Raj Kapoor and his connection to Pakistan

Raj Kapoor and his connection to Pakistan

On the filmmaker and actor's 35th death anniversary, we look back at his ties to Pakistan and its stars.
02 Jun, 2023

Some time in the beginning of 1989, upcoming Pakistani actor Zeba Bakhtiar was ready to meet Mrs Krishna Raj Kapoor at Deonar Cottage in Chembur for the first time. Chembur was a large upmarket suburb in Central Mumbai, (Bombay back then) where the family of Raj Kapoor, India’s finest showman, resided for years.

Bakhtiar, who had worked in PTV’s Anarkali, had been finalised for the titular role of Henna, an Indo-Pak love story where an Indian boy drifts into Pakistan and falls in love with a local girl. Raj’s death on June 2, 1988 halted production of the movie, though the story was there. He died days after finalising Bakhtiar for the role and never met her in person.

His son Randhir, being aware of the entire story, called Bakhtiar over to India for an audition and that is when she met Krishna Kapoor. Bakhtiar told Images that after glancing at her, Krishna’s response was — “I could see Raj ji’s dream in flesh and blood”.

The Kapoor family has been around since India’s first talkie film — Alam Ara — was released in 1931. Raj’s father Prithvi Raj played a substantial role in that movie and is considered among the pioneers of Bollywood. Prithvi immortalised Emperor Akbar with his role in Mughal-e-Azam in 1960 and his sons gradually found their way to the top as well.

Raj, the actor, producer and director, was much more than just being the “Charlie Chaplin of India”. Known to be the most influential filmmaker from the country, he was once the youngest director/producer in Bollywood. He conceived the idea of blockbuster Barsaat (1948) at the ripe age of 24. He established RK Studios soon after and made classic films like Awaara, Shri 420, Sangam, Bobby and the cult classic Mera Naam Joker. He was also the first producer to shoot a film outside of India — a tradition that continues till today.

By the 1970s, his sons Rishi and Randhir were carrying the legacy forward and today, it’s on the shoulders of Randhir’s daughter Kareena Kapoor Khan Rishi’s son Ranbir Kapoor.

A Peshawar boy

Raj Kapoor was born Ranbir Raj Kapoor in Peshawar on December 14, 1924. He moved to Calcutta where his younger brother Shamsher Raj aka Shammi Kapoor was born in 1931. When he was 14 years old, his family welcomed the arrival of his youngest brother Balbir Raj aka Shashi Kapoor.

Raj loved his family and missed Peshawar. He would get emotional while recalling his childhood, and family members who had never been to Peshawar could feel it. It was that love that made him look affectionately towards anything that belonged to the region. He wanted to visit Peshawar once more but was unable to.

He had great love for Pakistan, where his films were distributed, until Dev Anand’s Jaal (1954) faced resistance from the local film fraternity. Old timers recall watching Aan, Awara, Aag and Barsaat in cinema houses in Pakistan as late as 1965.

Art has no borders

Raj was a lover of art and recognised its true worth. He had no qualms in appreciating talent that wasn’t from India, as he believed that art had no boundaries. When ad film maker Javed Jabbar went to India for the screening of Beyond the Last Mountain — which was the first Pakistani film to be made in the English language — Raj Kapoor appreciated it, terming it an intelligent film of contemporary cinema. “Raj Kapoor was most gracious. He welcomed Shabnam and me very warmly during his grand reception/dinner for delegates at the first Bombay International Festival in January 1976. He then came with eight senior members of his production team to view Beyond the Last Mountain at a special screening. His hospitality and attitude were most endearing,” recalled the advertising guru, who later served as a minister and senator.

By the 1980s, Pakistan was being ruled by General Ziaul Haq who, with all his might, tried to quash the entertainment industry. As luck would have it, Raj decided to unintentionally help budding talent from Pakistan, who later proved their worth to the world.

Helping Pakistani stars shine

It came as a surprise to many when actor Rishi Kapoor requested famous singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to render a particular song Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had sung at his wedding reception during a TV show a couple of years back. Many people were shocked to know that it was Raj Kapoor who introduced the budding qawwal from Pakistan to the world.

 Rishi and Ranbir Kapoor with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Rishi and Ranbir Kapoor with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Raj had asked Rahat and his uncle to come over to India and perform at his residence in January 1980. It was the celebration of Rishi and Neetu Singh’s wedding and the entire film fraternity was there. Despite the presence of renowned music directors and singers, Nusrat was under no pressure. He started singing at 10pm and continued till 7 in the morning, rendering ‘Halka Halka Suroor’ for two and a half hours at a stretch.

