At the United Services Club, part of the army establishment farthest away at Colaba where he goes to play golf, Raaj Kumar ordered tea with mint or adrak (ginger). Raaj likes to sip his tea in a glass tumbler. The bearer returned in a moment to say politely that neither of the embellishments he wanted was available today. Life is like that—it runs short of spices, the bowl of cherries gets emptied sometimes.
Later at the bar, Raaj Kumar ordered cognac. He is a good host, a good friend to friends. The only trouble is in getting on to his very short list of okay people. And it doesn’t look as if he is looking for meek or submissive types either. A certain chemistry has to work right. It is not very reasonable but Raaj Kumar is like that.
In films, with some excellent performances recently (though his performances have never been bad) and he is supposed to be “back” again.
Expectedly, he said, “But I was never away as far as my public goes. With the industry, with producers, it may be different.”
The rumor had been started by someone, he said, making one of those prize understatements, that he was difficult. “I didn’t sign many films, I turned quite a few down, but when I agreed to do a film, I worked. I was there on the sets around 10:30 or 11 in the morning.”
If he was ever “difficult”, it was with himself, he argued. “If I refuse an offer I lose so much money, it is my loss, isn’t it?”
Two things he said that evening stand out, saying so much about him. “I was always, even when I was young, very observant”—a trait that helps an actor. And, “Never in my life have I submitted to anyone.” He meant as a person, as an actor. He elaborated on this saying, “I never, never went to anyone and asked him for work. And always, from my first film onwards, I got my price.”
“Everyone makes compromises for the sake of his or her career,” Raaj Kumar said. “I know actors who have signed films taking Rs. 500 from out of a car door. I can’t do things like that.” Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, he said, were the only two actors who haven’t played little games to further their careers. “And Dilip Kumar is the only one I admire as an actor. Look at what he has done lately in `Shakti’ and Widhaata’.” Talking of some other performers, he said, “Rekha is good. And this… [Padmini] Kolhapure has flashes.”
The sunset hour (when we met) seems to be his favorite one for chats. And, driving photographers to exasperation, Raaj Kumar often wants to be photographed late in the evenings. His favorite off-screen image seems to be of himself walking off into the sunset with his dog. The rugged loner. He was one of the first actors in Bombay to start using a jeep when it became fashionable—and he continues to use it today in the Mercedes era.
The on-screen Raaj Kumar audiences warm up to enthusiastically is a clear one—that tall macho figure, amused, cynical, defiant and determined, literally and otherwise, to have the last word. Hero and antihero, and much before the latter word became fashionable. The off- screen image is a different matter. He seems to enjoy building a maze around him through which it is difficult to move and find the real person. He seems to forget people’s names. His comments, at least as quoted, are brash and provocative. What emerges from these is a composite of someone unpredictable and nearly insufferable. In reality, at least at very close quarters, he is quite a caring person when he wants to be one. He has his loyalties and affections. He has his own code of chivalry and honor. His courtesy is faultless. Perhaps at one time he felt misused or ill-used and started building mental self defenses. Brando once said,— and it could well be Raaj Kumar saying it, “I somehow always feel violated. Everyone in … most of the world is a hooker of some kind or another.”
Sometimes people say, as if it were a charge, that Raaj Kumar keeps his family (wife and 3 kids) in wraps, at home. You guess he has every right to do so—he is the actor, public property if you please, but they are not. Despite all his abrasive appearances at parties and the like, he himself remains an essentially private person. “I have always led my own life, had my drinks and affairs, and been happy left to myself,” he says.
“Mehboob (in whose ‘Mother India’ Raaj Kumar and Sunil Dutt, both young actors at the beginning of their careers then made a strong impression) wanted me to sign an exclusive contract,” Raaj Kumar remembers. “He said he had been responsible for my making.” Not liking this one bit, Raaj didn’t sign the contract. He also told Mehboob, “If what you say is true then I should have said it, not you.”
“I always called Mehboob ‘Khan'”, Raaj Kumar said, which was something as everyone else in those days bowed left and right in front of Mehboob and called him Mehboob Sa’b—and you could well believe it of Raaj Kumar. Just the kind of thing he would enjoy doing. No respect at all for established institutions. He probably has no intention of turning into one himself. At the moment he is more a cult figure. He is quite touched by his fans’ attention—for example the kisses blown in the direction of his car by a gaggle of teenagers at a traffic intersection recently.
Raaj Kumar is now doing “Ek Nai Paheli” for director K. Balachander who is known as a disciplinarian on the sets, standing no nonsense from anyone including stars. Raaj Kumar seems to be getting along well with him and he with Raaj Kumar. “He is good but tense and I told him so,” Raaj says. Chetan Anand and the Maheshwarys have had a long working relationship with Raaj — surprising in an actor whom people like to think of as one nobody can ever get along with.
“Bulundi” in which Raaj Kumar’s college professor won him much praise was directed by Esmayeel Shroff and it looks as of the moment as a one film relation between the two. But Raaj Kumar concedes points to Sultan Ahmed, the maker of “Dharam Kanta”. Raaj Kumar plays a reformed dacoit with two sons. After the film, along with praise, word started going around that Raj Kumar had begun accepting father’s roles. Actually, off-screen the actor looks as he always did, rather ageless. “But years back in ‘Mother India’ I played father, didn’t I?” he asks. He praises Sultan and another director or so for a little gift of improvisation they have. “You give Sultan a bit of action and he turns a part of it into an entirely new scene,” he says.
Maybe Raaj Kumar is happy, maybe he isn’t. Maybe it’s the way a Neil Simon character put it, quoting Laurence Oliver, “Acting is the finest and most noble thing you can do with your life, unless, of course, you are lucky enough to be happy.” (Raaj Kumar interviewed by K.N.S. in 1983).