3 Rishi, Raj and Rolf Harris
There weren’t many memorable romantic heroes in Indian films to choose from back in the 1980s. There was Amitabh Bachchan of course – hugely popular, but not conventionally good looking. I ruled him out on the grounds that he was too intense, too moody and frankly too old. Besides, he was in the midst of his angry young man phase and those films about factory politics just didn’t appeal to me. There was the rugged Anil Kapoor (the quiz master in Slumdog Millionaire) romancing Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab (N Chandra, 1988) and Ram Lakhan (Subhash Ghai, 1989), but he seemed too cool and handsome for his own good. Then there was Rishi Kapoor, my favourite romantic hero. He looked sincere and had a playful glint in his eye. He may have lacked Amitabh’s stature and swagger, nor could he dance like Anil Kapoor, but there was something accessible and non-threatening about him, like the boy next door I suppose. He seemed like a decent chap, and I felt genuinely sorry for him if he didn’t get the heroine, although of course he usually did. Some of his outfits were so awful that he couldn’t possibly have had a stylist. And yet, my enjoyment couldn’t even be dented by the dreadful thought that Rishi might actually own the unflattering jumpers and tight white trousers he often paraded in. There were times I thought his hair could benefit from a slap of Brylcreem, but honestly, I didn’t even mind that. As much as I liked Rishi Kapoor though, I didn’t deliberately seek out his films in the way that I might do now with Shahrukh Khan. It was much more organic than that. Rishi Kapoor just happened to be the hero in the films that struck a chord with me. These tended to be romantic blockbusters, with minimal gratuitous violence, lashings of glamour and superb soundtracks – films like Prem Rog (Raj Kapoor, 1982), Chandni (Yash Chopra, 1989) and Kabhi Kabhie (Yash Chopra, 1976):
I suppose my interest in Indian films back then was quite superficial. It wasn’t like my interest in say Duran Duran, which was actually an obsession that involved, for a number of years, keeping up to date with the hairstyles and girlfriends of all five band members. My knowledge of Indian films was much more abridged. In our household, we watched the film but didn’t really talk about the celebrity of Bollywood, who’s who, or who’s dating who. I certainly didn’t discuss Bollywood films with my mostly English classmates. So I remained oblivious to an entire subtext that was at play in the films I was watching. I didn’t realise Rishi Kapoor had married one of his leading ladies, Neetu Singh (see the second song clip from Kabhi Kabhie above, the one with the snow). Neither did I know that Rishi Kapoor hailed from Bollywood royalty, or that some of his best known films were made by his celebrated father. I’d heard of Raj Kapoor but only in the same way that I’d heard of Chuck Berry. He was some sort of legend apparently but I wasn’t sure why. In the back of my mind, I had a hunch that there must be some link because every other Bollywood actor seemed to go by the surname ‘Kapoor’.
In fact, the Kapoors are to Indian cinema what the Redgraves are to British acting or the Kennedys to American politics. Raj Kapoor’s father, Prithviraj, was himself a revered actor. Prithviraj’s travelling theatre company became the training ground for his three sons. While Shammi and Shashi enjoyed considerable success in Indian cinema, Raj Kapoor set up his own film studio and dominated the industry for almost forty years. He produced, directed and starred in some of Indian cinema’s most enduring classics. His films were renowned for their social themes, romance, timeless songs, and Nargis, his favourite leading lady on-screen and allegedly in real life. Thanks to the phenomenal success of his films, Raj Kapoor became something of a cultural ambassador for his country. To this day, he holds a unique place in Indian cinema. When his son Rishi was a teenager, Raj Kapoor decided to launch him in a teen romance (Bobby, 1973). Rishi remained a major romantic hero for two decades. He is still appearing in films today and according to the rumour mill, is being considered as a judge for the Indian version of the X Factor. Rishi’s son (Ranbir) and niece (Kareena) are dominant stars of Indian cinema today; their distinguished lineage is such common knowledge that it precedes their on-screen roles.
