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Prithviraj Kapoor: Indian Cinema’s Regal Patriarch

Prithviraj Kapoor: Indian Cinema’s Regal Patriarch

MUMBAI, (IANS) – He is the only actor who has played the roles of Rama (twice) – and of Raja Dashrath, Arjuna – and Karna, Vikramaditya, Harishchandra, Emperors Akbar and Shah Jahan, Alexander the Great – and a quarter-century later, his determined Indian opponent, Raja Porus, and for good measure, Persian strongman Rustom, and Hannibal of Carthage.

With his chiseled looks, strapping figure, and emoting abilities, which made him consummate performer on stage, screen, and in his own life, Prithviraj Kapoor was a patriarch in all senses, be it with a range of regal roles in a career spanning silent films to the technicolor era, and in bequeathing Indian filmdom its most famous family, whose fourth generation is still flourishing.

As part of the latter, he is possibly the only Indian actor who has appeared in two films featuring three generations of a family – with his father and sons in “Awaara” (1951) and his son and grandson in “Kal Aaj aur Kal” (1971).

It was not only his ability that made Prithviraj Kapoor, born this day (November 3) in 1906, a star and ensured his presence among the founding fathers of Hindi cinema, but also his brimming confidence.

As his advent in films drew an acerbic comment from the times’ leading film journalist Baburao Patel of Film India that there was “no place in the films for uncouth brawny Pathans who think they can make it as actors”, an unfazed Prithviraj Kapoor retorted: “Baburao, do not provoke this Pathan. If there is no place for me in Indian films, I shall swim across the seven seas to Hollywood and make it there as an actor.” 

As things turned out, he did not have to plunge into the Arabian Sea, for he made waves on the land itself.

Belonging to a well-to-do family living in what was then undivided Punjab’s Lyallpur, and in Peshawar – where his father became friends with the father of Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor did his graduation from the renowned Edwardes College in Peshawar and studied law for a year, before deciding it was not for him, and decided on a film career instead.

He came to Bombay in 1928 with money borrowed from an aunt and started his film journey as an unpaid extra in “Do Dhari Talwar” (1929), but moved to lead roles by his third film, “Cinema Girl” (1930).

He had a supporting role in Indian films’ first talkie “Alam Ara” (1931) and made his presence felt through the decade with films like “Draupadi” (1931), where he played Arjuna, “Rajrani Meera” (1933), “Ramayan” (1933) and “Seeta” (1934), where he played Ram, and “President” (1937) along with Indian films’ sole male singing superstar K.L. Saigal.

However, it was “Sikandar” (1941), where his Grecian looks made him perfect for the role of the legendary conqueror and his skills enabled him to hold his own against equally bombastic Sohrab Modi playing Raja Porus that brought him to the limelight.

But Prithviraj Kapoor, who had been a theatre performer since his days in Lyallpur and Peshawar, never gave up for his first love and continued performing on the stage too – with his title role in “Pathan” and as the Jew Shylock (from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”) among his stellar performances – in fact, his portrayal of the latter had left two Soviet auteurs awestruck.

And it was in this role he became a performer in real life too – whether it was holding a jholi for contributions at the end of a performance, or dancing on the streets when India became Independent, or beating the drums as he led peace marches around Bombay amid the blood-letting that followed, as close associate K.A. Abbas recalled.   

While Prithviraj Kapoor is most known for his role as Emperor Akbar in “Mughal-e-Azam” (1960), where he played the title to a hilt, whether walking barefoot in hot sands in full armor to the shrine of Sheikh Salim Chishti or suffering a heart attack as getting apoplectic at Anarkali’s brazen effrontery in that celebrated “Pyar kiya to darna kiya”, there were many other roles he played with equal elan.

Though he cut down on film work from the mid-1950s as at least two of his sons had taken over the mantle, he still figured in many iconic films – as the stern Justice Raghunath in “Awaara”, seer Satyananda in “Anand Math” (1952), played onscreen father to his second son Shammi in “Rajkumar” (1964) and “Janwar” (1965), appeared opposite Suraiya in her swan song “Rustom Sohrab” (1963), and wise, caring and inflexible patriarchs, respectively, in “Teen Bahuraniyan” (1968), “Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai” (1969, Punjabi) and that unfortunately-overlooked tale of generational divide “Kal Aaj Aur Kal” opposite son Raj and grandson Randhir.

“Nanak Dukhiya Sab Sansar” (1970, Punjabi) and “Heer Raanjha” (1970) were two other major performances before he succumbed to cancer in May 1972.

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