The Unforgettable Kapoor
Had he been alive, and not started to look like a rotten pumpkin, the midnight laughter from the Devnar Cottage over-or-was-it-under-looking the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in the eastern suburb of Mumbai would still be reverberating with his sardonic laughter, interspersed with a recount of a million stories that he had conjured in his somewhat wicked mind. For that was the quintessential showman extraordinary, Ranbir Raj Kapoor, eldest of the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor’s three star sons. The man with a mask for every situation, emotion, moment, and one may say relationship which always began and ended with him, and his triumph, tears, and needs once success became his sleeping companion which came to him when he was still in his early twenties.
Comparisons are difficult, yet odious. For with the exception of Charlie Chaplin, who eventually became his inspiration for the image and persona that writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas had envisaged for him, and into which he fitted custom-tailored for it was in this image and role, first conceived and created by the writer for Awaara that made him immortal. The tramp, the have-not who wants to succeed, the disillusioned educated struggler who has to eventually pawn his gold medal to survive in the big bad world of the Nehruvian post-Independence early years.
So whether he was a Shri 420, an Anari, a Joker (after which he literally hung his masks as an actor), Bewafaa, Kanhaiya, Chhalia, Aashiq, Diwana, Khan Dost, Abdullah, Gopichand Jassos, Vakil Babu. Compared to the heroes of the seventies and the eighties who proudly announce having worked in 150 to 300 films in a career span (Big B being an exception) lastly barely a decade or a little more, the ultimate Bollywood Sapnon ka Saudagar worked in just 62 films in a career span lasting 24 years, including 52 as the leading man which, ironically, met a sad, premature end with his most ambitious, semi-autobiographical Mera Naam Joker, which was declared a flop in its first release in 1970 but ultimately has been, posthumously, his biggest grosser.
It is difficult to think about, remember, recall, and assess this now love-me-now-hate-me man in any of his incarnations: the man, the lover, the actor, the film-maker despite the various masks one has collected for oneself as a friendly slightly more than an acquaintance, film critic-turned-historian, admirer and a fellow lover of the lady from Scotland. Contrary to the image of a drunkard whose brains flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and his ego grew bigger than his balls, painted by short-sighted or slighted colleagues and spurned scribes, one never felt these allegations to be true, at least not in the nearly a dozen situations that this columnist was face-to-face with the showman, including three in his RK Studio chambers, five in his sprawling cottage and amongst others one in Abbas Saab’s apartment and then at his burial.
Raj Kapoor was just twenty-two when he attempted his first directorial venture, Aag (1948) based on a script by Inder Raj Anand. It was a bold attempt by any standards, and unheard of a still struggling actor to appear defaced in a film. It tanked at the box office. Being a fast learner, and a visionary he instantly switched over to breezy romance with the next, Barsaat, scripted by later-day producer and director, Ramanand Sagar. It set the box office on fire, Shankar Jaikishen’s lively music, and his poetical discoveries, Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri provided the hummable lyrics that enthrall music lovers even six decades later. And then began his long triumphant association with writer-director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who not only provided the base and framework for his subsequent winning image of a good-hearted tramp in Awaara, and the rest is history. Till date Awaara is considered to be his best directorial venture, and the dream sequence and picturisation of the song ghar aaya mera pardesi literally immortalized the film across the globe.
It is difficult to assess and sum up Raj Kapoor, the man, the lover, the actor, and producer director because he did everything in style. His films had gloss. It is generally believed that as an actor he gave little to his starrers outside the RK banner, and reserved his rest for his own productions. He extracted work out of even non-actors. Uncompromising in his beliefs, judgment and film-making he gave RK films a format and style, hits or flops, that sets them apart from other Bollywood film-makers. Many also hold the belief that the soul went out of RK films with Nargis, and the love of money shaped the films after her symbolic appearance at the end of Jagtey Raho by any standards his best both as a producer and an actor. For his own inspiration he moved from one actor to the other to partner him, but it never worked, whether it was the buxom Padmini in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Bahati Hai and Mera Naam Joker or Vyjanthimala in Sangam. The erstwhile chemistry and magic of Nargis-Raj Kapoor combination was missing.
Although he worked as a child artiste from an early age, his first film as the leading man was Neel Kamal (1947) which was also Madhubala’s maiden appearance as a heroine. And from then on till Mera Naam Joker (1970), Raj Kapoor won 19 nominations and 9 Filmfare trophies. Two of his productions, Awaara (1951) and Boot Polish (1954) were also nominated for Palme d’Or award at Cannes. He was accorded Padma Bhushan in 1971, and the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award (for 1997) barely weeks before he succumbed to asthma and other organ failures at the capital’s AIIMS hospital on June 2, 1988, exactly a year after this columnist’s last meeting with him at the Santacruz Muslim cemetery where his actor-image creator, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas was buried. The legend was barely 64.
Raj Kapoor was a dreamer. He thought big, made big, and died big by making the headlines in daily newspapers. His last journey from the grounds of RK Studios in Chembeur had almost the entire Bollywood as witness to what it meant to be Raj Kapoor, in life as well as in death.
By Suresh Kohli