Article

Raaj Kumar: The prince among men 


An actor par excellence, Raaj 'Jaani' Kumar has been stereotyped to memory as an actor who hammed it up in larger than life characters. But his roles reveal an eclectic mix of craft and style in a personality that is increasingly rare in a publicity hounded industry. On his 90th birth anniversary today (8 October), we revisit some of his iconic films.

Shriram Iyengar

When Raaj Kumar was diagnosed with throat cancer, filmmaker and close friend Subhash Ghai paid him a visit. Surprisingly, the filmmaker found the debonair actor replying in the typical style, 'Raaj Kumar ko bimaari hogi to badi hogi na, koi zukaam se thodi marega Raaj Kumar.' It was symbolic of a man who was alternately termed eccentric, charming, unconventional and savoir-faire. Starting out as a police inspector attached to the Mahim police station in Bombay during the 40s, Kumar went on to become a fascinating actor known for his unique drawl and dialogue delivery. 

A slow starter, Kumar began his career with Rangeeli (1952), but it wasn't until the iconic Mother India (1957) that he came into the limelight. In Mother India, he played Nargis' husband who loses his hand in an accident. His anguished performance, filled with the right mix of pain and poise caught the attention of fans and filmmakers. The film opened doors to the industry for the actor. He followed up with Panchayat (1958), Dulhan (1958), Ardhangini (1959). In the midst of these, it is Paigham (1959) and Ujala (1959) that stand out. 

In Paigham, he played the elder, illiterate brother to Dilip Kumar, who finds himself at the crossroads with his brother's progressive mentality. However, the actor managed to steal a few scenes from Dilip at his peak. In Ujala, he played the roguish, almost evil Kalu. His portrayal as the charming, street smart friend turned foe of Shammi Kapoor stands out as evidence of his intelligent film choices. In an age when actors would go to lengths to play the lead, Kumar chose roles according to the quality of his character. In a later interview, he said, "I've never done roles I disliked. Every role that I've performed has been my choice. I only select what I like." For a while, Ujala established his position in Hindi cinema. He ranked below the trinity of Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor, but was far more stylish to be put down as a character actor in the Balraj Sahni mould. This is one reason why Kumar was a popular choice for multi-starrer films. Of the 60 films in his filmography, almost 30 are ones with big budget multi-star casts. 

The period also saw the actor experiment quite boldly with his choice of film roles. Whether it be the widowed doctor in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960) or the cancer-stricken husband in Dil Ek Mandir (1963), the actor never shied away from his work. His languorous style and clear diction often made him first choice for elite, well-bred characters. However, Kumar also picked roles like Hori in Godaan (1963). Based on Munshi Premchand's classic novel, Kumar played a simplsimple-mindedhonest peasant who is the victim of his circumstances. Despite the tragedy that follows him doggedly, Hori refuses to give up on honesty and his belief in humanity. It is a remarkable role that the actor imbues with lifelike sincerity. 

His highpoint came with BR Chopra's magnificient Waqt (1965). In the middle of dashing leading men like Sunil Dutt and Shashi Kapoor, Kumar managed to steal the scene with his casual style and elegance. Generations later, people still remember the lines 'Jaani, ye chaaku hai, bacchon ke khelne ki cheez nahi'. Waqt also established Kumar's screen presence. 

 

He followed it up with several other multi-starrers including Hamraaz(1967), Neelkamal (1968) and Mere Huzoor (1968). Whether it was as the eternally cursed pining lover in Neel Kamal, or the mysterious 'dead' husband in Hamraaz, or the stylish elitist romantic in Mere Huzoor, Kumar deployed a range of style that was never seen before in Hindi cinema. He even elected to play a lecherous zamindar in Lal Patthar (1971), a rare film where Hema Malini played a vamp, after his first film as a lead hero in Heer Ranjha (1970). It was a mark of his constant search for characters. 

However, his greatest work came in the 70s in Kamal Amrohi's delayed project, Pakeezah. Standing alongside the unparalleled Meena Kumari, Kumar plays the perfect foil as lover to the great courtesan. His portrayal of a man in love, but bound by his tradition and pride makes for an interesting watch. 

 

If the 70s saw him emerge as the romantic knight, the 80s saw him morph into the idealistic common man. It began with Bulundi (1981). The film, based loosely on Sidney Poitier's To Sir With Love, saw Kumar play an idealistic professor guiding truant college students. The role saw him spout some memorable lines with his elegant style and accent that would become a trademark. 

An actor par excellence, Kumar's only drawback was perhaps his poor choice of film roles in the latter half of the 80s. However, the actor could still manage to command the screen with performances in Subhash Ghai's Saudagar (1990) and Mehul Kumar's cult classic, Tirangaa (1993). Now, almost two decades since his death, the actor's dialogues continue to form the crux of memes across the internet. The recent Indian 'surgical strike' saw the public memory of the actor's lazy drawl refreshed in the lines from Saudagar, 'Hum tumhe maarenge aur zaroor maarenge, lekin woh bandook bhi hamari hogi, goli bhi hamari hogi, aur waqt bhi hamara hoga.' It is, perhaps apt that the lasting public memory of such a stylish, methodical actor is his signature style.