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 worked in his father’s Prithvi Theatres, did the role of Narad in Valmiki (1946) and also assisted director Kidar Sharma. Here he was made to sweep floors and be the clapper boy but Sharma noticed the young man’s determination to make it and gave him his break a lead actor in 1947 with Neel Kamal opposite Madhubala. And he was on his way.
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. It was also the first of his 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.
Mehboob’s Andaz (1949), one of the finest love triangles on the Hindi screen, made Raj a top star and in the same year it was the passionate romance Barsaat, which really reckoned Raj Kapoor as a director of much merit. Barsaat, a runaway hit, also brought to the limelight new music directors Shankar – Jaikishen, 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. The music of the film was hummed across the nation and 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! 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).
Awara, the tale of a vagabond that argued for environment shaping the man as against heridity was perhaps his greatest ever triumph and was even released in Russia as Bradyaga to unprecedented success. It’s dream sequence with huge statues set amongst the clouds, choreographed by Madame Simki with Nargis dancing to the strains of Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi, stands out even today as one of the most iconic sequences of Indian cinema! 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 used by a cruel and corrupt society like 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. But after their break-up (their last film together was Chori Chori (1956) though she did do a cameo in Jagte Raho (1956)), while Raj Kapoor continued to explore social issues – Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) or complex human relationships – the love triangle Sangam (1964), there is a marked difference in his treatment of the heroine, who primarily became a sex object to him, with a high accent on her physical attributes!
After ruling the 1950s and the earlier part of the 1960s, his films like Teesri Kasam (1966), Diwana (1967) and Sapnon ka Saudagar (1968) flopped at the box-office. Kapoor came out with his magnum opus Mera Naam Joker (1970) about a clown who laughs on the outside and entertains people but has to deal with heartbreaks in his real 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.
However, Raj bounced back with Bobby (1973) a teenage romance of young lovers fighting parental opposition that is aped by Hindi cinema till today. Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) 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 (1985) 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.
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.