He may have switched professions. But Raaj Kumar couldn’t shed the air of authority and his fondness for the jeep, a carry forward from his profession of a law-enforcer.
That also explains why a sense of gravitas permeated every role he played. Be it that of a commander, an army man, a CBI officer, a chieftain, a forest officer or a royal – he could play both hero and anti-hero with swag.
Yet he could portray the obsessed lover with equal softness. He gave face to Ranjha – the eternal lover in Heer Ranjha.
Salim in Pakeezah, mesmerised by Sahibjan’s feet, leaves behind a note: Aapke paon… bahut haseen hain. Inhe zameen pe mat utariyega. Maile ho jaayenge! Said in his baritone, the lines ring in the romance of a rubaiyat.
His Jaani-laden punch lines were as much about power as they were about playing to the gallery. The dialogues, which can be compiled as an anthology, have found its generation of cheerleaders.
Off-screen too he was an iconoclast. In the brocades he wore, in the wigs and funky footwear he flaunted… As in the wry sarcasm with which he demolished competition. “I believe in things I do; I do things I believe in,” he once said.
A favourite with the flashbulbs, Raaj Kumar was fiercely private about his downtime. “I’ve always led my own life, had my drinks and affairs and been happy left to myself,” he was quoted saying (cineplot.com).
If he fought cancer with quiet grit, his death, in keeping with his wishes, was quieter. The formidable Raaj Kumar passed away in the intimacy of his home, chanting the Hanuman Chalisa… and was cremated before it became news.
He once described himself as ‘a spark from the dust of time’. That glimmer has only grown sharper, powered by the growing legion of new admirers…
Raaj Kumar was born in a Kashmiri family as Kulbhushan Pandit on 8 October 1926.
He moved to Bombay having cleared the civil services examination in the 1940s.
He joined the Bombay Police as a sub-inspector.
Legendary Sohrab Modi spotted Raaj Kumar at Metro cinema, in Bombay. Captivated by his aura, Modi offered him a role, only to be turned down.
Raaj debuted with Rangeeli (1952). Eventually, he did Nausherwan-E-Adil (1957) with Sohrab Modi.
He lent texture to every role he did. Like that of the poor peasant in Mother India (1957), the sensitive surgeon in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (1960), the terminally ill husband in Dil Ek Mandir (1963, won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor) and the sculptor-in-love in Neel Kamal (1968). What set him apart was his gravitas as opposed to the chocolate-hero prototype. Stylised and sombre, his was a scene-stealing presence.
Waqt (1965) spearheaded the ‘Jaani’ cult. Gangster Raaja is emotional about his family. His romantic interaction with Sadhana is tender, while his interface with Chinoy Seth (Rehman) is belligerent. Chinai Seth, chhuri bachchon ke khelne kee cheez nahin hoti, haath kat jaye to khoon nikal aata hai: the dialogue still enjoys a fanbase. Raaj Kumar won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor.
As the cavalier captain in Hamraaz (1967), the noble nawab in Mere Huzoor (1968) and a zamindar, who falls prey to his own prejudice in Lal Patthar (1971) … the Raaj Kumar brand added value to these films.
Heer Ranjha (1971) and Pakeezah (1972) paid tributes to his romantic persona. As Ranjha, he was both passion and devastation. While in Pakeezah, he was about poetry and gallantry, setting a radical precedent by bringing home a courtesan.
His noteworthy films as supporting actor include Bulundi, Kudrat, Muqaddar Ka Faisla and Police Public (between 1981-1990). Mehul Kumar worked with Raaj Kumar in three films Marte Dam Tak (1987), Jung Baaz (1989) and Tirangaa (1992).
His act as Brigadier Suryadev Singh, who joins hands with Inspector Shivajirao Waghle (Nana Patekar) to nab a terrorist in Tirangaa was a hoot. His dialogue, “Na talwaar ki dhaar se, na goliyon ki bauchaar se… banda darta hai to sirf parvardigaar se!” is now the stuff of film folklore.
A highlight of that era was Saudagar (1991), which pitted him opposite thespian Dilip Kumar. They played the feuding chiefs of two clans. The two had first appeared in Paigham (1959). Subhash Ghai achieved a coup by getting the matinee kings together. But he had to handle them with tact.
To ease the atmosphere, Ghai didn’t shoot the confrontation scenes first. Rather, he shot the friendship number, Imli ka buta. “Dilip saab and Rajji both were bad dancers. I made them rehearse the steps together like kids. They saw each other with their shortcomings. Egos were dissolved. The atmosphere turned friendly,” said Ghai (Filmfare).
