The Showman and the Joker: Raj Kapoor
Raj may not have been a good student. But he enrolled early on in the school of the street. As a teenager, he used to observe the middle and lower middle classes in Matunga: he was a habitué of the jhoparpatties (shantytowns) there.
Actor Prayag Raaj says: 'He used to sit with the sabziwali outside his home in Matunga, or the one near his school in Byculla. There was a woman who was quite similar to the banana seller character in Awara which was played by Lalita Pawar.'
Having learnt Marathi in school, Raj was later to use his fluency with the language to communicate with Maharashtrians both in the film industry, as well as with the farmers and workers on his farm in Loni. The farmers became his friends; they spent a lot of time cooking and eating together.
Raj was quite at home in the world of those who worked for him -- as dependent if not as close to them as he was with many in his family. His driver, Gopal, was more than just somebody who drove him around. He was more like his caretaker, always watching over him, often after a late night out drinking.
Sometimes he would sit with the driver and put his head in his lap,' says B J Panchal, Raj Kapoor's photographer. Gopal's job was to make sure no harm came to his boss. Raj had a unique way of saying thank you: he uses the name Gopal in many of his films. In Sangam, Rajendra Kumar (Raj's best friend in the movie) is called Gopal. He was equally dependent on John (the cook) in his cottage and on Revati (his personal assistant) at home.
Similarly, Raj was quite close to the people who worked in the dhabas and restaurants like Geeta Bhavan and Ranjit Café near RK Films. No wonder he had the pulse of the common man. Perhaps the father and son had a volatile relationship because they were very similar: Prithviraj used to sit with fisherman in their kholis in Juhu during the last decade of his life, talking to them for long hours. Prithviraj's other sons did not mingle with the man on the street in the same way. Both father and his first-born were a curious mixture of the traditional -- caught up in the customs and rituals of the Kapoor khandaan -- and the bohemian. Essentially, they were wanderers whose circle of friends extended to those outside the furthest ripples of their social orbits.
Ironically enough, Bollywood's greatest showman -- there hasn't been another worthy of this mantle yet -- had very simple needs. He never slept on a bed, but on the floor. Wherever he went, he pulled the mattress on to the floor-even in his suite at the George V hotel in Paris. Sometimes this got him into trouble. His wife recounts an interesting incident. 'Rajji was a simple man. He always slept on the floor. In London, at the Hilton, he was ticked off for pulling the mattress down and when he did it the second time, he was fined. He paid the fine every day till he left the hotel.' To paraphrase what they said about the Mahatma -- it took a lot to keep Raj Kapoor in simplicity.
The showman in him insisted that his table have everything possible. There had to be several kinds of chicken and mutton, and, of course, yakhni in all its avatars. But the man himself ate quite selectively, and simply. Raj Kapoor could whip up a perfect biryani and chicken curry but preferred to eat the common man's food. His favourite staple was idlis and street food. In her account of her husband's eating habits in Ritu's book, Krishna Kapoor says: 'The great cook was a poor eater! He could not bear to see a poorly-laid table, it had to overflow, but he himself merely nibbled at the food and then settled for his usual pao and eggs and a little daal. For years he ate no lunch, only dinner. At parties he merely pretended to eat. When he got home -- sometimes in the early hours of the morning -- he promptly had his fried eggs.'
Raj Kapoor was very happy with the Ambassador car he bought much later in his life: the fancy cars of his youth no longer thrilled him. The Mercedes was for his wife. 'He tasted life at a basic level,' says Bina Ramani. Raj stayed with Bina and her former husband Andy Ramani in New York for nearly two months when his father was being treated at Sloane-Kettering in the early seventies. This was a particularly painful time for him because Mera Naam Joker had been a box-office disaster and both his parents were terminally ill. 'He was down and depressed and hurting from the loss. We had a very small apartment. He used to pull the mattress to the floor. Rajji used to take the bus to the hospital, changing two buses to get there. Black Label became Red Label in New York: it was all we could afford. He wanted to fit into our life,' recalls Bina. Interestingly, Shammi Kapoor stayed in the suburbs and cabbed it to the hospital in Manhattan.