I am trying a new thing, sort of cliff notes version of Hindi film history. Not the actual history (“Bombay Talkies studio was founded by Harivanshri Rai and Devika Rani…”), but the gossip history that everyone kind of knows if they’ve grown up with the films or if they’ve been following them for years. But I know that isn’t true for some of my readers and so, just for you, I am giving you the kind of informal oral history. Starting with the Kapoor Family (part 1 here).
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: These are not “facts”, or “true”, or maybe they are, I have no way of knowing! I don’t know the Kapoor family personally or anything like that. But if you are just beginning to get into the films, I want to give you a sense of the background that most people have for the Kapoors, what is behind all the allusions in film articles and odd comments in interviews.
The Kapoors are a little confusing because there are so many generations, and what with early marriages and long periods of fertility, the generations overlap a little. So instead of doing it strictly generational, I kind of am doing it by branches on the family tree. Prithviraj Kapoor, the first branch, is finished. And his two younger sons, Shammi and Shashi, they are done too. Shashi’s children are moderately famous and important, I discussed them in the last post, Shammi’s are not so important so I skipped them, and I went through Shammi and Shashi’s lives start to finish. Well, Shammi’s life start to finish, not yet Shashi’s (touch wood).So all that’s left is to finish the oldest son, Raj Kapoor, the most important member of the family and arguably the most important figure in all of Indian film history.
I left Raj behind in my last post at the point when Shammi was launched. Raj had become a star at 19, and a director/producer 5 years later. He had also gotten married at 21, to a distant cousin who had film connections (actor Premnath was her brother).
(Prem Nath. Had a brief period as a young romantic hero in his youth, then a very long period as a character actor)
And shortly after the marriage, Raj went to a meeting with the young actress Nargis, a major figure in film at only 17. And he fell in love for her at first sight. Or so he claims. My impression of Raj Kapoor is that he was one of those figures who was kind of “in love with love”. Maybe he really felt things for all these women, or maybe he convinced himself he did, or maybe he just re-wrote all his affairs into something that would fit into one of his films, instead of something from boring tawdry real life.
Nargis was less taken with him, at least at first. According to later accounts, she wasn’t that impressed with this young somewhat chubby actor who dreamed of directing. But she still agreed to be in his movie, and by the end of the shoot, they were in love.
Their second film together, Barsaat, brought their romance to the forefront (in their first film Aag she had more of a cameo role). And their passionate embrace in the film was the inspiration for Raj Kapoor’s logo for RK Films.
From then on, for 8 years from 1948 to 1956, the Raj Kapoor and Nargis “jodi” enchanted the nation. It wasn’t like today’s “secret romances”, it was more like Karan Johar’s sexual orientation, not even a secret at all, something they all but came out and announced. They did everything together, appearing at every event, even traveling the world together to promote their films.
For those 8 years, Raj essentially had two “wives”. There was Nargis, his work wife, his creative partner in everything he did, and Krishna, his home wife, who bore his children, took care of his parents, and ran the household like a Swiss watch. This worked great for Raj! He had this vibrant creative partner at work, who had talent and experience to match his own. And back home he had this nice respectable woman from a good family to raise his children.
It also worked great for Indian film. This was Raj’s peak creative period, he was working 24 hour days planning his own movies, directing his own movies, and acting in other people’s movies to support it all. Krishna was supporting him by removing all his home worries, and Nargis was supporting him by inspiring him at work.
Or maybe more than inspiring him? It’s not clear how much of an input she had at RK Films at this point. She had her own permanent “cabin” and dressing room on the studio lot. She and Raj spent every possible minute together, which meant she sat in on most of his production meetings, was on set every day on his films, and I assume even when they were alone together, they took a break from doing lovey-dovey stuff to brainstorm script ideas.
What is clear is that Nargis brought a certain strength and nobility to her female characters that is just not there in any Raj Kapoor heroine in any film after hers. And that Raj Kapoor’s two greatest pictures, Awara and Shree 420 both came out during this period.
(Look how their interaction is so equal here. Yes, he is teasing her, but she is also able to scare him a little. And most of all, her character is not sexualized in any way. She is a personality in her own right, not just a body)
And then it all fell apart VERY DRAMATICALLY. Raj Kapoor has his own version of it, in which (of course), he is the wronged man. Like I said, I kind of think he re-wrote everything that happened to him in real life as though it was a movie. In this case, he really did make it into a movie, taking certain elements of their break-up and putting it into Sargam.
