In August, after Rishi Kapoor announced his family’s decision to sell RK Studios in Chembur, established by his late father Raj Kapoor in 1948, thousands of film-goers grieved for the loss. A slice of Bollywood history is lost forever, many a newspaper headlines rued. Today, as the iconic studio finally changes hand with Godrej Properties Ltd buying it for an undisclosed amount, it’s more than just a slice gone. Cliché as it may sound, it marks the end of an era. For Raj Kapoor, who passed away in 1988, the two acres of land in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs on which RK Studios was built and the showman’s personal cottage nearby was very much a kingdom from where he “literally ruled the industry and Indian cinema,” as RK heroine Padmini Kolhapure told The Hindustan Times. Elsewhere, many have recounted the studio in reverential terms, as a “temple,” underscoring the spiritual attachment that Kapoor felt towards the studio he so lovingly built.
As any Bollywood fan knows, the legendary filmmaker founded RK Films in 1948 and Aag became the first movie to be made under that banner. Also starring Nargis, Prem Nath and Kamini Kaushal, Kapoor’s directorial debut was a flop but sent him hurtling towards the long and tortured road to auteurship. The semi-autobiographical Aag starred Kapoor (only 24, RK was as clean-faced as they come, the Clark Gable-esque pencil moustache still some years ahead of him) as the idealistic youth consumed by a singular passion to become a stage artiste. The film is based on his father Prithviraj Kapoor’s desire and struggle to start his own theatre company despite parental objection and predates some of the themes that defined later Raj Kapoor classics – youthful idealism, love triangle featuring childhood friends, clash of traditions and overbearing parents, erotic lyricism and romanticism, the magnificently-shot song sequences and of course, Nargis. Oh, Nargis! Before the Yash Chopra heroine, there was the RK heroine. Subversive, sexy, glamazon, outspoken and a Freudian mix of beauty and purity, the RK heroine held her own. It all started with Nargis, but over the years, the armament included Simi Garewal, Padmini Kolhapure, Mandakini, Dimple Kapadia, Zeenat Aman and Aishwarya Rai. The master director often caused a stir by showing the young dames as sexy sirens and objects of his oedipal and voyeuristic fetishes and wet dreams.
Making Of The Studio
After Aag, the bad patch didn’t last long for Raj Kapoor. His next Barsaat, made in 1949, poured in a fortune for the fledgeling star – enough to set up RK Studios. Long acclaimed as a quintessential RK musical blockbuster, Barsaat also gave RK Studios its famous emblem, depicting a raffish Raj Kapoor with violin in one hand and Nargis on the other. He loved music and he loved Nargis and the RK logo combines these twin passions to create an immortal moment for Hindi screens. The logo greets both visitors outside RK Studios in Chembur and audiences watching an RK film in theaters or small screen. Later, Awaara (1951), Kapoor’s first tryst with Chaplinesque Tramp, was shot in RK Studios when it was nothing but a flatland. “He had no money to even build the walls and shot the film on the open plot,” Shashi Kapoor’s son Kunal recalled some years ago. After Awaara, Kapoor shot most of his movies at RK Studios, including Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Mera Naam Joker, Bobby, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili, his last directorial venture. Not to mention the iconic songs that were shot here, from Nargis’ “Ghar aaya mera pardesi” in Awaara to Padmini Kolhapure’s “Yeh galiyan yeh chaubara” in Prem Rog.
Also read: Godrej Properties buys iconic RK Studios
Just like Raj Kapoor had joined his father’s Prithvi Theatres in 1944 – what he called the “best training ground” he could have ever had – sons Rishi, Randhir and Rajiv Kapoor’s schooling happened at RK Studios. Even Shashi Kapoor interned at RK Studios, playing the younger version of Raj Kapoor in Aag and Awaara, showing an early spark for acting. The family rule is that Kapoors begin as assistants to the senior Kapoors before finding their individual path to the top. They all grew up making mandatory pilgrimage to their father’s temple. “For me,” Rishi Kapoor wrote in his memoirs Khullam Khulla, “there could have been no film institute better than RK Studios. The language, the stories and the discussions at home were almost entirely about films. The studio was like a temple for us, although we were not allowed to visit a set when a shoot was in progress.” On the rare occasion when he did visit a set, Rishi got lucky with his first screen appearance – he was only two – in the song “Pyaar hua iqraar hua hai” from Shree 420, shot at RK Studios. One story goes that Nargis had to bribe the chubby toddler with a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate!
