The incomparable Raj Kapoor

Raj Kapoor was incomparable. in so many ways. Photo: Publicity Photo

The Lovable Tramp and the Eternal Showman—Raj Kapoor had these famous labels. But if Raj Kapoor had a perfect synonym, it would be simply “Incomparable”. On his 34th death anniversary on June 2, 2022, let us check on some rarer angles.

Raj Kapoor was born December 14, 1924 to Rama and Prithviraj Kapoor (who was still in college then!). Early on, Ranbir Raj (his real name) had determined that one day his Babaji would be known as his father. And in many ways, he achieved this!

Raj was conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award 16 years after his father and the President of India actually stepped down from the stage to present the highest honor in India for contribution to cinema to the ailing actor-filmmaker.

Raj was clear from the beginning that cinema was his destination, and so his affair with his father’s Prithvi Theatres’ plays was not extensive, though he did plays there both as a child artiste and adult (Pathan). He was just 11 when he made his first screen appearance in New Theatres’ Inquilab starring Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote and K.C. Dey.

Raj soon started as the fifth assistant to director Kidar Sharma at Ranjit Studios, who was to later introduce him as a leading man in 1947 in Neel Kamal opposite two more first-timers who became sensations—Madhubala (as Mumtaz) and Begum Para.

By 1947, Raj had already married a distant relative, Krishna, in an arranged match. So while learning his directorial and cinematic ropes in the early and mid-1940s, Raj Kapoor was taking up minor acting assignments in Gauri, Valmiki and other films. Among these was a V. Shantaram film for which Raj Kapoor was paid an amount for a cameo that Prithviraj indignantly told him to return to the filmmaker as he was a friend’s son. But Shantaram refused to take it back, and Raj used the money to buy a plot of land at Mumbai’s Chembur, and RK Studios was built later on this land!

Raj had a deep sense of rhythm and melody.  In Kolkata, where his father was based for years, he spent every spare moment with New Theatres’ music greats like R.C. Boral, Pankaj Mullick, K.L. Saigal and Kanan Devi and even learnt music from Boral. He even sang his own songs for Dil Ki Rani under S.D. Burman—O duniya ke rehnewalon bolo.

Raj Kapoor, as lyricist Hasrat Jaipuri once revealed to me, thus become one of those rare filmmaker-actors (like V. Shantaram and Satyajit Ray) who could also compose music. The blueprints of so many RK hits like Bol Radha bol and I love you (Sangam), Jeena yahaan (Mera Naam Joker), Satyam shivam sundaram (Satyam Shivam Sundaram) and Sun sahiba sun (Ram Teri Ganga Maili) were given by him to his composers, the last song’s case endorsed publicly by Lata Mangeshkar. Raj could also play several instruments including the accordion, and could conduct an orchestra.

On February 6, 1947, Raj Kapoor launched his first production and directorial debut, Aag, with a small muhurat and pooja at Eastern Studios in midtown Mumbai. Shooting began a week later and the film was released exactly a year later at Shimla. Its budget was a then-astronomical Rs 3.5 lakh, and Raj had mortgaged his first car and even borrowed money from his domestic servant, Dwarka. The offbeat film, starring three leading ladies, including Nargis as well as relatives who were into acting, was released by Raj himself after distributors refused to touch it. It did not do too well commercially.

Aag was semi-autobiographical and reflected Raj’s one-sided crushes and early upheavals, and his next, Barsaat (1949) showcased his first obsession for love as a mix of spirituality and physicality. Learning the right lessons from Aag, Raj told a simple tale, reinvented Nargis and their chemistry and signed a fresh music team—Shankar-Jaikishan, Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra.

History was made as the score forever changed the complexion of film music and its sales, and the quartet, along with Raj, Nargis and singers Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh, went on to become the most successful filmmaker-stars-musicians combo ever. The blockbuster’s profits helped him build RK Studios, an institution and for decades a Mumbai landmark, and the first film he made there was Awara (1951). This became the first Indian movie and music score to make a commercial mark abroad, especially in Russia, where it was released with the title of Brodigaya.