I, however, remained oblivious to Rishi Kapoor’s real life credentials for years, and grasped the significance of his legendary father in the most surreal circumstances. The year was 1994. I had bagged a dream job that involved making tea for Rolf Harris on the TV programme, Animal Hospital. Rolf would encourage me to make two mugs of tea from the same teabag. One day he asked, “Do you know any Hindi songs?” “A few,” I said, a little taken aback. I was completely gobsmacked when he got down on one knee, threw open his arms and serenaded me with the chorus of a famous song I knew:
Mera Joota Hai Japani
Yeh Patloon Inglistani
Sar pay laal topi Roosi
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani
Which roughly translated goes something like this:
My shoes are Japanese
These trousers are British
On my head I wear a Russian hat
Yet my heart belongs to India
It turned out Rolf had travelled around India as a young man. Not knowing any Hindi, he was looking for an alternative way to break the language barrier, so someone taught him this song. “Mera Joota Hai Japani” comes from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955), one of the most iconic Bollywood films of all time. It tells the story of a poor country boy who travels to a big city dreaming of a better life. The character’s tramp like appearance was heavily influenced by Charlie Chaplin. The film attained cult status in Russia and apparently, it was one of Mao Tse-tung’s favourite films.
Rolf knew nothing about Indian films and hadn’t even seen a clip of the song until I rented the film for him. But he had recognised the song’s popularity by the reaction it had garnered during his travels in India. You see, film songs are the equivalent of pop music in India – the soundtrack can make or break a film, and is usually released before the film as a marketing ploy. So it’s not unusual for songs to take on a life of their own beyond the films they feature in. Also, in a country of many languages, religions and ethnicities, Bollywood films act as a universal language. This is because irrespective of mother tongue, most people can understand the language used in films. For instance, Hindi and Urdu are sister languages, sharing a large common vocabulary, so it’s easy for speakers of both languages to understand Bollywood films [thanks Vandana for prodding me to make this point!]. This also explains the popularity of Bollywood among British Asian audiences; whether they’re Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, and regardless of mother tongue, the language of Bollywood brings them together in the cinemas. So whoever taught Rolf Harris that iconic song did him a huge favour – it came from one of Raj Kapoor’s most famous films, and the lyrics were highly patriotic. By singing those four lines alone, Rolf was able to say more about his appreciation of Indian culture than he could have done in any other way.
I have my mum to thank for many of these insights. It turns out that Raj Kapoor was the actor of the day when mum was growing up so it was his songs which formed the soundtrack to her life. 1964 was the year Raj Kapoor released his first colour film, Sangam. It was also the year mum left Rawalpindi to begin married life in Yorkshire. It must have taken some courage for her parents to marry off their daughter to a Pakistani settled so far away. In the days leading up to mum’s departure, my grandmother would repeat a sobering Punjabi saying: “Off you go, my beloved daughter, to the other side of the River Ravi, to where no-one goes and from where no-one returns”. And so mum left Rawalpindi for a 2 up 2 down in Keighley. She was used to houses with terraces and courtyards so the novelty of stepping outside the front door to see the sky quickly wore off. Dad slept all day and worked six nights a week as a wool comber in a spinning mill. It’s difficult to believe that there was only one halal meat shop in all of Keighley. What’s equally implausible is that Pakistani women were a rare sight; the trend among migrant mill workers to call over their families was only just beginning. Mum once chased after a woman she spotted in a shalwar kameez, just to have the chance to speak to someone like herself. One of mum’s favourite uncles, himself a fan of Prithviraj Kapoor, telephoned one day to see how mum was settling in. She reminisced about hearing the latest Indian film songs on Radio Ceylon and asked him to send her the Sangam soundtrack. Sure enough, a few weeks later, a bubble wrapped package arrived at 1 Alpha Street containing a bundle of vinyl LPs. And so it was that songs like this one, from the films of Raj Kapoor – the father of my number one romantic hero, Rishi - sustained mum as she adjusted to her new life in Britain.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND KEIGHLEY
PREVIOUS: JOSIE THE DANCING GIRL
Written by Irna Qureshi
28/02/2011 at 6:00 pm
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