Raj Kapoor is many things to many people: producer, director, actor, editor, musician, story-teller, a man of many moods. There could be endless debates about his exact contribution to the art and aesthetics of cinema, but few can deny that he was the greatest entertainer ever known to Indian films – the great showman.
Ranbir Raj Kapoor was the son of Prithviraj Kapoor the head of India’s greatest and largest film family. Born on December 14, 1924 in Peshawar, he was crazy about acting right from childhood, even staging plays at home and working as a child actor in Inquilab (1935)! He then started work as general factotum for Bombay Talkies, even doing a bit role in the Devika Rani starrer, Hamari Baat (1943). He then worked in his father’s Prithvi Theatres and side by side in films, did the role of Narad in Valmiki (1946), where his father played the title role. He also assisted director Kidar Sharma, who was a good friend of his father. Here, as part of his training, he was made to sweep floors and be the clapper boy. According to Kapoor’s daughter, Ritu Nanda’s book, Raj Kapoor Speaks, Kapoor recalled that he had a good vibe with the cameraman, who was working on Sharma’s film at the time. So he got him to take his close-up before every shot and then give Kapoor the photograph. For this Kapoor would meticulously comb his hair to look good in the shot and would bend over closer over the clapper board to get a good ‘close-up’. The unit had travelled far out to Ghodbundar to take a single shot at a precise time at sunset. Kapoor, more bothered about his close-up, goofed up the clap and got the actor’s beard stuck between the two jaws of the clapboard. A furious Sharma slapped Kapoor hard in front of the entire. But Sharma says he understood why the young Kapoor went to smarten himself before every shot he gave the clap for. That he wanted to be in front of the camera, not behind it. So he gave him his break a lead actor in 1947 with the film, Neel Kamal, where Kapoor was cast opposite a 14 year Madhubala.
The following year at the age of 23, Raj Kapoor made his directorial debut with Aag, the first film under the RK banner. Aag was an interesting film in that it challenged traditionally established conventions of sympathetic characters and straightforward storytelling. The film looked at three stages in its leading man’s life, a theatre artist, and the role that a woman played in each of the stages. Kamini Kaushal, Nigar Sultana and Nargis played the leading ladies. It was an early film that referenced the Partition and also the first of Kapoor’s many films with Nargis, the two of them going on to become the leading pair of Hindi Films right through till 1956. Aag was also the first of many of Raj’s films to explore dualities looking at at physical beauty v/s inner beauty. Among his other films, Barsaat (1949) looked at love v/s lust, Awara at heredity v/s environment, Mera Naam Joker (1970) at public life v/s private life etc. Incidentally, Mera Naam Joker used the same structure as Aag, set this time against the world of the circus and had Simi, Kseniya Ryabinkina and Padmini as the women in circus clown Kapoor’s life.
Mehboob Khan’s’s Andaz (1949), one of the finest love triangles on the Hindi screen, where Kapoor co-starred with Nargis and Dilip Kumar, made Kapoor a top star and in the same year, it was the passionate romance Barsaat, his second film as a director, which really reckoned Raj Kapoor as a director of much merit. Barsaat, a runaway hit, also brought to the limelight new music directors Shankar-Jaikishan, lyricists Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri ,and the actress Nimmi. The raw passion between Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Barsaat shot with a beautiful almost poetic use of light and shade drove audiences wild. A romantic pose of Nargis arched in Kapoor’s arms even as he holds a violin became the logo of his film company, RK films. Another highlight of the film is the youthful and fresh music of the film, which was hummed right across the nation. Along with Andaz and Mahal that year, the songs were instrumental in Lata Mangeshkar’s climb to the top as a playback singer. In fact, Raj Kapoor’s musical sense and feel for rhythm and involvement in music sittings have ensured the highest quality of music in all his films.
The 1950s saw Raj Kapoor’s greatest work as a Producer-Director besides establishing himself as one of India’s biggest ever film stars along with Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar – the Trimurthi of Hindi cinema that ruled the 1950s and early ’60s! He also gave some of his finest performances this decade in films like Awara (1951), Jagte Raho (1956), Phir Subah Hogi (1958) and Anari (1959).
Kapoor’s finest film is arguably Awara, the tale of a vagabond, which argued for environment shaping the personality of a man as against heredity. The film, where real life father and son, Prithviraj and Kapoor, played reel life father and son, was perhaps his greatest ever triumph. The film and particularly the title song swept through Asia breaking box office records in the Middle-East, being dubbed in Turkish, Persian and Arabic. In fact, it was even remade in Turkey in 1964! Raj Kapoor and Nargis became hugely popular pin ups in the bazaars of the Arab World. The film also swept Russia where it was called Bradyaga (Vagabond). An interesting fact here is that the villain of the film KN Singh did his own dubbing in Russian! With Awara’s release, Raj Kapoor and Nargis also became superstars in Russia. When they visited Russia, bands played Awara Hoon at airports, a puppet show by a leading Russian puppeteer had in its final play, puppets representing Raj Kapoor and Nargis!
