Pakeezah actress Geeta Kapoor's case, while heartbreaking, is not an isolated one
The case of Geeta Kapoor, the veteran actor from films such as Pakeezah and Razia Sultan, being abandoned in a nursing home for almost a month by her own son is both shocking as well as a sad reminder of the not-so-happy-ending stories associated with many actors from the golden era of Hindi films.
Kapoor had been in a hospital for over a month and there was no contact with her son Raja, who Kapoor says used to beat her, lock her for days and at times make her go without food. It was only after reading about Geeta in the newspapers that a few good Samaritans within the industry, Ramesh Taurani and Ashoke Pandit stepped in; they both have cleared the hospital’s dues to the tune of Rs 1.5 lakh and helped her shift to an old age home. Reading about Kapoor, who was perhaps lucky to find help, brought to mind the stories associated with a few more from her era such as Bhagwan Dada, Vimi and the iconic OP Nayyar.
The Hindi film world is filled with many such stories and some in fact, like Vimi were destined to go through far more horrific times. Like Geeta Kapoor, Vimi’s family, too, abandoned her but it was right at the onset of her career. Vimi hailed from middle-class Punjabi family where films were a taboo and she married Shiv Agarwal, a millionaire business based out of Calcutta. It was a chance meeting that got Vimi in contact with music composer Ravi, who urged the then happily married mother of two to consider films. Supported by her husband, Vimi shifted to Bombay and a series of small serendipities later ended up being cast as a leading lady by none other than BR Chopra in his Humraaz (1967).
The ethereally beautiful Vimi was a disaster as an actress but got so enamoured by the arc lights that almost like Joseph Conrad’s line from Heart of Darkness continued to be “[l]oyal to the nightmare of [her] choice.” Her own family had broken off with her following Humraaz and Shiv, too, was disinherited by his family and soon began to exploit his wife’s stature to make a quick buck. Things went south and Vimi’s aloofness ensured that she couldn’t cash in on the stupendous debut in Humraaz. In an article in Filmfare in 1994, Roshmila Mukherjee recounted how Vimi started drinking heavily, Shiv had begun physically abusing her and with a ringside seat to her own life going to tatters — she and Shiv split up, offers dried up and she moved in with a film financier in the hope to revive her career — the only solace she found was in alcohol. Vimi died of liver damage and the abandoned dead body of a star who once schmoozed around wrapped in sable, zipping in her Impala had to be taken to the government crematorium on a thella, handcart.
In OP Nayyar’s case, the man whose name on a film poster was once enough to sell it, spent the last few years in the home of a fan who had bumped into him in a public telephone booth.
Nayyar is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest music composers in the history of Indian cinema but was also known to be extremely irascible and temperamental. His mood could make him take a snap decision — he never worked with Lata Mangeshkar as he found her ‘thin, thread-like voice’ didn’t suit his music, he broke ties with Md Rafi as the singer was late for a recording because the previous one with Shankar-Jaikishan had taken longer, even though Nayyar considered Mahendra Kapoor ‘besuraa’ he continued with him so that one day “[he] could show him how bad he could be!” or walked out of meetings because people like Dev Anand were a couple of minutes late, etc.
While these decisions more often than not translated into great art, at times they also altered the course of his life. He walked out of his home leaving behind his wife and four children one fine day because of “some serious differences” and shifted in with a Maharashtrian family, the Nakhwas, in Thane after striking a conversation with their daughter, Raju, at a phone booth.
In 2012, the then Rajya Sabha member Javed Akhtar in his Copyright (Amendment) Bill speech recalled the legend of OP Nayyar and reminded the world how he died in a fan’s two-room apartment.
Even Bhagwan Dada, whose Albela (1951) released around the same time as Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) lost everything after a series of self-produced films that tanked at the office. The actor who also produced the classic that featured immortal songs like 'Shola jo bhadke', 'Shaam dhlae khidki tale', and the hypnotic 'Bholi surat dil ke khote' was said to have a fleet of cars (one for each day of the week for sure and, according to some a total of 40) and stayed in a 25-room sea-facing property in Juhu finally spent a large part of his life in a Dadar chawl. Today, people might not recall Bhagawan Dada and think of his iconic dance steps as an ‘extra’ trying too hard next to the hero but Dada, it seemed believed in ‘fate amori’ or ‘love your fate’ and continued to inspire by generations of superstars that followed right from Amitabh Bachchan to Mithun Chakraborty to Govinda.
There is a fine line dividing the stars of yore who weren’t financially savvy that included Pradeep Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Suraiya, Parveen Babi and Navin Nishcol and the ones who like Rajendra Kumar invested in wisely in businesses apart from films. But more than financial hardship it is the manner in which some of them were discarded that is heartbreaking.
Incidentally, Geeta Kapoor’s daughter, Pooja, a Pune-based flight attendant, was contacted by Mid-Day but she hung up immediately, saying they had got the "wrong number." Many years ago, Kanan Bala, the first lady of Bengali cinema and one of the highest paid stars of the 1930s (remember the song ‘Toofan mail… duniya yeh duniya… toofan mail…’) set-up a trust and a home for actresses who were in a similar situation as Geeta Kapoor. Said to be an orphan herself, Kanan Devi ensured that she would never be financially dependent on anyone right from the time she started working at the tender age of nine. With fame and success, she not only taught herself how to read and write, something that she could never do to her heart’s content as a child but also invested wisely to withstand personal turmoil including two divorces.
Today, thankfully there are many film bodies and even individuals who would step forward to help the Geeta Kapoors of the world when their own cast them off.