It was the winter of 1928. The Frontier Mail was flagged off from Peshawar-then still an integral part of pre-Partition India-on yet another routine journey to Bombay. For two days and two nights it snaked its way through the interminably rugged landscape that stretched from Peshawar to Bombay, before finally grinding to a halt at the railway terminus in Colaba where all inbound trains came to rest. The station, now long defunct, had none of the grandeur of the Victoria Termius (present-day Shivaji Chhatrapati Terminus)-a recurrent backdrop in countless Indian films as a symbolic 'gateway' to India. Amongst the weary passengers who got off the train at this little terminal, was a strapping, strikingly handsome 21-year-old man, carrying a suitcase in one hand and a hockey stick-his lucky charm-in the other. He was a stranger to the city that was yet to be rechristened Mumbai, but it was here that he had come to chase a dream.
Taking in his surroundings in a sweeping glance, the young man strode out of the station and summoned a Victoria (those quaint horse-drawn carriages that still ply in some parts of Sough Mumbai). He instructed the driver to take him to the seafront and a short while later, alighted at the Gateway of India. He looked at the shimmering sea stretching out before him, then raised his face to the heavens and said, 'Mr God, if you don't make me an actor and a star here, I will swim the seven seas and go to.
Hollywood.' That said, he asked the driver to take him to a hotel that was closest to a big film studio. The driver gave the young man a curious look. It was not often that he got such requests, and the young man in his Victoria seemed too aristocratic in his bearing to be a filmwala. Giving him a quick once over to gauge his financial worth, the driver decided to take him to Kashmir Hotel in front of Bombay's Metro cinema which cost Rs 5 a night. The hotel was a longish walk to Ardeshir Irani's Imperial Studio that had been set up at Kennedy Bridge just a couple of years earlier, at the height of silent film era.
Kashmir Hotel, Prithviraj Kapoor's first abode in Bombay, still stands, though a little derelict; Metro is about to make way for a modern multiplex, and garages, offices and other nondescript businesses have now sprouted at the spot where Imperial Studio once stood.
Through 1927, Imperial Studio had had a run of successes-amongst them film like Alibaba and Alladin, directed by B. P. Mishra. The company boasted of a galaxy of stars: Sulochna, whose Wild Cat of Bombay was a big hit; Gauhar, who left to join Chandulal Shah's Kohinoor Studio, and went on to form a successful partnership with him at Ranjit Movietone, and Ermeline, the beautiful Indian-Jewish actress, known as India's Clara Bow.
Cinema was still young, film companies were prospering and it was the right time to get into films.
At the gates of Imperial Studio, Prithviraj found his way barred by a burly Pathan watchman. Far from being disheartened, he was thrilled to find a fellow Pathan with whom he could speak in his own language-Pushto. To chance upon something familiar in an alien land was reassuring and comforting. The watchman too was pleased to find a compatriot and immediately warmed to him. The two chatted for a while. The watchman tried hard to dissuade the young man from rushing headlong into the disreputable world of cinema, assuring him that only crazy people would ever want to be actors. But when he realized that nothing would shake this Pathan's resolve, he let him in, reluctantly wishing him well: 'If you are lucky, you will get work.
On his first day in Bombay, the young Prithviraj Kapoor started his acting career standing in the line of extras who were picked up by production assistants on daily wages of Rs 2.50.
As luck would have it, on his third day at imperial Studio, the main actor of Cinema Girl, a silent film under production, failed to turn up. A distraught and angry B. P. Mishra, the director of the film decided to teach the truant a lesson. He asked the heroine Ermeline to pick an actor from the line of extras. Ermeline spotted Prithviraj Kapoor, looking every bit a Greek God, standing in the row of extras and beckoned to him.
PRITHVIRAJ KAPOOR WAS BORN ON 3 November 1906, in Peshawar, now in Pakistan. When he was three, his mother passed away, and his police officer father, Bashesharnath Kapoor, remarried. The child was sent to live with his grandfather in Samundri until he was old enough to return to Peshawar and live with his father.
When Prithviraj finished his schooling, Bashesharnath took his to meet Professor Jai Dayal, who taught at Peshawar's Edwards College, to consult him about the boy's future academic plans. Bashesharnath was keen on his son pursuing science, but Professor Dayal convinced him to let the young boy take up arts. The professor happened to be in charge of the dramatic society of Edwards College, and spotted talent immediately. Prithviraj was cast in the triple bill of one-act plays: Dina Ki Baraat, an original Punjabi play by R. L. Sahni, Spreading the News by Lady Gregory and Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge. He first appeared on the college stage in the role of a woman to thunderous applause. The critics labeled his an outstanding performance. Prithviraj was hooked to acting.