The dream sequence, representing the mental turmoil of the hero caught between his criminal boss and his sweetheart who wishes him to give up crime, is a major highlight of Awara. With huge statues set amongst the clouds, choreographed by the French dancer, Madame Simki, the sequence stands out even today as one of the most iconic sequences of Indian cinema! It was apparently added on later to make the film more marketable but today seems to be an integral part of the film, bringing Raj Kapoor’s famed showmanship to the fore. With Awara, Raj Kapoor also created the Chaplin like tramp, an allegory for the innocent state of mind of the post Independent Indian. This image was used once again to telling effect in Shree 420 (1955) tracing the corruption of an innocent and simple man who comes to the city to make his living. In fact. many of Raj’s other films, even those directed by others, look at the naive simple hero, who is used by a cruel and corrupt society like in Jagte Raho and Anari.
Meanwhile, Kapoor had got involved with Nargis as the two of them worked together in a series of films post Awara. The Raj Kapoor-Nargis pair had a searing chemistry hitherto unseen on the Indian screen. The passion they felt for each other poured out on-screen as they romanced each other in several films – Amber (1952), Anhonee (1952), Bewafa, Dhoon (1953), Papi (1953) and Shree 420 to name a few. The song Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua from Shree 420 with Nargis and Raj Kapoor under the umbrella in heavy rain is subliminal romance at its best and easily one of the most romantic songs ever seen on the Indian screen.
However, by 1956, the pair had broken up with Chori Chori (1956), a breezy entertainer based on Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), being their last film as a romantic couple together. She did, however, do a special appearance in his production, Jagte Raho, for old times sake, and perhaps, it is fitting that at the end of the film, she is the woman who finally quenches Raj Kapoor’s thirst by giving him water to drink.
After their break-up ( while Raj Kapoor continued to explore social issues – Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) or complex human relationships – the intense love triangle Sangam (1964) for instance, there is a marked difference in his treatment of the heroine with a high accent on her physical attributes as she now primarily became a sex object to him. We see this in all his films post Shree 420 to his last film, Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985). He remained very much the showman, shooting Sangam extensively in Europe and while it was not the first Hindi film to be shot outside the country, it became a trendsetter leading to a spate of Hindi films being shot abroad like Love In Tokyo (1966), Night in London (1967) and An Evening in Paris (1967).
After ruling the 1950s and the earlier part of the 1960s as a major star in addition to his fame as one of the finest filmmakers in Hindi filmdom, Kapoor’s acting career took a downward turn as films like Teesri Kasam (1966), Diwana (1967) and Sapnon Ka Saudagar (1968) flopped at the box-office. in 1970, Kapoor came out with his magnum opus, Mera Naam Joker, about a clown who laughs on the outside and entertains people but has to deal with heartbreaks in his private or inner life. Reverting back to Kapoor’s Chaplinisque image and though absolutely brilliant in parts – particularly the first chapter of the adolescent hero discovering love and sex – the film, a highly self indulgent exercise, flopped miserably at the box office, shattering him and putting him in deep debt.
However, Raj bounced back big time with Bobby (1973), a trendsetting teenage romance of young lovers fighting parental opposition that is aped by Hindi cinema till today. Thereafter, Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), starring Zeenat Aman and re–examining Physical Beauty v/s Inner Beauty, was a misfire but Prem Rog (1982) based on widow re-marriage and his swan song, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, about innocence being sullied, were critical and commercial successes. In the latter film, the female protagonist is a metaphor for the river Ganga – once pure but now sullied by dirt and corruption. The film caused some controversy as heroine Mandakini’s breasts were clearly seen as she bathed in a thin white cloth under a waterfall in the film as well as in the scene where she breastfed her baby. For the conservatives, it was vulgar!
A much awarded actor (Filmfare Awards for Best Actor for Anari and Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai) and director (Filmfare Awards for Best Director for Sangam, Mera Naam Joker, Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili), Raj Kapoor was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian Cinema in 1988 but by then it was obvious he was seriously ill, suffering from complications related to asthma and on his last legs. Though he attended the function, it was clear that he was unable to make it up to the stage on his own. In a gesture of genuine respect, the President of India, R Venkataraman, himself came down from the stage and gallantly bestowed Raj Kapoor with the honor.
Raj Kapoor passed away on June 2, 1988. At the time of his death Raj Kapoor was making Heena, a love story breaking the barriers of the Indo-Pak border, which was subsequently completed by his eldest son Randhir.
On the personal front, Raj Kapoor was married to Krishna, sister of actors Premnath, Rajendranath and Narendranath. His sons Randhir, Rishi and Rajeev Kapoor have all been actors with Rishi having the most successful career amongst them. All three have also directed films for the RK banner with mixed results. Randhir’s daughters, Karisma and Kareena, and Rishi’s son, Ranbir, have kept the Kapoor banner flying high in the current generation.