The Showman and his namesake: Raj and Ranbir Kapoor

The two actors, born in two different eras, are so similar yet so different in their approach to their careers. On Raj Kapoor's 28th death anniversary, we explore their connection

Sonal Pandya

Ranbir Kapoor made his Hindi film debut in grand style in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya (2007) with another star kid, Sonam Kapoor. It was a far cry from his grandfather Raj Kapoor’s first film as an adult, Hamari Baat (1943). Raj was the last name in the list of actor credits after Devika Rani, Jairaj and Prabha in the Amiya Chakrabarty-directed film. His only appearance prior to that was as a child artiste in Inquilab (1935) as a ten-year-old. Raj had to wait another five years to star as a lead; he appeared opposite Madhubala in Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal (1947).

As the oldest child of the stage and screen legend, Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj had to live up to the constant comparisons of his trailblazing father. He created his own persona in films apart from the stage, which was dominated by Prithviraj. As an actor and later as a filmmaker, he had to form his own identity. Ironically, in later years, Raj’s shadow loomed large over his brothers and sons who also joined the industry.

For Ranbir, as a fourth generation actor, he has to take on the expectations put upon him since day one and deal with any similarities to his father Rishi, his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. In addition, his cousins Karisma and Kareena have forged their own unique paths in the industry. So, where does that leave Ranbir?

Is Ranbir the superstar we’d all hoped he’d be? Not quite, but in his own way, he’s shaping up his career quite nicely, picking projects and directors that appeal to him without worrying about the consequences. Despite any box-office fumbles, he still gets to pick from the top projects. His future projects include two films with Dharma Productions and one long-pending project with Anurag Basu.

Ranbir once talked about a line-up of people he’d like to work with and how he’s checking them off as he goes along. That allows him to act in the uncommon love story Barfi! (2012), borrowing from the comedy greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and star in a typical commercial masala film Besharam (2013) alongside his parents, Rishi and Neetu. But that they will all work, there’s no guarantee. But for every Barfi! (2012) which became his first 100 crore hit, there is a Besharam (2015) which was a resounding flop.

Ranbir shares the same name as his grandfather, Ranbir Raj, who instead chose the shorter middle name as his screen name. In Sawaariya, Ranbir’s character was deliberately named Ranbir Raj as homage to the showman. Like Raj Kapoor, Ranbir’s instant comparison to his father and his romantic image was bound to be present. In his second film, Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), he took those comparisons head on when he danced to the remixed version of the song ‘Bachna ae haseeno’, which was originally made famous by his father.

Raj, wanting to differentiate himself from his father, played the common man in his early films like Shree 420 and Jaagte Raho (1956). Prior to that he made his directorial debut at 22 with Aag (1948). In Ritu Nanda’s book on her father, 'Raj Kapoor Speaks', he had described the film “as the story of youth consumed by the desire for a brighter and more intense life”.  

If you take a look at the early film choices of Ranbir Kapoor from Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) to Rockstar (2011), they all echo a similar sentiment to those present in those initial RK films. The characters he played, from the rudderless Sid to the ever persistent Murphy, they all contain that unconsumed fire within.  

Ranbir has often talked about the influence of Shree 420 (1955) and the legacy of the RK banner on his career. In his interviews, he also talks about turning director. He has been an assistant director to his father and filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali and learnt filmmaking at the College of Visual Arts and the Lee Strasberg School of Acting, both in New York.

Every Kapoor male has dabbled in filmmaking but no one made it their passion as Raj Kapoor did. At 34, Ranbir is 12 years older than Raj was when he directed his first film. Meanwhile, at 34, Raj Kapoor appeared in Ramesh Saigal’s hit Phir Subah Hogi (1958), an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 'Crime and Punishment'. Ranbir may never achieve the great heights reached by Raj Kapoor but one thing is for sure, but with each film, he’s growing more and more confident about his place in history.