Rajendranath, a comedian in Hindi Cinema, had a fairly long innings as a funny man from the late 1950s to the 1990s and while he was a popular enough actor right through the 1960s to the mid ’70s, he never quite reached the heights of his other contemporaries in laughter, Johnny Walker and Mehmood.
He was born Rajendranath Malhotra in Tikamgarh State, now Madhya Pradesh, on June 8, 1931, one of twelve children. Rajendranath was the second boy in line, the actor Premnath being the first. His father, Kartarnath, was the IG of Police in Rewa district, where he did his schooling and attended college though he did not complete his degree. In an interview he gave in 1990, he recalled that if he had completed his studies, he might have become a doctor but then he also probably saved a lot of people’s lives by not becoming a man of medicine! Recalling his school days, he remembers that while Premnath and he were extremely close, Premnath was quite the bully in school and would make him stand on a bench and hit him with a rubber ball till he gave his elder brother, half his pocket money!
His family shifted from Rewa to Jabalpur and it was around this time in the 1940s that elder brother Premnath went against the wishes of their father and moved to Bombay to try and make it in the film world. He joined Prithvi Theatres and gradually moved on to films becoming a top hero in the early 1950s. Rajendranath, too, came to Bombay initially for a holiday and to see if he could continue his studies in the city of dreams. However, bitten by the acting bug, he began to do radio plays broadcast on Radio Ceylon and All India Radio. Like Premnath, he too joined Prithvi Theatres. Incidentally, their sister Krishna Malhotra, got married to Raj Kapoor in 1946.
On screen, Rajendranath first appeared uncredited on screen in the Nigar Sultana-Shyam starrer, Patanga (1949) where Gope was the main comedian. As Premnath turned producer, Rajendranath first found small parts in his brother’s films like Shagufa (1953), Prisoner Of Golconda (1954) and Samundar (1957). Small parts in outside films like Filmistan’s Ham Sab Chor Hain (1956) too did not help much. He recalled how much his brother and sister-in-law, Bina Rai, helped him in his days of struggle, Besides giving him roles in films, they gave him a roof over his head and made sure he never went hungry. However, as his struggles continued and he didn’t want to be a burden to his brother, he moved out to make it on his own.
The breakthrough Rajendranath was looking for finally came when he was cast in Nasir Hussain’s Dil Deke Dekho (1959) and HS Rawail’s Shararat, the same year. Suddenly instead of asking people for work, producers and directors began coming to him with offers. As the bumbling idiot who tries to woo heroine Asha Parekh only to lose out to Shammi Kapoor in Dil Deke Dekho, he endeared himself to audiences. The film also led to a long association with filmmaker Nasir Hussain and actor Shammi Kapoor. However, the flip side to this was that he largely got typecast as the buffoon. As a comedian, Rajendranath modelled himself on Lou Costello of the famous Abbot and Costello team. His comic style invoked their burlesque comedy routines with Rajendranath always playing the clown in chaddis or nighties and the like. Being cast in the same type of roles played a large factor in him being unable to reinvent himself. In that sense, he was the same bozo in film after film. A pity because he always seemed capable of much more. Still, some films were he played interesting roles and got more scope to perform include Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963), Mujhe Jeene So (1963), Teen Bahuraniyan (1968) and Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim (1970), where he played a hippie in London.
With Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai (1961), Nasir Hussain gave him his most unforgettable character, Popatlal. The name stuck and he played characters with the same name in many a film! The Nasir Hussain-Rajendranath team also created many a laugh in films like Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon (1963), Baharon Ke Sapne (1967) and Pyar Ka Mausam (1969). With Shammi Kapoor he played his friend and faithful side-kick in a number of films like Rajkumar (1964), Janwar (1965), Latt Saheb (1967), An Evening In Paris (1967) – where his role of a Sikh tourist outraged the Sikhs and some scenes of his had to be deleted from the film, Prince (1969) and Jawan Mohabbat (1971). Another actor he made a popular team was with Shashi Kapoor. The two co-starred, among others, in Aamne Saamne (1967), Ek Shriman Ek Shrimati (1969), Pyar Ka Mausam, My Love (1970) and Rootha Na Karo (1970).
Rajendranath, who continued acting well into the 1990s, passed away in Bombay, now Mumbai, on February 13, 2008 following a brief illness.