The life and times of Prithviraj Kapoor, theatre legend and the founder of Hindi cinema’s first family. A special tribute to this legendary actor on his death anniversary, May 29.
All pictures used in this article are courtesy SMM Ausaja and Osianama.com
Excellence followed Prithviraj Kapoor all through his life – he created plays no one could equal, and created some revered showbiz characters that became performing benchmarks – most notably being those in Sohrab Modi’s Sikandar and K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam.
Prithviraj Kapoor’s contribution to cinema and theatre catapulted his status to legendary proportions in the industry, gave the First Family eminence to his immensely gifted lineage, and created two revered icons of Indian showbiz – R K Films and Prithvi Theatres.
A father figure to an industry, Prithviraj was born in Peshawar on November 3, 1906, in a prosperous and respected family. His grandfather Dewan Saheb Keshomal Kapoor was the ‘Tehsildar’ of Samundri a town in Lyallpur district of Punjab. His father Shri Basheshar Nath Kapoor was a police officer who had a transferable job, so Prithviraj’s early years were spent with his grandfather. His mother passed away when he was only three, father remarried and Prithviraj consequently had four stepbrothers – Trilok, Amar, Vishi and Ram. The bond with a disciplinarian grandfather taught him values and culture which he followed all his life – equality of humans, secularism, respect to elders et al formed the core of his early influences. For example, touching the feet of an old servant of the house was mandatory.
Prithviraj’s early schooling happened at Anglo-Vernacular District Board Middle School at Samundri. At eight he first appeared on stage as Laxman in a play on Ramayana, and also played Harishchandra in another. He later joined Khalsa High School at Lyallpur to complete 9th and 10th. F C Tandon, father of well-known director Lekh Tandon, was one of his earliest friends at school. Besides acting, athletics, Kabaddi, and wrestling also formed an integral part of his extra-curricular interests.
Prithviraj cleared his Matriculation Exams with a first class, and went on to join Islamia College in Arts where he made a name for himself in Dramatics becoming the Secretary of College Amateur Dramatics Club. At 17, Prithvi married Rama and their eldest son Ranbir Raj Kapoor was born on December 14, 1924, when Prithvi was still in college!
His heart and soul belonged to theatre
Completing BA with a second division in 1927, Prithviraj joined Law College Lahore. It was a disastrous move as his heart and soul belonged to theatre. Consequently he failed to clear his first year as a law student. The same year he decided to take up acting as a career, despite family opposition. In the era of silent films, the two bustling towns for movie making were Calcutta and Bombay. Prithviraj reached Calcutta to join Film League, a club active in fetching film assignments. When things did not turn out the way he had expected, and the disappointed struggler turned towards Bombay.
Prithviraj reached Bombay on September 29, 1929, and managed to meet Khan Bahadur Ardeshir Irani of Imperial Studios on 2nd October. The meeting bore fruit and he joined the illustrious company as an “extra”, the first film assignment being Challenge or Do Dhari Talwar (most films had two names in those days) directed by B P Misra.
Prithviraj also appeared in Wedding Night or Vasal ki Raat directed by P V Altekar. However, “extra” roles could not hold him for long and soon Prithviraj got the main role as the protagonist in B P Misra’s Cinema Girl opposite Ermeline, a big star of silent cinema of those days. The film was a big hit and Prithviraj and Ermeline repeated the success with B P Misra’s Children of the Storm or Toofan (1930) produced by Sagar Film Company.
Motion Picture technology was revolutionized by sound and Prithviraj was part of the cast of India’s first talkie Alam Ara directed by Ardeshir Irani himself. Soon Prithviraj also joined British actor Grant Anderson’s theatre company to stage various plays including Shakespearean classics. With this troupe Prithviraj staged plays all over the country, before settling in Calcutta for six years.
Grant Anderson’s theatre group ran in losses but the illustrious New Theatres Studios picked up Prithviraj Kapoor for several films – the most famous ones being Nitin Bose’s Raj Rani Meera, 1933, opposite Durga Khote (the first mythological to win an award abroad), Inquilaab, 1934, Vidyapati, 1937 (directed by Debaki Bose), Manzil, 1938 (in which he appeared in his famous negative role) and Dushman, 1939 (where he shared screen space with the legendary K L Saigal).
