R.K. Studios: A legacy in grey

“My film Mera Naam Joker flopped. All the people who had worked with me and been by my side, and who had earned millions and millions of rupees from my films, turned their back on me," documentary film-maker and critic Suresh Kohli quotes the showman Raj Kapoor in the book Mera Naam Joker: The Complete Story. "RK Studio, my house, my wife’s jewellery… everything that I could see was mortgaged! I thought I was finished. Then I looked up and saw that famous RK banner and realised that everything was mortgaged but the name Raj Kapoor—and as long as the banner is there, Raj Kapoor will be there. And I am sure that banner will be there always, shining as it shines today."

The Chembur-based studio that Raj Kapoor set up in 1948, along with the R.K. Films banner, commenced with the production of the film Aag. The film failed to do well. But fortunes turned for the studio with Barsaat (1949). One of its scenes, where Raj Kapoor holds Nargis in one arm and a violin in another, even became the studio’s emblem, affixed right at the entrance.

They would subsequently find success with Awaara (1951), Boot Polish (1954), Shree 420 (1955), Jaagte Raho (1956), Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) among others. The banner would again hit a roadblock with Kapoor’s most ambitious project Mera Naam Joker (released in 1970). Kapoor, who came to be known as the showbiz wunderkind in his 20s, had to re-assess and plan a film for the resurrection of the studio. His son’s directorial debut, Kal Aaj Aur Kal (1971) that starred three generations of the Kapoor family—Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor and Randhir Kapoor—that followed Mera Naam Joker, coincided with the India-Pakistan war of 1971, and that too tanked at the box office. The loss, anyway, was too much to have been recovered on the back of the film.

It was only with the 1973 film Bobby, starring Dimple Kapadia and Rishi Kapoor, that the senior Kapoor could retrieve the losses.

Now, almost 45 years later, the studio is again in the news. Last week, Rishi Kapoor, one of Raj Kapoor’s three sons, announced in a Mumbai tabloid that the family has decided to sell the studio. “For a while, we did juggle with the idea of renovating the place with state-of-the-art technology. However, in reality, it isn’t always possible for a phoenix to rise from the ashes. We Kapoors are very emotional lot but then…” said the Kapoor heir. “The investment in rebuilding the studio would just not have yielded sufficient revenue to keep it going. Believe me, we had to take the larger picture into account and take a level-headed decision.”

“Even before the fire, for years, R.K. Studio had become a huge white elephant. The few bookings we would get from films, TV serials and ad shoots would expect free parking space, air conditioning and discounts,” Rishi Kapoor added, talking about the previous year’s fire that gutted Stage 1 of the studio during the shoot of a TV show. It led to the loss of irreplaceable memorabilia that included costumes and props from all RK films. Raj Kapoor was in the habit of procuring the costumes of all his films.

In a New York Times column, late Khushwant Singh had written about a visit to the studio during the shooting of the 1978 film, Satyam Shivam Sundaram. He chose to go to the studio after dark when it became a "city of fluorescent tubes". "I look around the room. The walls are cluttered with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses, Jesus Christ, Jawaharlal Nehru and the lovely heroines of Raj’s earlier days: Nargis, Vyjayanthimala and Padmini.”

Singh further writes about a bookshelf in an untouched condition, and an octagonal glass vase crammed with gold and silver coins. He then goes on to quote the man who liked collecting memorabilia. “I put all the small change I am left with when I return from the foreign tours in this vase. After I am gone, people will know something of where Raj Kapoor has been,” the actor-director-producer told Singh.

As much as the studio is remembered for some of the classic films shot there, it remains alive in the memory of the folks of the film industry for parties and social events. In his autobiography, Khullam Khulla, Rishi Kapoor mentions about the pomp and show of his father. He recalls some of the parties that were thrown at the studio, including his wedding ceremony with Neetu Kapoor. “He [Raj] flew in maestro Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan for my sangeet. It was a typical Raj Kapoor event that started at 1130pm and continued till 6am,” he writes in the book.

In another section, he rues the mismanagement of finances that has run down the family. He writes, “My father had no head for business either. He always said, 'God has given me the talent to act and to make films, but he hasn’t given me the brains to handle money matters. I have no business sense at all.’ Papa managed to set up a studio but he was taken for a ride all his life. His films earned big money, but his accounts were never in order.”

The last film that Raj Kapoor shot at the studio and under the R.K. banner was Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985). Post his demise in 1988, his ambitious venture Henna for which he wanted to cast a female actor from Pakistan, was directed by his elder son Randhir Kapoor, and starred Zeba Bakhtiar from Pakistan alongside Rishi Kapoor. It released in 1991, and failed to do well at the box office. In 1996, the youngest son, Rajeev Kapoor directed Prem Granth (Rishi Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit). That also bit the dust. Then, during a slump in his acting career as a romantic hero, Rishi Kapoor tried his hand at direction with Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999). The film, that was edited by Rajeev Kapoor, too met a similar fate.

Since then, there have been a couple of public announcements at efforts being made to revive the banner and the studio, but nothing seems to have materialised yet. And, in all probability, it won’t ever.