 Nusrat and Rishi
Nusrat and Rishi

The emergence of Salma Agha, the orotund singer who became an actor, has a lot to do with her relationship with Raj Kapoor. Related through her step-grandfather — Agha’s step-grandfather Jugal Kishore Mehta happened to be Raj’s maternal uncle — she came into the picture when Raj was thinking of Henna and the noted filmmaker BR Chopra was preparing for Nikaah. Raj abandoned his plans for Henna — it had been in the pre-production stage since the early 70s — and started off with Prem Rog, with a young Padmini Kolhapuri in the lead while Agha got the role of Nilofer, the heroine in BRChopra’s classic.

She also did playback for her songs, to much appreciation. Prem Rog and Nikaah were hits — Prem Rog received 12 while Nikaah got 11 Filmfare nominations. Kolhapuri received the Best Actress award while Agha got the Best Female Singer. She also recieved two more nominations for the same category, with Nazia Hassan’s ‘Boom Boom’ nominated as well.

Nazia, the Queen of Pop, captivated generations with her singing and youthful appearance. She received the Best Singer Female trophy for ‘Aap Jaisa Koi’ from Feroz Khan’s Qurbani just two years prior. No points for guessing who presented the award to the Pakistani singer.

 Raj presenting the award to Nazia Hassan
Raj presenting the award to Nazia Hassan

Raj Kapoor’s daughter Reema became fast friends with Nazia, who was busy with her singing assignments in Pakistan and India. It was through her that Raj offered Nazia the title role of Henna, which she eventually turned down. Nazia wanted to focus on social work, singing and her studies and had no time for acting.

Around the same time, Haseena Moin’s smash hit serial Tanhayian was aired on PTV. By late 1986, it was available in India on VHS cassettes and its following grew to match the one in Pakistan. Shehnaz Sheikh and Marina Khan, the Zara and Saniya of the show, caught Raj’s eye and he met them in the UAE during a cricket tournament in Sharjah in December 1986. He wanted Moin to write the dialogues of Henna and needed to finalise one of the girls for the titular role. Sheikh got close to playing the role, but eventually declined.

Moin wrote the dialogues for Henna, which had cross-border relations as the theme. Krishna once complained that whatever Moin had provided in the tape was played on loop on Raj’s Walkman. In those days, Raj was seldom found without his headphones on, as he was mesmerised by the lines written by Moin.

She also arranged for a Pakistani actor whom she believed was the answer to Raj’s quest, she told this author in 2018. She asked him to watch clips of a young lady who was playing the lead in Anarkali, a play produced by PTV. She seemed the right choice for Raj, who had the VHS cassette of Anarkali (aired in May 1988) arranged as soon as he could get his hands on it. He managed to watch the tape and shortly after giving his nod of approval, he passed away on June 2, 1988, almost as if he was waiting for the right choice.

 Zeba Bakhtiar and Rishi Kapoor
Zeba Bakhtiar and Rishi Kapoor

“I was roped in months after Raj Kapoor’s death. Haseena Moin met my father, Attorney General of Pakistan at the time Yahya Bakhtiar, at our home in Karachi and asked for his permission. Had Haseena Moin not been involved, my father would never have allowed me to go to India,” Bakhtiar told Images. She ultimately became the last heroine to star in a project started by Raj Kapoor.

When asked why Raj insisted on a Pakistani girl to play the role of Henna, Bakhtiar replied, “Raj Kapoor always wanted to be true to his story and the character. He could have had any of the top Indian actresses, but it would lack authenticity. To make the story real and believable, Raj Kapoor opted for a girl from Pakistan.” That authenticity went on to bag Bakhtiar the Best Debut award.

Raj was planning to direct Henna himself but his deteriorating health did not allow him to. He received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award a month prior to his death, where the president of India broke protocol and came with the award to his seat because Raj was unable to walk up on the stage to receive it.

Raj had two dreams to fulfil before he died. One was the completion of Henna and the other was a farewell visit to Peshawar. Henna was later directed by his eldest son Randhir and released in 1991. When Rishi and Randhir came to Pakistan to shoot some scenes for the film, they managed to visit their ancestral home and live the moment. Henna was a commercial and critical success and was India’s nomination for the Best Foreign Film Category at the 1992 Academy Awards.

Raj once mentioned that “mitti from Peshawar” must be placed on his forehead before he was cremated. The soil was arranged and he went peacefully. The mere mention of such acts bring a tear or two to one’s eyes, as people from that generation lived and died in a world that was altogether different.