Returning as a Star
In 1939 he returned to Bombay as a renowned star to join Chandulal Shah’s Ranjit Studios. His stock rose with several hits like Ranjit’s Pagal directed by A R Kardar, till he reached his career high playing with Minerva Movietone’s Sikandar directed by Sohrab Modi. No star in the span of more than six decades has been able to match Prithviraj’s charm, grace and screen presence that he gave to Modi’s epic. Sikandar remains a milestone in Hindi cinema. The handsome Prithviraj almost looked like the famed Greek legend Alexander The Great as he is depicted in the books, besides giving a stellar performance.
In 1941, when V Shantaram was planning Shakuntala, Prithviraj approached the celebrated director for a role. Shantaram didn’t show much interest in casting Prithvi as Dushyant. Years later, Prithviraj staged Shakuntala and sent a special invite to Shantaram. The play ended with thunderous applause and accolades to Prithviraj who played Dushyant. This was an artiste’s angst conveyed to another through a creative route. There was regret and guilt in Shantaram’s expressions as he faced Prithviraj after the play! Prithviraj was later seen in Rajkamal’s Dahej in one of his career best roles!!
Films and theatre remained his twin passions till Prithviraj decided to form his own theatre company. Prithvi Theatres was founded on 15th January, 1944 in Bombay, beginning a theatre renaissance in Bombay. Deewar on partition, Pathan on secularism, Ghaddar on the plight of post-partition Muslim refugees, Ahutee on a girl abducted during riots, Kalakar on a village girl marrying a metro-based artiste, Paisa, a play on the ills of wealth, Kisan on the plight of farmers facing ruthless moneylenders – all path breaking scripts deftly enacted and directed.
Along with scaling the peaks of creativity in theatre, Prithviraj continued his film career on a stable footing in the forties and fifties with films like K Asif’s Phool (1945), Shree Krisna Arjun Yudh (1946), V Shantaram’s Dahej (1950), Awara (1952) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960) making waves.
His eldest son Raj Kapoor made his debut as a lead in 1947 with Kedar Sharma’s Neel Kamal and subsequently established R K Studios with his directorial debut Aag (1948). Prithviraj excelled in RK’s Awara in 1951. Two years later, Prithviraj’s Shammi Kapoor made a splash with Mahesh Kaul’s Jeewan Jyoti while his youngest son Shashi Kapoor appeared as a lead in Char Diwari opposite Nanda in 1961 – a year after his father’s celebrated performance in K Asif’s magnificent epic Mughal-e-Azam.
Shahenshah Akbar and Shezaade Salim face-off in K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar deliver power packed performances in this all time classic)
With Prithvi Theatres serving as training ground, the family established itself in the Hindi Cinema world as the most influential clan of showbiz. The theatre group also groomed luminaries like Shankar-Jaikishan, Prayag Raaj, Randhir Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, K A Abbas, Zohra Sehgal, Balraj Sahni and Mohan Sehgal.
Prithviraj Kapoor was nominated to Rajya Sabha and served as Member of Parliament for eight years. He was close to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who always appreciated his contribution to theatre and cinema. In 1969, he was honored with a Padma Bhushan. His performance in K A Abbas’ Aasmaan Mahal (1965) won him an award from the Czechoslovakian National Academy of Arts and Music.
Prithviraj’s range of histrionics helped him do justice to all kinds of roles. His attempt at comedy is best remembered with Gemini’sTeen Bahuranian (1968) and grandson Randhir Kapoor’s Kal Aaj Aur Kal (1971).
Fondly called ‘Papajee’, Prithviraj passed away on May 27, 1972. He left behind a legacy of talent and glory. His grandsons Randhir and Rishi ruled the box-office in 70s and 80s while his granddaughter Sanjana (Shashi Kapoor’s daughter) managed Prithvi Theatres. His great grand children have kept the RK flag aflutter – Karisma was among the leading actors of the 90s, while Kareena and Ranbir Kapoor rides the popularity charts in the new millennium. The Kapoors continue to influence the silver screen after more than 75 years in showbiz.
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