My Mirror column:
The demolition of RK Studios last week marked the end of an era. That era began with Aag, released 71 years ago this August
Raj Kapoor’s first film under the RK Films banner, released on August 6, 1948, wasn’t a commercial success. Perhaps with good reason, for it was in many ways a raw work, an early and rather theatrical expression of the sensibility of the man who would come to be known as India’s ‘great showman’. But Aag (Fire) also contained several elements that would often recur in Raj Kapoor’s early films: melodious, soulful songs, grandly choreographed stage sequences, a hero out to forge his own path in the world, and Nargis.
I watched Aag as a child, under the encouraging influence of my Nani and her RK-loving sisters. But although it features an adorable ten-year-old Shashi Kapoor daydreaming in history class (and at one point, even putting on a show of Bilwa Mangal, complete with a fake moustache), Aag really isn’t a film meant for ten year olds. All I remembered of it all these years was its opening scene. The just-married hero enters the room where his new bride is seated on the bed, bejewelled and veiled. There is some banter on his part about her ghoonghat getting longer; she laughs bashfully in response. We see him approach her, slowly working up to unveiling her face as traditional Hindu suhaag raat heroes must. He does, she lifts her eyes shyly to look at him for the first time – and lets out a scream. The reversal that Raj Kapoor engineers here is memorable – making all the verbal build-up about the woman's face, while it is the man’s face, burnt by fire, in which the story lies. Between that perfect bit of cinematic deceit and the almost gothic horror quality of the scene, Aag’s remains one of Hindi cinema’s most interesting suhaag raat scenes.
Watching the film last week, though, I was struck by other things. The genteel hero estranged from his father, who leaves his comfortable home and is penniless in the big city, first appears in incipient form in Aag. The figure who would grow into the Raj Kapoor tramp archetype in later films like Shree 420 and Awara is seen in Aag in a short sequence that is a turning point in the narrative. The film’s runaway protagonist Kewal Khanna (Kapoor) walks into an apparently empty theatre, delivers a teary soliloquy about having left home, and is instantly embraced as friend and partner by the theatre’s owner Rajan (Prem Nath), who has been sitting silently through Kewal’s monologue and is impressed by his passion, for life and for theatre.
Kewal’s speech is interesting, because it is essentially a call for the young Indian to be allowed to decide his own future rather than follow in the footsteps of family. What makes it more interesting, though, are the possible biographical extrapolations. Like the fictional Kewal Khanna, Prithviraj Kapoor had been a young man from a bourgeois Punjabi family who failed his first year law exam and decided to leave Peshawar for Bombay to start a new life on the stage. But unlike in Aag, where the angel who invests in Kewal’s future is a theatre owner who’s male and Hindu, the 22-year-old Prithviraj was picked out of a line of extras at Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Studios by Ermeline, the Jewish star of Bombay’s then silent film industry. Struck by Prithviraj’s physique and Greek-god good looks, Ermeline decided she had found the hero of her next film, Cinema Girl. Prithviraj never returned to the extras queue.
The story of Prithviraj’s entry into the world of acting, as Madhu Jain tells it in her wonderful book The Kapoors, is filled with supportive collaborators and encouraging mentors like Ermeline, Ardeshir Irani, Sohrab Modi, KA Abbas and various others from the IPTA (the Indian People’s Theatre Association). Earlier, during his undergraduate years, his theatre dreams had been nurtured by his professor’s wife from Peshawar’s King Edwards College, an Englishwoman called Norah Richards. To this delightfully mixed world of the colonial Indian city, Prithviraj Kapoor eventually added his own contribution in 1944: Prithvi Theatres.
Raj Kapoor, as Prithviraj’s eldest son, necessarily underwent an apprenticeship in the theatre. But the elder Kapoor was a hard taskmaster, instinctively socialist in his staunch egalitarian treatment of all troupe members – rather than the feudal Indian father who might spoil his own children or give them more. He was apparently worried that Raj was naalayak; Jain suggests that those who knew him believe he wanted Raj to “have a proper education, followed by a proper job”, though he had himself rejected that path.
Odd as it may seem, then, the anguish of Aag’s hero was not just that of Prithviraj’s battle against his father – but also of Raj against his.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Aug 2019.