Besides Barsaat, Raj had explored the flamboyant side of his persona in films like Andaz (1949) and Dastaan (1950), and put it to good use with his character in Awara. Raj highlighted the aspirations of innocent souls who wanted a better life in the neo-Independent era. The tramp was modeled on Charlie Chaplin and yet was identifiably Indian, and Hindi cinema’s first dream sequence was a skilled adaptation of Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris. The “tramp” was developed further with Shree 420 (1955) and other films, but after Shree 420, Raj took a 9-year-hiatus from direction, even though he is said to have ghost-directed some of the films that came from his banner, like Jagte Raho, Ab Dilli Door Nahin and Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. Incidentally, Shah Rukh Khan’s Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman was a reworking of Shree 420.

Raj had three major troughs in his career, but he rose from them as triumphantly as the Phoenix. After Jagte Raho and Ab Dilli Door Nahin flopped and Raj was also influenced by European and socially-conscious cinema, he announced the brigand-reformation saga Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai without songs. But because of his flops (Aah had not done well too), distributors wanted him to include songs, and though his music team protested, Raj cajoled them into creating a historic score.

The second trough came after his semi-autobiographical Mera Naam Joker (which he himself directed) and Kal Aaj Aur Kal. Reeling under debts, Raj announced a light romantic quickie, Bobby. And three 45-plus veterans—Raj and writers K.A. Abbas and V.P. Sathe—went on to spin out a benchmark teenage cult film!

Raj Kapoor in and as Awara, which had many firsts. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

The third trough came after his pet obsession of many years, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, faced critical as well as commercial rough weather, after the indifferent success of Dharam Karam and the disaster that was Biwi O Biwi, two more RK productions. Raj launched Prem Rog, soon took over the directorial reigns from his writer Jainendra Jain, and made the hard-hitting social blockbuster Prem Rog followed by his allegorical swan song Ram Teri Ganga Maili that became his highest grosser ever. When Raj passed away, he had begun his groundwork on Henna, and paved the way for Randhir Kapoor’s version proving a major blockbuster in 1991.

Raj had an unerring eye for talent across all fields of cinema. He had spotted Shankar and Jaikishan, who were musicians with Prithvi Theatres and assistants who had a huge contribution in Ram Ganguly’s music in Aag. Along with S-J, he changed the course of film music composition and orchestration and gave Mukesh his individualistic, contemporary identity.

Hasrat Jaipuri was a bus conductor and Shailendra a railways employee. Raj put all of them on a salary, gave them the freedom to work outside his banner, and gave Hindi cinema two of its greatest lyricists.

His publicist V.P. Sathe as writer with Awara, his sons Randhir Kapoor (both as actor-director in Kal Aaj Aur Kal) and Rishi Kapoor (with Dimple Kapadia) in Bobby, and later Mandakini (Ram Teri Ganga Maili) were also introduced. Shailendra Singh (Bobby), Nitin Mukesh (Mera Naam Joker) wand Suresh Wadkar (in a major break in Prem Rog), writers Jainendra Jain (a journalist) and K.K.Singh, and lyricist Vitthalbhai Patel, a businessman who was his friend were among other discoveries.

When he was awarded an honorary degree in Teheran in the early 1950s, Raj Kapoor was amused no end, as academically he had been a school dropout! He was also conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1971and won a Grand Prix nomination for Awara at Cannes.

Raj appeared as himself in Naseeb, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand¸ Manmohan Desai’s Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswati and K. Vishwanath’s Eeshwar (which Raj wanted to produce in Hindi) are dedicated to his memory, with Anil Kapoor’s character modeled after Raj in every way. But the greatest tribute to him remains his great-grandson, Ranbir Kapoor, being named after him and making his screen debut in 2007 with Saawariya.



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