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A Look Back at Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Rajiv Kapoor's Most Successful and Controversial Film

Rajiv Kapoor and Mandakini in a still from Ram Teri Ganga Maili.

Rajiv Kapoor and Mandakini in a still from Ram Teri Ganga Maili.

Rajiv Kapoor will be remembered as the kind-hearted Narendra Sahay from Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Raj Kapoor's last directorial and a scathing commentary on class and gender divide.

Rajiv Kapoor starred in about 14 films in his acting career from 1983 to 1990, but none created as many ripples as the last film directed by his father, Raj Kapoor. He made his debut with Ek Jaan Hain Hum, and had to wait till the 1985 film Ram Teri Ganga Maili to be directed by the showman. That wait was also for box office success, because no other project in his career made as much noise.

With debutante Mandakini as the leading lady, Raj Kapoor made a superhit movie that was the highest grossing Hindi film that year. It was certified Diamond Jubilee in Mumbai and Golden Jubilee in other major cities. It was also one of the highest-grossing films of 1980s, alongside Kranti (1981) and Maine Pyar Kiya (1989).

Rajiv played the role of Narendra Sahay, a rich heir from Calcutta who falls in love with a pahadi girl called Ganga. They get married but Narendra has to leave soon after, with a promise that he will return. The film largely focuses on Ganga’s journey in search of the man she married, with her infant son, and how she is exploited and abused at every step of the way.

She ends up in a brothel, and is eventually called to perform at Narendra’s family-organised wedding, where they finally meet. He rebels against his family and wants to give Ganga her rightful position, but she is already "polluted" and cannot be accepted by society. Narendra then leaves his house with Ganga and his child.

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Raj Kapoor explored gender-based violence, discrimination, and class divide in this ambitious project. The film was pathbreaking in many ways at that point, especially the filmmaker’s use of breastfeeding scenes and brutal exposure of society’s hypocrisy. The bold scenes, like Mandakini bathing under a waterfall, did invite criticism, but Raj Kapoor defended his portrayal of the heroine saying it was tastefully done.

The film is symbolic in its portrayal of its protagonist named Ganga, an innocent girl from the hills who comes down to the polluted plains and is tainted by the impurities in human society. American Indologist Philip Lutgendorf has called the movie an allegory that "synthesizes classical and mythic narrative, soft-core political and social commentary”. He also compared the narrative with the story of Abhijnanasakuntalam, which first appeared in Mahabharata, and was later reworked by the poet Kalidasa.

The music of Ram Teri Ganga Maili, composed by Ravindra Jain, contributed immensely to its box office success. Songs like Ek Radha Ek Meera, Sun Sahiba Sun and the title track are still popular.

Despite the buzz generated by the film, it remains the sole successful project in Rajiv Kapoor’s career. The film’s director was too big an icon to overshadow, plus the film focused on the female protagonist, which led to overnight stardom for Mandakini, but did little to boost Rajiv’s career.

His subsequent films like Lover Boy (1985), Angaarey (1986), Hum To Chale Pardes (1988) and Zalzala (1988) could not replicate the success of Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Rajiv made his last film appearance in Zimmedaaar in 1990, after which he turned to producing and directing.