Book review: With Raj Kapoor: The Master at Work, filmmaker Rahul Rawail presents an intimate account of his guru
With his biography on Raj Kapoor, Rahul Rawail is not looking to ruffle feathers or provide cheap thrills. He is clearly in awe of the person that he is writing about, and this subjectivity is central to 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, Kumar Gaurav, and Vijeta Pandit, was once an assistant director to the legendary actor-director-producer Raj Kapoor (1924-1988)?
Rawail’s lifelong debt to his guru has been magnificently chronicled in the book Raj Kapoor: The Master at Work (2021), his collaboration with Pranika Sharma.
This book is for people who are fascinated by the magic that unfolds on the big screen, and for people who are excited about the technical aspects of filmmaking – zeroing in on an idea, developing it, casting, scouting locations, working with actors, costumes, cinematography, lighting, music direction, sound recording, editing, and a lot more. Rawail calls his book a tribute to "the one man who taught me everything I have learnt." This is his gurudakshina.
Rawail narrated his experiences and anecdotes to Sharma over Zoom calls; she took in all this exciting raw material and crafted it into spellbinding prose. They seem to have worked quite diligently to get the tone right so that readers have a seamless experience of the text. At no point does this book come across as the handiwork of two different people. Kudos to them to have pulled off this remarkable feat.
Rawail joined Raj as an assistant soon after completing his “stressful ICSE board exams.” He was planning to go to Canada, and study nuclear physics but the idea was quickly abandoned after he began working with Raj. Rawail’s childhood buddy Chintu aka Rishi Kapoor was Raj’s son; that is how Rawail landed up on the sets and saw the master at work. Rawail’s own father was a filmmaker but he wanted to apprentice with his friend’s father.
Chintu told Babbu (Rawail’s nickname), “Dad’s shooting the circus chapter of Mera Naam Joker at Cross Maidan from today, let’s spend the day there. There will be some sexy female Russian circus artists.” Fifteen-year-old Babbu had nothing better to do, so he accepted the shady invitation. When he reached, he stood “mesmerised by the aura created by Raj Uncle working.” He writes, “It was like watching him conduct a symphony without a music sheet.”
Rawail has a singular focus – to celebrate the sweat and toil that went into Raj’s cinema. The films Mera Naam Joker (1970) and Bobby (1973) have been discussed at great length, almost like case studies, whereas other films such as Aag (1948) Barsaat (1949), Awaara (1951), and Sangam (1964) only find passing mentions. Rawail is not a biographer, so it is unrealistic to heap those expectations upon him. He speaks only from personal experience.
If you are curious about Raj’s rumoured love affairs, this book will offer you nothing. Rawail is close to many people in the Kapoor clan. The book is dedicated to his buddy Chintu. He is not looking to ruffle feathers or provide cheap thrills. He is clearly in awe of the person that he is writing about, and this subjectivity is central to the book. Only someone who has worked so closely with Raj can put forth the insights that Rawail has presented here.
Apparently, Raj used to love going to the Wayside Inn in Mumbai, and sitting at the centre table there. The cooks used to come out, and greet him. When Rawail asked him why that place was dear to him, Raj said, “This is the place where Dr (BR) Ambedkar sat and wrote the Constitution of India. I sit here so that it can inspire me to do constructive work.”
Rawail speaks warmly of Raj’s eccentricities, which will undoubtedly make you laugh. On editing days, he used to make the entire unit assemble in the projection room, and collect their thoughts on the menu for the day – three meals, and high tea in the evening. Many cars were arranged to go to restaurants all over Mumbai to pick up “hot food” for everyone to eat.
This book is also about 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 disliked shooting at other studios because owners expected him to take permission before executing ideas that involved digging the ground or making other significant changes. He wanted to be in absolute control of his work, and did not appreciate any compromise.
If you believe that geniuses tend to be harsh 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’s working!...Don’t do these things if you want him to grow up, and become a responsible and independent human being.”
While shooting for the film Bobby, Raj saw Rawail filling up empty champagne bottles with a mixture of Limca and soda to make the liquid look like champagne. These bottles were going to be used in a birthday scene in the film. Raj scolded him, “What are you doing? Is this what would be served in place of champagne at Raj Kapoor’s party? If you want to save money, why spend even on Limca? Make the unit piss into the bottles! Cheapster!”
This book conjures up the image of a filmmaker who was profoundly devoted to his work, and wanted to leave no stone unturned while doing it. He once told Rawail, “I completely respect the faith that people have in their religion, but for me, the religion that spurs my faith is cinema.” No wonder then that Rawail calls RK Studios his “place of worship.”
There is a lot to be gained from reading this book, regardless of whether you make films or not. Raj’s passion, work ethic, and art 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 Award from then-President R Venkataraman, he was unable to stand up and go to the dais. He had an asthma attack. His wife Krishna was with him. The president walked up to Raj, handed him the citation, and put the medal around his neck. Rawail writes, “At that precise moment, he (Raj) joined his hands in acknowledgement 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 because both had their roots in pre-partition Peshawar, visited him in the Intensive Care Unit. Kumar spoke to Raj in Punjabi and Pashto, desperately hoping that his friend would wake up and feel better, but the inevitable had happened. Kapoor had said his final goodbye, knowing that he would live on.
Raj Kapoor: The Master at Work is published by Bloomsbury India.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist, and book reviewer.
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