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How The Stars Aligned: Untold Stories of The Friendship between Rajendra Kumar and Raj Kapoor

Cover of the book  'Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar' by Seema Sonik Alimchand.

Cover of the book 'Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar' by Seema Sonik Alimchand.

In Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar, author Seema Sonik Alimchand has given a graphic account of how the two actors became buddies through the making of the 1964 classic film Sangam.

Filmmaker Raj Kapoor had struck up a friendship with actor Rajendra Kumar in order to sign actress Vyjayanthimala for Sangam. The film released in 1964 was inspired by the Hollywood classic Gone with the Wind. The story, a love triangle, has two best friends, Sundar (Kapoor) and Gopal (Kumar), who fall in love with the same girl Radha, played by Vyjayanthimala. In reality too, the making of the three-hour-58-minute-long super hit motion picture made Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar lifelong friends.

'In Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar' [Hachette Books], author Seema Sonik Alimchand has given a graphic account of how the two actors became buddies. Seema is the author, presenter and producer of the popular audio album 100 Years of Hindi Film Music. The daughter of noted music composer Master Sonik of the Sonik–Omi duo, her earlier work includes biographies of superstars Rajinikanth and Dara Singh.

Seema’s work on Rajendra Kumar is based on first-person interviews and diary jottings of the star himself. For about two decades until Rajesh Khanna arrived on the scene, Rajendra Kumar remained the most successful hero in Hindi cinema where his films, Mere Mahboob, Dil Ek Mandir, Geet, Jhuk Gaya Aasman, Goonj Uthi Shehnai, Palki, Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, Arzoo and Sangam ran in theatres for over 25 weeks, giving him the title, ‘Jubilee Kumar’. Rajendra Kumar was doing Aas Ka Panchhi, when he spotted Raj Kapoor emerging from the adjoining sets. Dramatically, Raj Kapoor turned to face Rajendra Kumar and asked, “Yaar, woh film banaye (Buddy, shall we make that film)?’ with an eyebrow cocked quizzically. Seema vividly quoted Kumar accepting Kapoor’s offer to meet at 6.30 pm the next day. The two actors drove down to Chembur in Raj Kapoor’s blue Buick convertible, with Rajendra Kumar’s chauffeur following them in the other car. This was the jubilee star’s first visit to the famous cottage in RK Studios. The script of Sangam and search for the lead actress made them sit together subsequently on most evenings. The big question they kept coming back to was who would play Radha, the girl the two friends in the story were in love with.

“What about Meena [Kumari]? She’d suit the role, wouldn’t she?” Rajendra Kumar has been quoted by Seema as saying with Raj Kapoor replying, “but I am not so sure…”

Next in line were Nutan and Waheeda Rahman. But Raj Kapoor remained unconvinced. The great showman is said to have argued, “… Radha’s is a pivotal role and the casting has to be perfect. I have an image of her in my mind. Let’s mull over it for a few days.”

The search for female lead continued, till one day, sometime in 1961, Raj Kapoor, who had just returned from a shooting stint in Madras (now Chennai) called Rajendra Kumar over. “I want to show you something,” he said as soon as Kumar walked into the cottage. “No ‘hi-hello’, Rajji? What is so urgent?” Kumar smiled, joining his friend on the white floor mattress.

Kapoor, without answering, asked Kumar to look at some transparencies he was carrying. Those were glossy photos of a stunning Vyjayanthimala. “How would she be as Radha?” Rajendra Kumar is said to have jotted in a diary as Raj Kapoor asking him.

Rajendra Kumar reacted instantly, “…Rajji, she is a big star, a beautiful and talented actor and a fantastic dancer. But I don’t see her as Radha. Anyone playing Radha’s role will need to emote well.”

But the filmmaker in Raj Kapoor was convinced. “I think she will be perfect,” Kapoor is said to have insisted.

Seeing Raj Kapoor’s interest and confidence, Rajendra Kumar recorded in his diary, “After all, you are the filmmaker. What your eyes see, maybe I cannot… Your choice will definitely be the right one.”

Then came the crucial point. Raj Kapoor asked Rajendra Kumar, “You are working with her in several films, so…” he trailed off, leaving the words unsaid.

“Yes, I have films with Vyjayanthi,” Rajendra recalled telling him, instantly sensing what the other actor wanted of him. “If you wish, I can speak to her.” “Done, then!” Raj Kapoor raised his amber liquid-filled glass, merriment gleaming in his light eyes. “Cheers!” The men clinked their glasses and downed the contents in one go.

Jubilee Kumar is the so-far-untold story of the man behind the superstar – one who went from riches to rags early in life, but whose determination, prudence and humility saw him surmount countless hurdles and win the affection and admiration of colleagues and fans alike.

A dispossessed refugee following the Partition, Rajendra Kumar’s struggles intensified as he travelled from Sialkot to Bombay to try his luck in films, suffering homelessness and hunger before he got a break as an assistant director. Overcoming both prejudice in the industry and his own insecurities, he eventually rose from playing small roles in films to unimaginable fame and popularity as a leading man and a respected producer.

(ORF Fellow and Journalist Rasheed Kidwai is Author of Neta Abhineta, Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics. Views expressed are personal)