Bollywood Legends - Prithviraj Kapoor


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Prithviraj Kapoor

Imposingly tall and regal than most kings, Prithviraj Kapoor, he who straddled the world of films and theatre for 40 years, was irrefutably the most attractive and seductive hero of the pre-independence era.
He was born in Peshawar in a middle-class landlord family. His father was a police officer. He enrolled at Edward College, Peshawar after finishing his schooling at Lyallpur and Lahore. He was married at 18 and did a year of law after graduation but interrupted his law studies to pursue his dreams of acting.
This awesome Punjabi travelled to Bombay in 1929 to join films. He joined Imperial Film company within days landed in the silent film, Cinema girl. But unfortunately, the film bombed and Prithviraj who was by then the father of three kids {Raj, Shashi and Shammi}, was reduced to doing miniscule roles. However , he enjoyed the distinction of being an extra in India`s first talkie, Alam Ara, in 1931.
He then joined the Grant Anderson Theatre Company performing Shakespeare in English, winning special acclaim for his role of Laertes in Hamlet. The turning point came when he shifted to New Theatres, Calcutta in 1933. He broke through that year with Rajrani Meera, 1933 and then with Debaki Bose`s Seeta, 1934. He was associated with some of the best films of New Theatres like Manzil, 1936, President, 1937 and his crowning glory Vidyapathi, 1937.
The title role in Sohrab Modi`s Sikander, 1941 immortalized Prithviraj Kapoor. This epic film was set in 326 BC when Alexander the Great, having conquered Persia and the Kabul Valley, descends to the Indian border at Jhelum and encounters Porus. Its dramatic, declamatory dialogues gave both Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi free reign to their histrionic proclivities. Prithviraj made a handsome, dashing Sikander and the film heightened his enduring reputation for playing royalty, enhanced further by his role as Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam, 1960.
Inspite of such powerful performances in his films, good roles came to him rarely. He launched a theatre company, Prithvi Theatres in 1944. He was the first to use the concept of modern, professional urban theatre in Hindustani. Before him there were folk and Parsi theatre companies but his was the first modern professional repertory of that scale and influence. In over 16 years of its existence under Prithviraj Kapoor, Prithvi Theatre did some 2,662 shows. He played the lead in every single show, even when he was running high fever - one play every alternate day for 16 years! Many news talents like Ramanand Sagar, Shankar-Jaikishen and Ram Ganguly were launched by Prithvi Theatre.
His major film work in the 1950s include V.Shantaram`s Dahej, 1950 and his son, Raj Kapoor`s Awaara, 1951. While directing Paisa, he lost his voice which sadly never regained its full sonorousness. Subsequently he closed Prithvi Theatre and reduced his film work.
Aasmaan Mahal, 1965 saw another memorable performance from Prithviraj. Among his later films, Teen Bahuraniyaan, 1968 saw him as the loveable head of the family trying to knock sense into his giddy headed daughters-in law and Kal Aaj Aur Kal, 1971 directed by grandson Randhir Kapoor (son of Raj Kapoor) saw him play the head of a family in a film dealing with the generation gap between the grandfather and grandson with the son caught in between both. He had also played the patriachal head in the Punjabi film Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai, 1969. The film was the first really major successful Punjabi film in Post-Independent India with a major cultural impact on Punjabi sikhs at home and abroad.
PrithviRaj Kapoor, alongwith his progeny Raj, Shammi and Shashi, and each a major star, his family became justifably celebrated as Bollywood`s first family.
He succumbed to Hodgkin`s disease in 1972 leaving behind a rich cultural legacy and a vision for Indian theatre. Prithviraj Kapoor was posthumously awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian Cinema. His son, Shashi, has revived Prithvi Theatre in his honour.