In keeping with the custom of the times, Prithviraj Kapoor was married off at the age of 17, while still a student. Rama, his beautiful 14-year-old bride, had been orphaned as a child and brought up by neighbours. Prithviraj's heart was in acting but his father wanted him to study further. It was not easy to summon up the nerve to confront his father, who was as strict at home as he was as a police officer, so Prithviraj enrolled in law college. But his dilemma persisted till finally one day he found himself blurting out that he wanted to go to Bombay and become an actor. Needless to say, his father was furious. 'Kanjar banna hai? (Do you want to become a kanjar?) he fumed (Kanjars were a lowly nomadic tribe of performers). But having once found the courage, Prithviraj was not going to give up so easily. He had the support of Kaushalya bua, his father's sister who was only a few years older than him. After his mother's death when he was just three, Kaushalya bua had looked after him and was sympathetic about his aspirations. So she gave him Rs 75 to pursue his dream. With that in his pocket, he sneaked off to Bombay, promising to send for his wife and three children later-of these, Raj Kapoor, born in 1924 in Peshawar, went on to become a cinema legend. The other two, Birendranath and Devendranath, died in Infancy. Years later, Kaushalya bua's son, Inderraj Anand would become a famous writer, and his son Tinu Anand, a well-known actor and filmmaker.
From the Jacket:
On 15 January 1944, Prithviraj Kapoor, already a film realized a long-cherished dream, and Prithvi Theatres was born. Over the next 16 years, Prithviraj Kaoor's repertory toured the country, giving one remarkable performance after another. Shakuntala (1945), Pathan (1947) and Paisa (1953) among them - a total of 2662 performances over 5982 days in 112 places! This was theatre history in the making, as stars were born and legends created. Uzra Mumtaz, her sister, Zohra Segal, Prithviraj's cousins, Premnath, Rajindernath, Sajjan and Mohan Saigal, L.V. Prasad, and the young Kapoor's - Raj, Shammi and Shashi, made sterling appearances on the Prithvi stage.
It remained for Shashi, his wife Jennifer and their children, Kunal and Sanjna, to fulfil Prithviraj's last dream and give Prithvi Theatres a home of its own. On 5 November 1978, the curtain rose on G.P. Deshpande's Uddhwasta Dharmashala, directed by Om Puri, and Prithvi Theatres, the traveling theatre company, was reborn as Prithvi Theatre, the building that has become a landmark in Mumbai. The passion that drove Prithviraj continues to inspire one hallmark performance after another from actors and directors like Naseeruddin Shah, Nadira Zaheer Babbar, Feroz Khan, Dinesh Thakur, Makarand Deshpande and a host of others who form the galaxy of stars in the world of theatre.
This book is the story of a theatre that has become a living legend, and the men and women who made it happen.
About the Author:
Shashi Kapoor gave his first performance on stage in 1945, in Prithvi Theatres' first production, Shakuntala. He was then aged seven, and had a bit part in a crowd scene. From then on, acting became a passion, and he toured the country through his schooldays and beyond, with Prithvi Theatres and later, with Shakespeareana, the company run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal (whose daughter, Jennifer, he married in 1958).
In 1960, Shashi Kapoor started his film career with Char Diwari, and has appeared in more than 250 films since then, including such memorable ones as The Householder (1962), The Sakespearewallahs (1965), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Siddhartha (1972) and Heat and Dust (1982). In 1978 he turned producer with Junoon, followed by Kalyug. His third production was 36 Chowringhee Lane, with Jennifer Kapoor in the lead role. The film won the Best Film Award at the Manila Festival in 1981. Shashi Kapoor also won the Filmfare Best Producer Award for each of these there films. He has twice won the President's Award for Best Actor, in 1962 for Dharam Putra, and in 1986 for New Delhi Times. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at Cairo International Film Festival in 2002.
Deepa Gahlot is a freelance journalist, columnist, and film and theatre critic in Mumbai, writing for publications such as The Times of India, The Indian Express, Midday, and Bombay Times. She also edits three cinema journals. Her work has appeared in anthologies of cinema writing. In 1998, she won the National Award for film criticism.
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