The voice behind Shammi Kapoor’s iconic ‘Yahoo!’ The man who wrote the maximum hits for Amitabh Bachchan. Writer-Director Prayag Raaj passed away in Mumbai on September 23, 2023 at the age of 88. Noted film-historian and cinema memorabilia archivist SMM Ausaja pens a heartfelt tribute.
The curtain came down on one of the most powerful scriptwriters of the Bachchan era, Prayag Raaj, on September 23. Amitabh Bachchan, in a message to this writer, wrote, “Very sad… such a huge contributor to some of the most outstanding films. Prayers🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼.”
It is distressing that some of the greatest achievers of our industry have remained unsung in the media – which has a penchant to put sensationalism above accomplishment. If you ask any cinema analyst to name the scriptwriters behind Amitabh Bachchan’s phenomenal success, the answer, without a blink, would be Salim-Javed. Though this may be partly correct, there have been other writers as well who have cemented Bachchan’s iconic status at the box-office. They have remained in oblivion because they either didn’t seek recognition out of modesty or they weren’t media-savvy. This doesn’t absolve a cinema historian imparting lesser value to them. One such writer, who needs to be discussed, saluted and celebrated is Prayag Raaj.
Raaj inherited creativity by genes. He is the son of a well-known poet Ram Das “Azad”. Azad belonged to Lahore, worked in the Indian Army, and was posted in Allahabad when his son was born and named after his illustrious birthplace (Allahabad, traditionally called Prayag Raj has now gone back to it original name).
Azad’s interest in theatre and cinema, and his association with Prithviraj Kapoor and K L Saigal led him to give up his job and migrate to Bombay in 1941 where he wrote plays for Prithvi Theatre and even directed a couple of films. Prayag Raaj entered films as early as 1948 as a child actor with Raj Kapoor’s Aag where he played a tramp. Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) followed, where he had a role as a street urchin.
In 1961, Shammi Kapoor’s rebellious on-screen ‘Yahoo!’ refrain in Subodh Mukherjee’s Junglee was actually Prayag Raaj’s voice, done in the studio while recording the song with Mohd Rafi. This song in Saira Banu’s debut film took the nation’s youth by storm. Raaj’s ability to give a high decibel refrain became a popular add on in several songs but few know that it is Prayag Raaj’s voice crying out ‘Affoo Khudaa’ in Hum ko tum pe pyar aya (Jab Jab Phool Khile), ‘Kuckoo’ in Mast baharon ka main aashiq (Farz) and ‘Allah Rakha’ in Coolie to name a few.
Yahoo! Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe (Junglee, 1961) Shankar Jaikishan / Hasrat Jaipuri / Mohd Rafi
Raaj turned to direction in 1962, assisting Lekh Tandon in Professor. He got a high-profile launch as a writer when James Ivory and Ismail Merchant penciled him for Hindi dialogues of Householder (1963), besides working as an assistant in direction. In Shakespearewallah (1965), Prayag Raaj assisted in direction, did a cameo, and wrote his first song under the music direction of Satyajit Ray. The song was sung by Mubarak Begum. This song was listed among Ray’s best songs in a commemorative collection record released later by HMV where the celebrated director acknowledged the young lyricist.
In 1968 Prayag Raaj wrote his first Hindi film Juari, and followed it up with his first hit as a writer in Jhuk Gaya Aasman. For Merchant Ivory’s Guru (1969), besides acting, he was promoted as a second unit director. His association as an actor with Merchant Ivory Productions lasted till Cotton Mary (1999).
The seventies belonged to Prayag Raaj. Impressed with the success of Jhuk Gaya Aasman, Manmohan Desai signed him as scriptwriter for Sachcha Jhootha (1970) starring the reigning superstar – Rajesh Khanna. Prayag Raaj delivered a Golden Jubilee for the director resulting in the legendary writer-director association. Prayag Raaj scripted all Manmohan Desai films in collaboration with (mostly) K K Shukla and Kadar Khan.
With a grooming of almost two decades, Prayag Raaj finally wielded the microphone as an independent director for Kundan in 1972, and wrote his second huge hit for Desai – Rampur Ka Laxman. His stock as a scriptwriter rose under Desai with Aa Gale Lag Jaa in 1973 and Roti in 1974 – two gigantic blockbusters from Manmohan Desai.