There are all kinds of stories about the problems in their love affair that lead up to it. The most dramatic I have heard is Nargis falling on her knees in front of Nehru himself, begging him to use his powers to grant Raj a divorce over Krishna’s objections. I don’t believe these version, but I do believe the general idea that Nargis was tired of being just a “work wife”. She wanted an official status, she wanted children, she wanted her life back. During their 8 years together, Raj had come to control almost every part of her life. Down to her clothing, Raj Kapoor famously loves women in white chiffon saris. His wife Krishna, in every public appearance through to today, only appears in white saris. Nargis also frequently wore white while she was with Raj. She asked his permission for every film role she took, she put the films she did with him ahead of all her other commitments and slowly, from being the much bigger star than he, she was beginning to fade into his shadow.
Raj’s version of their break-up is that, despite his passionate unwavering love, she walked out on him. No really, that’s how he saw it! Even thought he also had a wife, he felt that she was the one who “cheated”. There is a quote I saw somewhere where he talked about how he knew it was over when she started wearing high heels, so she must have become interested in a taller man than he (Raj and Nargis were close to the same height, so she never wore heels with him). And then one night in her dressing room, he noticed a torn up letter in the waste paper basket, and it was a love letter from Sunil Dutt. The horror! The Betrayal!!! And so, heartbroken (as he tells it), he confronted her, only to learn that she had moved on from him, despite his innocence of any wrong-doing (as he saw it).
The perspective from Nargis is very different. Remember how I mentioned that issue of her kind of fading into his shadow and losing her identity? Her first director, the one who made her a star, came to her with this amazing script and amazing role which she really wanted to take. Raj didn’t want her to take it, because she wouldn’t be available for his movies and (probably) because she wouldn’t be available for him in general. And she took it anyway. That was the first break. The role was Mother India, probably the greatest female role in the history of Indian film. It was an epic film and an epic part, Nargis was on location for months, removed from Raj.
(If you recognize this image, it’s because it was just referenced in Sultan during Salman’s first training song. Or you might recognize it from one of the many many many other times it has been referenced on film)
And during this time, there was an accident on set. If you’ve seen Om Shanti Om, it’s exactly what happens there when Shahrukh rescues “Shantipriya”. They even lampshade it by having Satish Shah say “it’s just like Nargis and Sunil Dutt!”.
In Mother India, at the end, Nargis has aged from a young bride to a mother of two grown sons. Her younger son, the “bad” one (who of course she loves the most) is Sunil Dutt. He has turned into a bandit, and for the sake of the family honor and the village honor (this is a very socialist film), Nargis is chasing him down to punish him. Only in the middle of the chase, the field of haystacks she is running through catches fire and she is trapped. Her son, Sunil, is supposed to rescue her, proving that he still has good in him.
(Clearly the close-ups were filmed later and inserted, but the distant shots of the fire and the haystacks, that could be the real incident)
Only during filming, the fire went out of control and Nargis-the-actress really was trapped! And Sunil Dutt, the young hero (this was his first major film), without thought to his own safety, ran in and rescued her. Which is, according to legend, the actual take they used in the finished film. And then, shortly after the film released, Nargis and Sunil were married. And poor Raj Kapoor had his heart broken. Well, according to him. That isn’t the end of the Nargis story, but I will save the rest of her life for another day.
If you are starting to feel sorry for Raj, remember that he also claimed to be passionately in love with his wife Krishna, who was still faithfully waiting for him back home. In fact, during this whole period with Nargis, he was still writing Krishna love letters whenever he was out of the country. I suppose now we would call him “Polyamorous”, but it’s not really fair when you are “polyamorous” and your wife isn’t and hasn’t agreed to that.
Post-Nargis, Raj’s creativity changed. His films lost a little of their social bite, and his heroines lost a little bit of their dignity. But he was still a genius. I already did a whole post on Sangam, a movie where he worked out some of his lingering Nargis issues. Before that, he had made Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, which was plenty successful and plenty good. It also gave him a bit of a rebound relationship with the heroine Padmini.
(Padmini. Very sparkly)
He rebounded again (according to rumor) with Vyjantimala while filming Sangam. And, also according to rumor, this was the last straw for Krishna. I don’t believe the following story at all, but I like it so much I am going to share it with you: I read somewhere that she found out when one of her friends called her up to tell her that Vyjantimala had been spotted wearing a white chiffon sari, a sure sign that Raj had added her to his haram. Krishna briefly left him, but after he begged and pleaded, she agreed to come home again. I doubt that Raj stopped falling in love with young actresses after this, but at least he learned to be a little more discrete about it.
