’s Indo-Russian co-production, Ajooba, Guru-Dev and the David Dhawan directed success, Deewana Mastana.

In the last two decades of his life, Prayag took it easy. He had told me, “My elder son, Aditya Raj, is well-settled outside films and the younger one, Rahul Raj, is into dubbing Hollywood films in Hindi. As a writer, I must keep abreast of what’s happening in Hindi cinema and in recent times, among the films I have watched, I loved Singham, Bodyguard, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani.” Prayag’s late wife, Pushpa Sharma, was credited with the ‘story’ of his Chor Sipahee, and (along with Manmohan Desai’s wife Jeevanprabha) with the stories of Dharam-Veer and Amar Akbar Anthony.

He had added staunchly, “Films like Delhi Belly and Gangs Of Wasseypur have only been made with the intention to shock – that’s not Indian cinema. The latter is like the C-grade action dramas of my time!”

The feisty man had also declared, “I have realized that today one needs comparatively less subject matter, but the development and packaging has improved a thousand-fold. A classic case is of Dhoom and Dhoom:2, and frankly that is what is required today. I appreciate the packaging and marketing. We are breaking the mould and almost competing with Hollywood. We are retaining the old basics of entertainment and improving the form and treatment.”

He had added, “These films’ content isn’t much different from what Man-ji (Manmohan Desai) used to have in his films. We have to convince the audience that the implausible or fantastic things could happen in a certain context. But some of the things we showed in Amar Akbar Anthony or Coolie cannot be shown today, as people would ridicule them. When Man-ji and I made Amitabh Bachchan and Dara Singh exchange masks for the climax of the film, it was called ‘cheap’ by the critics, but today we have the same idea in Mission Impossible appreciated not only worldwide but in India as well! So Time is a very important element!”












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