An immaculate actor larger than life, Prithviraj Kapoor was the founder of the first family of Hindi cinema. But his theatrical influence lives on outside the silver screen.
How Prithviraj Kapoor laid the foundation of a theatrical empire
Mumbai - 03 Nov 2016 14:46 IST
Updated : 19:34 IST
A telling anecdote in Madhu Jain's Kapoors: The First Family Of Indian Cinema describes the craft and theatrical style of Prithviraj Kapoor best. During the shooting of K Asif's magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Kapoor would often retire to his room trying to get into character. On one such occasion, the director found his Akbar missing and sent for Kapoor.
When the assistant reached the room, Kapoor sent him back saying, "Prithviraj haazir hai, Akbar abhi nahin aaya. [Prithviraj is here, but Akbar has not yet arrived]." An actor first and always, Kapoor was never the star that his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, became. He was the first 'actor' in a family of stars.
Excellence was a habit for Prithviraj Kapoor. His strong personality, handsome face, and sonorous voice were accompanied by a chameleonic personality that added to his screen presence. Arriving in Bombay in 1929, after acting assignments in Calcutta and Peshawar, he took to films like a fish to water. Having acted in nine silent films by 1931, he graduated to the new-fangled talkies with Alam Ara (1931), and never stopped.
Having begun acting at the age of 15 in college, Kapoor continued to give his best time and effort on stage. Cinema was a means of making money, but it was theatre that truly brought him to life. As he said once about films, "When I go on the sets, I put my tail between my legs and jump into the cage." After a certain point in life, he acted in films simply to keep his theatre group going.
Established in 1944, Prithvi Theatres was a family affair. With his sons by his side, Kapoor would tour the length and breadth of the country staging plays, sometimes for various causes. The British actor Geoffrey Kendal said of his fellow stage artiste, "He loved it all – being a father figure, a great actor, the idol of all and sundry."
Yet, the most telling contribution of the leonine Kapoor was in the form of his sons. Raj Kapoor began his career working as art director at the studios. In one of his father's famous plays, Shakuntala, the young Raj designed a beautiful, larger-than-life set to create the palace of king Dushyant. It was here that he learnt the nitty-gritty of art design which would lay the template for his directorial vision.
The secularist social fabric of Prithvi Theatres also shaped the ideology of Raj Kapoor's films to come. Plays like Deewar, Pathan, and Ahooti were based on the fiery stories of India's partition and the need for empathy. Raj Kapoor's films Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), and Boot Polish (1954) were clear markers of this tradition.
Even Shammi Kapoor, the most unlikely comparison to his father, carried within him the influence. A rebel by nature, Shammi Kapoor opted out of a stage career after a few years at Prithvi Theatres. But in his derring-do, raised collars, and tousled hair, he often mimicked a style that Prithviraj Kapoor had created for him in the play Kalakar. The role of a city slicker who turns the head of an innocent village girl was given to Shammi Kapoor, whose hairstyle, clothes, and walk were fashioned by his father's strict instructions. It was these very influences that would set the 'Rockstar' Kapoor apart from his brothers.
However, in his youngest, Shashi Kapoor, the elder statesman found the perfect disciple. Shashi Kapoor would go on to emulate his father and join Geoffrey Kendal's touring group, Shakespearewallah. He went on to start Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, Mumbai, a space for encourage the development of the theatre form, establishing the firm legacy of his father. An immaculate actor, Shashi Kapoor's choice of producing, working, and acting in alternative cinema that spoke of real stories and people was a reflection of his upbringing on stage.
It is no coincidence that one of Shashi Kapoor's proudest moments was the opening of Prithvi Theatre. Named for his father, the institution has nurtured and cultivated a whole new breed of stage actors, directors, and playwrights. For Prithviraj Kapoor, the cultivation began at home. Each of his sons interned and worked with his theatre group before branching out into cinema.
On screen, Prithviraj Kapoor was stentorian, authoritative, in his personality. He was Alexander in Sikandar (1941) and Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). In reality, he was simply an actor who aimed to become so many things. Madhu Jain quotes Norah Richards, one of Kapoor's mentors on stage, saying, "He is a vagabond actor." There is no further proof needed of Prithviraj Kapoor's legacy than the fact that the word vagabond, or Awara, was well and truly inherited by his eldest son.