What seems generally accepted is that Krishna was fine with Nargis. They had “an arrangement”. Nargis did the public appearances and was part of his work life and she and Raj had the kind of love that couldn’t be denied, Krishna could understand that. And Nargis respected Krishna and never tried to interfere in her realm. But these new women, who were just casual flings, that was something else.
It might have also helped their marriage that Raj was rapidly approaching the Kapoor midlife change. He still had sort of a “debonair” quality all the way through Mere Naam Joker in 1970. But the reckless charm and beauty of his youth were beginning to slip away. By the mid-70s he had changed to father parts and character roles, and by the 80s his weight and drinking had lead to serious problems with diabetes. Not exactly the charming young lover who went from Nargis to Padmini to Vyjantimala.
While his may no longer have been able to act in the same way, acting was always the least of his talents. It was as a director that he really shone. And that skill continued unabated. Mere Naam Joker, at 4 hours long, was his magnum opus. It flopped terribly at the time, but has been appreciated since as a brilliant saga. It’s very meta, he plays a young man who becomes a clown, who is constantly falling in love and having his heart broken, but still performing every night. And his theme song, about the keeping going and still performing, this is the song that Asha Bhosle started to cry and couldn’t continue when I saw her sing it live (yes, she was also very very old and tired, but this particular song is the one that made her break down).
After Mere Naam Joker failed, Raj started turning more and more to directing and guiding the next generation. He worked with his son-brother Shashi in Satyam Shivan Sundaram, and he launched all 3 of his own boys, Randhir in Kal Aaj Aur Kal, Rishi in Bobby, and Rajiv in Ram Tera Ganga Mali. He also encouraged Randhir to do his own directing, grooming him to take over the studio in the future (more on that later). And he married off his oldest daughter into a very good family.
Ritu his oldest daughter married a wealthy businessman in Delhi, Rajan Nanda, in 1969 when she was 21. Her son Nikhil Nanda grew up spending vacations on filmsets with his grandfather Raj, seeing the Great Man of Indian Film at work. And years later, when he was a very young man, he fell in love with Shweta Bachchan (Amitabh’s beloved daughter) and they were married at 22 and 23 respectively. Meaning their children, Navya Naveli Nanda and Agastya Nanda, are both Amitabh Bachchan’s grandchildren, and Raj Kapoor’s great-grandchildren. So if you ever wondered why the Indian press is so obsessed with them, that’s why.
(Amitabh’s obsessed with them too, but that’s just being a good grandfather)
Raj’s other daughter was much younger than Ritu, and married 6 months after Raj’s death. Meaning her engagement was probably already in place and wedding planning in progress before he died. She married a businessman, also from an old landed family although he had transitioned to investments and banking from Mango orchards. And they had two sons, Armaan and Aadar Jain, Armaan had a failed launch a few years back which mostly consisted of him shouting from the rooftops “Forget the last name! I’m Raj Kapoor’s grandson, you should pay attention to me!” And Aadar’s launch is still coming up, I posted about it a month or so back. I will come back to these businessman marriages in the next post, remember them! But first I have to deal with the end of Raj’s life.
Raj was known as “The Great Showman”. He started the Kapoor family tradition of going above and beyond, being more magnificent than anyone else. The RK studio parties were legendary during his time. Tables covered in food, as much liquor as you could want, the enter studio lot turned into a playground for party guests. And this was his sensibility on film as well (especially post-Nargis). Melodramatic plots, huge song sequences, Spectacle Spectacle Spectacle.
And that is how he died as well. Like I said, he had problems already with diabetes and he didn’t have the healthiest lifestyle. He was invited to receive the Dadasaheb Phalke Award from the President of India. The ceremony was to be televised. Krishna patched him up and packed him up and they went for the ceremony. In the middle of which, on television, he suddenly collapsed. The President’s own ambulance took him to the hospital, where he died. Fittingly dramatic!
So, without Raj, who was left to carry on the family? It was supposed to be Randhir, Raj’s son. He was the oldest son (only 22 years younger than his father). He had been groomed to take over all his life. Like his father, he had been raised backstage and on film sets. And, like his father, he was expected to burst forth as a new shining talent at age 24. But things didn’t quite work out that way. And I will cover that, and the rest of the Randhir lineage, in my next post on next Tuesday.