A trip down memory lane: Seema Sonik Alimchand's biography of Rajendra Kumar fills important gaps in the superstar's life story
Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar is more than worth a read as it recreates the aura and charm of a time when an unlikely star became the biggest box office phenomenon but never really made a big deal of it.
In the pantheon of cine stars that illuminated the universe of post-independent India's Hindi cinema, Rajendra Kumar would hold a special place. Known as 'Jubilee Kumar’, the actor was not only one of the most successful stars of the 1960s but also amongst the finest to be blessed with a great sense of music. However, looking back, there aren’t many that would place Kumar’s name in the upper half of most all-time greats list but that’s got little to do with him and more with factors that were beyond his control. As luck would have it, the average film viewer is not the only one who seems to have forgotten what Rajendra Kumar meant to the world of Hindi films, the iconic star’s own grandchildren might not know much about him. In this aspect, reading Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar (Hachette India, 2020), a biography of the actor by Seema Sonik Alimchand, not only fills some important gaps in the Rajendra Kumar story but also serves as a wonderful trip down memory lane.
The first thing that strikes you when you think of Rajendra Kumar — both on and off-screen — is the actor’s never-say-die attitude. This was a common attribute to an entire generation that survived the horrors of the partition of India and starting life all-over again once they left behind all the riches in what became Pakistan. Kumar’s family was one of the richest in Sialkot but the unexpected division of India saw the Tulli family leave everything behind and pick up the pieces as refugees in New Delhi. Kumar was all of 18 at the time. During the summer holidays of 1947 before the clouds of partition has engulfed the subcontinent, Kumar had transferred eighteen thousand rupees, a princely sum back then to a bank in Simla. He hoped that the money would help the family set up their cloth business in Delhi but that took a while in coming through. Kumar had nearly joined the police force when a family friend who ran an advertising agency in Bombay asked him to live his dream — become an actor. In Bombay, the future star worked as an assistant to filmmaker HS Rawail before embarking on an acting career.
Considering that Alimchand’s book is an authorised account, Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar is not an all-out pean to Rajendra Kumar. It talks about the actor’s doubts and frustration that he felt both at the early stages of his career where the likes of Rawail never really thought he had what it took to become a big star and later in the 1970s when stardom began to slip away. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the relationship between Kumar and his wife, Shukla, who to this writer’s mind is the singular reason that Kumar ended up becoming the icon that he did. Had it not been for Shukla and her clear thinking, Kumar might have refused the offer from Mehboob Khan to feature in Mother India (1957) for a contact that had a car for the signing amount. Kumar’s fantastic sense of script and his knack to pick up the team in terms of directors to deliver hits is the stuff of legends. Reading about how some of the landmark films that featured him such as Sasural (1961), Mere Mehboob (1963), Suraj (1966), and Geet (1970) were practically put together by him gives the reader an insight into the mind of one of the most successful commercial stars in the history of Indian films.
The average viewer today could consider Kumar to be an afterthought. While on the face of it, it wouldn’t be incorrect to think on those lines after looking at films like Mother India, and Sangam (1964), two of Kumar’s most popular films but the truth is something else. It was Kumar, whose box office dominance was such that he vetoed not only co-stars such as Raaj Kumar in Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Dharmendra in Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1964) and Feroz Khan in Arzoo (1965), but even the technical details of the film. It was Kumar who convinced T Prakash Rao to make Suraj in colour and also cast Ajit as the villain, a move that resurrected the character actor’s career. Later as a producer, Rajendra Kumar gave Rajesh Khanna and Randhir Kapoor their earliest hits in The Train (1970) and Jaawani Diwani (1972). Kumar not only featured in Mere Mehboob for his one-time mentor Rawail, who was going to through a bad patch, but also convinced the legendary Naushad to provide the score.
Rajendra Kumar’s life is filled with inspiration and the ability to do the right thing, at least to a great extent, and that is what makes him a legend. Jubilee Kumar loses a bit of its punch when towards the end, it features essays about the author’s interaction with the late star’s immediate family including his daughter, Dimple, wife, Shukla and son, Kumar Gaurav. The sense of uneasiness between the father and the son that permeates reading Kumar Gaurav's account of his relationship with his father, which perhaps was a result of Rajendra Kumar wanting to regain some of his lost glory through the success of Kumar Gaurav post-Love Story (1981) could have been included in the book itself. Nonetheless, Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar is more than worth a read as it recreates the aura and charm of a time when an unlikely star became the biggest box office phenomenon but never really made a big deal of it.
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