The film is also remembered for Raaj’s iconic dialogue: Jaani… hum tumhein maarenge… par bandook bhi hamari hogi, goli bhi hamari hogi aur waqt bhi hamara hoga! After Saudagar released, Raaj sent a letter to Ghai with a gold coin as souvenir. It read, “Chief, hats off to you, people… loved me in the film.”
Not only was his onscreen swagger unique, his off-screen idiosyncrasies were as legendary.
When stalwart Mehboob Khan wanted newcomer Raaj to sign an exclusive contract during Mother India, he refused to toe the line.
Known for his wry humour, Raaj Kumar, reportedly told a popular Zeenat Aman, “You have a pretty face. You should join the movies.” On another occasion, he apparently told Zeenat that after Satyam Shivam Sundaram it was difficult to recognise her with clothes.
Once, he walked into Rajendra Kumar’s studio and finding a large photo of the star at the entrance, remarked to the attendant, “Jaani, ye chale gaye, aur tumne hamein bataaya bhi nahi?”
Contrary to perception, Raaj appreciated arthouse cinema. He called up director Mani Kaul after his Uski Roti (1969) and said, albeit in his style, “Jaani, kya art-vart film banaate ho, Uski Roti. Hamaare paas chale aao… commercial film banaate hain Apna Halwa!”
Allegedly, he refused Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer because he didn’t like ‘the director’s face’
“My father was moonhphat (outspoken)… Dad did have a wicked sense of humour. But with no ill-intent. My father may have been bizarre but he was never boring,” said actor/son Puru Raaj Kumar (Filmfare).
Filmmaker BR Chopra once decoded the star’s complex personality saying, “He dealt and talked to people with a bemused attitude, as though he had an ace up his sleeve… He was nobody’s fool… He was misunderstood because of his bluntness.”
Raaj’s adventurous fashion sense was the delight of tabloids. From purple velvet suits to collar bands, from brocade shirts to khadau (wooden sandals) and wigs … the glossies could never have enough of him. “There would be fabric brought home for curtains. And a week later, he’d be walking around in a shirt made of that material,” recalled son Puru.
Raaj met his wife Jennifer, an Anglo-Indian airhostess, on a flight during the ‘60s. She was later named Gayatri. They had two sons Puru and Panini and daughter Vastavikta. The atmosphere at home was secular with the children visiting churches, dargahs, mandirs and synagogues.
“For dad, the most beautiful woman in the world was my mother. He was a romantic. He sought romance even in the smallest things — like driving in his jeep with mom to have paan at Peddar Road...They had their little tiffs though... Mom would be staring at the wall in one room and dad would be staring into the sea… Eventually, they’d make up," revealed son Puru (Filmfare).”
Though his wife rarely accompanied him at events, a summer vacation to Kashmir with the family was mandatory. There Raaj enjoyed trekking and playing golf, horse riding and table tennis. In the evening there would be barbeque. Raaj enjoyed classical music and ghazals. He’d keep playing Aye dil-e-nadaan (Razia Sultan) and the valley reverberated with the melody.
He began his day with kahwa, a Kashmiri drink, made with black tea, honey, almonds and tulsi leaves. Being a Kashmiri Pandit, he loved rogan josh, paneer with baingan and kasuri methi. He was a light eater and remained fit because he was a golfer. He did horse riding at the Old Amateur Riders Club at Worli.
Raaj had a great collection of pipes. He was fond of cat eye sunglasses. He loved cars and had a Chevrolet, a Mercedes, a Volkswagen and a Willy’s Jeep.
When rumours about him suffering from cancer were rife, a filmmaker happened to ask him about the same. “Raaj Kumar marega toh zukhaam se thodi na marega, koi badi bimari se hi marega na,” was his retort.
The illness began with Hodgkin lymphoma (lumps on the nodes). Raaj underwent chemotherapy even while he shot for Police Public. But the lumps recurred even more aggressively and reached the lungs and the rib cage.
The actor refused to remain in hospital. He wanted to pass away peacefully at home, where he spent most of his time reciting the Hanuman Chalisa. “I never saw him in dull spirits ever except during the last two years when illness got the better of him. Those were excruciating times,” recalled Puru.
The actor passed away on July 3, 1996 at the age of 70.
Critical of the tendency to turn death into a tamasha (circus), Raaj wanted his exit to be a private affair. Before the news of his death spread, Raaj Kumar’s last rites had been completed. Apparently, the actor had once remarked “Jab jaonga pata bhi nahin chalega.” He stayed true to that.