He was indubitably the most handsome hero of the pre-independence period. Imposingly tall and more regal than most kings, Prithviraj Kapoor straddled the world of films and theatre for 40 years. This dynast and his progeny Raj, Shammi and Shashi, each a major star, became justifiably celebrated as Bollywood’s first family.
The son of a police officer in Peshawar, Prithviraj learned early in life to be self-reliant. Defying strident family opposition, he became in their eyes, a kanjar (gypsy), when he travelled to Bombay to join films. Within days, this handsome Punjabi (the Prithviraj of the 30s looked incredibly similar to the Shashi Kapoor of the 70s) landed a silent film, Cinema Girl (’29), opposite Ermeline. But it proved to be a false dawn — the film flopped and Prithviraj, already the father of three children, was reduced to eking out an existence by doing minute roles. Living in the seedy locality of Foras Road, he enjoyed the doubtful distinction of being an extra in India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (’31).
A proud Kshatriya (the Hindu warrior class), Prithviraj fought his way up from inconsequential portrayals to strong supporting roles in the 30’s New Theatres (Calcutta) classics like President, Sapera and Dushman. With his Grecian features, impressive physique, and booming voice, Prithviraj’s most famous roles were those of kings. In Debaki Bose’s classic Vidyapati (’37), he played a king flummoxed by his queen’s fatal attraction towards the Vidyapati. In Sohrab Modi’s Sikander (’41), he was the all-conquering Greek king, Alexander, pitted against the verbal fireworks of the Indian royal, Puru. And in K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (’60), he gave a powerful performance as the Moghul emperor, Akbar, beleaguered by his son’s romantic transgressions. This kingly haul, especially Mughal-e-Azam, represented the acme of Prithviraj’s rich career.
But even this august talent found good roles in films coming his way only sporadically. In the early 50s, he switched to character roles after playing the patriarch in V Shantaram’s Dahej and son Raj Kapoor’s Awara. In 1944, he had launched a theatre company, Prithvi Theatres, and became its actor- manager and raison d’etre.
The showbiz warhorse, continued in films right uptil his death. The `Papaji’ of the Kapoor family is remembered by son Shashi as something of a seer (saint) whose benignacy touched all. Even when he lay on his death bed, he worried about completing his grandson Randhir Kapoor’s directorial debut, Kal Aaj Aur Kal. At his insistence, the sound equipment and crew were brought to his hospital bed from where he completed the dubbing.
`The show must go on’ philosophy of the die-hard thespian was commemorated by son Shashi who started Prithvi Theatre in Bombay in his father’s memory. A fitting tribute to the man who dedicated his life to the art of performance.