In 1975, Raaj directed the hit comedy Ponga Pandit and the following year wrote Raj Kapoor’s Dharam Karam. His meteoric success reached its zenith in 1977. Prayag Raaj directed the successful Chor Sipahee and wrote the year’s four biggest hits for Manmohan Desai – Parvarish, Dharam Veer and Amar Akbar Anthony in collaboration with K K Shukla and Kadar Khan, while Chacha Bhatija had the legendary writer working with the high-profile duo of Salim-Javed only once.
In 1977 began the association of Amitabh Bachchan and Prayag Raaj with two smash hits back to back – Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony. The latter has the distinction of being the first film to celebrate a silver jubilee in eleven theatres in Bombay! If Salim-Javed crafted the Angry-Young-Man persona for Amitabh, Prayag Raaj made him multifaceted and thereby diluted the argument that the actor was typecast in anger-oriented roles. For the audience, Raaj’s Anthony was a welcome change after a vendetta-driven Vijay of Deewar and Trishul, giving Amitabh an opportunity for comedy and coming up trumps in that as well.
Raaj stayed on as co-scriptwriter of Manmohan Desai’s film and the Raaj-Desai duo continued to scale new heights. Suhaag (1979) brought the Kolhapuri chappals in vogue, and went almost neck-to-neck with the year’s biggest hit, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, at the box-office. Naseeb in 1981 remains Desai’s most flamboyant films. It was one of the biggest hits of the year, with Amitabh’s drunken act in the song ‘Chal mere bhai..’, the revolving restaurant climax, and the song ‘John Jani Janardhan..’ bringing together a galaxy of stars being highlights. By the time Desai’s next film, Desh Premee (1982), hit the theatres to a silver jubilee, it was time for the celebrated director to honor his consistently successful writer by giving him a film to direct under the MKD production house.
Prayag Raaj directed Amitabh Bachchan in Coolie (1983), a film that almost cost the actor his life! Desai had to add his name after Prayag Raaj in credits only for commercial reasons. The film towered above all releases that year zooming to the platinum jubilee!
Buoyed by such spectacular success, Prayag Raaj stormed the box-office once again in 1985 as story writer in Desai’s Mard – a film where his hero took on the might of the British Empire in a jingoistic lingo – a character reportedly inspired by Desai’s favourite comic strip The Phantom (the horse and the dog as constant companions of the invincible protagonist). But the element of crudity and jingoism earned it substantial flak from the critics. Desai remained unfazed, having complete support from Bachchan who, being an MP, ensured the double entendre of the song Tambu mein bamboo (penned by Prayag Raaj) get a clear passage through the censors! The song became a hit, and the film the second biggest hit of the year after RK’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili.
In the same year, Prayag Raaj pulled off a coup of sorts by bringing together and directing Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hassan and Rajnikant in Geraftaar. The film clicked to a silver jubilee and this star cast has gone down in the history of Hindi cinema being the only time the three superstars were seen in a film.
The last MKD film with Prayag Raaj was Deewana Mastana in 1997 – a breezy comedy of Anil Kapoor and Govinda, made years after the death of Manmohan Desai. This film is also the last hit from the prestigious banner. If Salim-Javed are credited with seven Amitabh Bachchan hits, Prayag Raaj has eight hits featuring the superstar under his belt. He also has the distinction of writing maximum films for Amitabh Bachchan.
In his brief stint with television, Prayag Raaj scripted the most successful costume drama of its time for Doordarshan – Chandrakanta. His comedy countdown show Truck Dhina Dhin – featuring Jaaved Jaaferi and Jagdeep was the highest TRP fetching countdown show in the country. He was surprisingly well read about contemporary cinema and watched most of the current releases in the theatres.
Zamaanat, his eleventh film co-scripted for Amitabh, where the Big B played a blind lawyer, unfortunately remained unreleased. When asked if this saddened him, he would smile and hum the lyrics he wrote for the Amitabh Bachchan song in Toofan – ‘Don’t worry, be happy!’
Prayag Raaj’s record of hits as a scriptwriter (five in one year) or his casting coup in Geraftaar will remain benchmarks in cinema. Ace filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, expressing disappointment on how stalwarts in the film industry are not given their due, said to this writer, “Memory has lost its significance. Any culture that does not remember it’s past has no future.”
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy SMM Ausaja)
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