Films – and not blood – run in the Kapoor veins, the family often jokes. Raj Kapoor himself always wanted to be in films, emulating his great father Prithviraj Kapoor, who acted in India’s first film Alam Ara in 1931 but is better known to modern audiences as the virtuous Mughal king Akbar in the 1960s classic Mughal-E-Azam. According to family history, Kapoor had no academic interests. Writing on his portal Junglee, Shammi Kapoor remembers Prithviraj asking Raj Kapoor why he wants to quit school. The young Raj replied, “Sir, if I graduated what will happen? If you want to become a lawyer you go to a law college. If you want to be a doctor you go to a medical school. If you want to be a filmmaker, where do you go?” “Papaji had no answer. It was ordained,” Shammi writes. The same could be said about RK Studios, which was just as ordained.
The studio grew with its founder through the golden years of Hindi cinema, taking in the best and the worst in its stride. Once, the studio was where all the Bollywood action was. In a 1976 piece for The New York Times for which he met Kapoor at his notorious sanctum sanctorum, Khushwant Singh described RK Studios as the “biggest and most glamorous production center.” Singh writes about Kapoor’s love for collecting silver and gold coins from his foreign trips. “I put all the small change I am left with when I return from my foreign tours into this vase,” Singh quotes Kapoor as saying. “After I am gone, people will know something of where Raj Kapoor has been.” Talking to Ranbir Kapoor at an India Today event, Amitabh Bachchan remembered being curious about Raj Kapoor’s “special” cottage. Later, Big B was to be a regular at the RK holi parties held at the studio. After taking over the reins from their father, the Kapoor brothers (Rishi, Randhir and Rajiv) also continued with the annual Ganesh Visarjan tradition, contributing to Mumbai’s cultural landscape.
The Infamous Fire
Just like Kapoor, RK Studios had its own share of ups and downs. It was mortgaged by its founder after the ambitious Mera Naam Joker (now considered a cult) flopped. But then, he bounced back with Bobby, the launchpad of Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia. “My father didn’t buy a home for his family until Bobby’s success. He put all his earnings into the studio because cinema was his religion,” Rishi Kapoor said, speaking to Mumbai Mirror, in 2017. After their father, all Kapoors have tried resuscitating the studio. But, in the hands of the Kapoor brothers, RK Studios, unfortunately, could never match up to their father’s vision and showmanship. The studio dropped out of currency and among the last major films to be shot there was Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal. Ever since grandson Ranbir Kapoor burst upon the scene with Saawariya, talks about him reviving the RK banner have been rife. But in an interview with GQ earlier this year, the heir apparent appeared happy to embody and carry on the legendary lineage but expressed doubts about taking over the RK reins. “RK Studios was what it was because of my grandfather – I don’t think I have the talent or the storytelling abilities to fly that particular flag. If I want to produce, I’ll definitely start something new, which I tried with Jagga Jasoos, with Anurag Basu. If I direct a movie, I’ll probably produce it, but not under the RK Studios banner.”
To make matters worse, the infamous fire in September last year gutted the studio. A repository of memorabilia associated with RK classics was lost forever. These included Mera Naam Joker’s mask and the film costumes and jewellery and costumes worn by RK heroines from Nargis down to Aishwarya Rai. The fire, many say, was the last nail in the coffin. The Kapoors have long called RK Studios a “white elephant.” As most studios have moved to the northern suburbs, the RK descendants complained about declining revenues. It’s common to hear them say, “Nobody wants to shoot here.” Still, the deeply practical decision to sell RK Studios involves emotions and nostalgia, both for the Kapoors as well as film buffs and fans. “We had to place a stone on our hearts,” Rishi said, announcing the sad news in August.
But as RK Studios downs its shutters permanently, it’s time to remember the famous RK refrain, “The show must go on.”
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)