With his biography on Raj Kapoor, Rahul Rawail does not seek to ruffle feathers or offer thrills on the cheap. He’s clearly in awe of the person he’s writing about, and that subjectivity is at the heart of the book.
Did you know that filmmaker Rahul Rawail, who launched the careers of Bollywood actors such as Kajol, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sunny Deol, Amrita Singh, Paresh Rawal, Has Kumar Gaurav, and Vijeta Pandit, ever been assistant director to legendary actor-director-producer Raj Kapoor (1924-1988)?
Rawail’s lifetime debt to his guru was beautifully recounted in the book Raj Kapoor: the master at work (2021), his collaboration with Pranika Sharma.
This book is for people fascinated by the magic that unfolds on the big screen and people who are passionate about the technical aspects of filmmaking – focusing on an idea, developing it, casting, finding places, working with it. actors, costumes, cinematography, lighting, musical direction, sound recording, editing and much more. Rawail calls his book a tribute to “the man who taught me everything I learned”. It is his gurudakshina.
Rawail shared his experiences and anecdotes with Sharma on Zoom calls; she absorbed all this exciting raw material and turned it into haunting prose. They seem to have worked very diligently to get the tone just right so that readers have a seamless experience of the text. At no time does this book appear to be the work of two different people. Well done to them for having achieved this remarkable feat.
Rawail joined Raj as an assistant shortly after completing his “stressful ICSE board exams”. He planned to go to Canada and study nuclear physics, but the idea was quickly abandoned after he started working with Raj. Rawail’s childhood buddy, Chintu, aka Rishi Kapoor, was Raj’s son; this is how Rawail landed on the sets and saw the master at work. Rawail’s own father was a filmmaker but he wanted to do his apprenticeship with his friend’s father.
Chintu said to Babbu (Rawail’s nickname): “Papa is turning the circus chapter of Mera Naam Joker at Cross Maidan from today let’s spend the day there. There will be sexy Russian female circus performers. Babbu, 15, had nothing better to do, so he accepted the shady invitation. When he arrived, he was “mesmerized by the aura created by the work of Raj Uncle”. He writes: “It was like watching him conduct a symphony without a score.”
Rawail has one singular purpose – to celebrate the sweat and toil that went into Raj’s cinema. Movies Mera Naam Joker (1970) and Police officer (1973) have been discussed at length, almost as case studies, while other films like Aag (1948) Barsaat (1949), Awaara (1951), and Sangam (1964) find only passing references. Rawail is not a biographer, so it is unrealistic to rack up these expectations on him. He speaks only from personal experience.
If you are curious about Raj’s love stories, this book will not offer you anything. Rawail is close to many people of the Kapoor clan. The book is dedicated to his friend Chintu. It’s not looking to ruffle feathers or provide cheap thrills. He’s clearly in awe of the person he’s writing about, and that subjectivity is at the heart of the book. Only someone who has worked so closely with Raj can put forward the ideas that Rawail has presented here.
Apparently Raj loved to go to the Wayside Inn in Mumbai and sit at the central table there. The cooks came out and greeted him. When asked by Rawail why this place was dear to him, Raj said, “This is the place where Dr (BR) Ambedkar sat and wrote the Constitution of India. I am sitting here so that it may inspire me to do constructive work.
Rawail talks warmly about Raj’s eccentricities, which is sure to make you laugh. On editing days, he used to gather the whole unit in the screening room and collect their thoughts on the daily menu – three meals and an evening snack. Many cars were organized to go to restaurants in Mumbai to pick up “hot foods” for everyone to eat.
This book also deals with the legacy of RK Studios, which Raj built with money earned from acting in films made by other producers and with money borrowed using promissory notes. He didn’t like shooting at other studios because the owners expected him to get clearance before executing ideas that involved digging in the ground or making other big changes. He wanted absolute control over his work and didn’t appreciate compromise.
If you think geniuses tend to be tough and temperamental, this book might end up reinforcing that impression.
When Rawail was shooting for Mera Naam Joker in Delhi, his father came to visit him. Raj got angry. He said, “Do you know that almost everyone in my unit has a father and a mother? … What you did was wrong; he works! … Don’t do these things if you want him to grow up and become a responsible and independent human being.
During the shooting of the film Police officer, Raj saw Rawail filling empty champagne bottles with a mixture of Limca and soda to make the liquid resemble champagne. These bottles were going to be used in a birthday scene in the movie. Raj berated him, “What are you doing? Would this be served instead of champagne at Raj Kapoor’s party? If you want to save money, why even spend on Limca? Piss the unit in the bottles! Cheaper !”
This book evokes the image of a filmmaker who was deeply devoted to his work, and who wanted to do nothing in doing so. He once told Rawail: “I totally respect the faith people have in their religion, but for me, the religion that stimulates my faith is cinema.” No wonder Rawail calls RK Studios his “place of worship”.
There is a lot to be gained from reading this book, whether you are making movies or not. Raj’s passion, work ethic and craftsmanship are reminiscent of a time when life was much slower than it is today. There were no OTT platforms, not even the Internet. His creative influences were a varied mix – the epic poem Ramcharitmanas by Goswami, Tulsidas, actor Charlie Chaplin, Archie Comics, filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and artist René-Xavier Prinet.
Raj’s death was as dramatic as his life, and this book captures the episode quite sensitively. In 1988, when Raj was at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi to receive the Dadasaheb Phalke Prize from the then President, R Venkataraman, he was unable to get up and go to the podium. He had an asthma attack. His wife Krishna was with him. The president approached Raj, handed him the citation and put the medal around his neck. Rawail writes: “At that precise moment, he (Raj) put his hands together in recognition and slipped into a coma.
He was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, but he never recovered. Actor Dilip Kumar, with whom Raj shared a special bond as both had their roots in Peshawar before the score, visited him in the intensive care unit. Kumar spoke to Raj in Punjabi and Pashto, desperately hoping his friend would wake up and feel better, but the inevitable happened. Kapoor had said his last goodbye, knowing he would live.
Raj Kapoor: The Master at Work is published by Bloomsbury India.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.