(This article is being re-published for Raj Kapoor’s 28th death anniversary.)
My reason for writing today is to illustrate the man and the filmmaker that Raj Kapoor was. Unlike any film personality I have seen in close-up down the decades, he was a class apart. Permit me, then, to recall some incidents which have stayed with me.
Consistently criticised for depicting women provocatively – like with Mandakini under a waterfall in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Raj Kapoor had asked me in the course of an interview, “Tell me, do you think I’m being vulgar? If a great director like Federico Fellini celebrates the female form in Amarcord, it’s called art. But if I make Satyam Shivam Sundaram or Ram Teri Ganga Maili, it’s called vulgarity. Why? For the life of me, I can’t understand double standards.”
At the New York airport, en route to being honoured at the Festival of India in Los Angeles, he picked up a stack of Playboy and Penthouse magazines, leafed through the pin-ups and laughed, “See, in the western world nudity is no big deal.” After a pause, he sighed, “But I think I’m much too old to look at these Playmates now.”
He handed over the magazines to me. Seeing me startled, he laughed some more and then binned the magazines. Shrugging, he said: “Okay, okay I understand, you’re embarrassed.” The fact was that I would have grabbed the magazines but would first have had to put on a mask of hypocrisy, conveying the impression that I wasn’t into er...navel gazing. “Stop making him blush red,” Mrs Krishna Raj Kapoor had intervened. End of story? No, I often wonder why I’d behaved so prissily.
A day before that flight to LA, I’d been mugged on Lexington Street, New York. My shoulder bag, dollars, travellers’ cheques and passport-visa, poof, all gone in an instant. On hearing about it, Raj Kapoor whipped out what looked like a thousand dollars, saying, “You can pay me back in Mumbai.” Nope, here was an offer which had to be refused in line with professional ethics. Next, RK whipped out a battered Parker pen out of his shirt pocket, saying, “At least keep this. I wrote my scripts for Awara and Shree 420 with this pen. Keep it, please.” That was an offer which couldn’t be refused.
Sentimental to an extreme, Raj Kapoor would start weeping gently as he did at an evening hosted at a Chinese restaurant, to bring in one of his birthdays. In his 60s then, he murmured to me, “Such birthdays are reminders of my mortality. I like my evening drinks, I still steal a smoke when no one’s looking…might as well, since we all come with an expiry date.”
One afternoon, he called out of the blue, to ask, “Do you know where I can get hold of Mr Deeds Goes to Town?” The Gary Cooper film’s theme about a small-town simpleton hustled into the money-obsessed ways of a big town, had fascinated him for years. Its video cassette was inaccessible.
Often, I wonder what his take on Mr Deeds would have been.
As it happened, I was a reporter covering the Dadasaheb Phalke Award presentation to Raj Kapoor at New Delhi’s Siri Fort auditorium. On sighting me, he waved to indicate that I should sit next to him. That wouldn’t have been appropriate. I waved back, indicating that I’d see him after the ceremony. Five minutes later, he was overcome by what seemed like a severe asthma attack.
He was helped out to the foyer – he could hardly stand. Somehow, attendants managed to take him back to the seat. Since he couldn’t walk up to the stage, the President walked down to present the Award. He was hardly conscious, but folded his hands into a namaskar. Seconds later he was rushed to the nearby AIIMS hospital.
Never to get back home or wave out ever again. Raj Kapoor passed away at the age of 63 on June 2nd, 1988, aware of his mortality.
(This piece was first published on December 14, 2015)
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)