Yeh zamaana hum se hai … Jaani!

“Forgive me, Madam. I did not recognise you with your clothes on.”

And that, the story goes, was how Raaj Kumar ‘apologised’ to Zeenat Aman, when he was introduced to her at an award function held soon after her unclad role in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Controversial and eccentric, with a dry sense of humor, a sarcastic punch-line ready on his lips, a characteristic swagger in his walk, and a regal style entirely his own, Raaj Kumar was in a class all by himself.

His one-liners would bring audiences to their feet, his baritone voice and impeccable dialog delivery would inspire movie writers to creative heights and tailors across Bombay made brisk business copying his natty dress style for his fans.

In my college days, I’d spend hours before a mirror, trying to imitate his style and his “Jaani…”, but never got it right. And thirty years later, I still haven’t!

Did you know he began his career as a police sub-inspector in Bombay? Born as Kulbhushan Pandit in Baluchistan, he moved to Bombay in the 1940’s and joined the police department. Even in those early days, his royal idiosyncrasies became well known, as he would always refer to himself as ‘hum’, and never saluted his superior officers!

He became fascinated with films and quit his job to become an actor. He realised that the name ‘Kulbhushan Pandit’ was not a name fit for a filmy hero. It was the age of Kumars in Bollywood – Rajendra Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Kishore Kumar and the like. So Kulbhushan Pandit shrewdly changed his name to Raaj Kumar. After a quiet debut as the male lead in Rangili in 1952, Raaj Kumar starred in a few small-time movies, before he was noticed in Mother India in 1957. Raaj Kumar played a small but significant role in this multi-starrer that was dominated by Nargis.

After Mother India, several offers came his way, but Raaj Kumar was always choosy. With tragedienne Meena Kumari, he became popular as a tragic hero in movies like ‘Dil apna aur preet parayi’, Kaajal and Dil ek Mandir. But it was his role in Waqt in 1965 that took him to the top bracket. Raaj Kumar easily held his own ground in this mega-starrer that had all the top stars of that era – with stalwarts like Sadhana, Sunil Dutt, Balraj Sahni, Madan Puri, Shashi Kapoor and Rehman. His dialogs and effortless acting in a negative role stole the show. Waqt is remembered today more for his dialogs, than anything else.

His performance in Pakeezah in 1972, opposite Meena Kumari, made Raaj Kumar an international star. His best role, to my mind, was in Lal Patthar released in the same year as Pakeezah. His lead performance as the aging and deranged Zamindar driven to murder by jealousy, was Raaj Kumar at his best.

The one movie I really enjoyed though, was Bulandi (1981). Again, in spite of a multi-star cast, including Asha Parekh, Rajkiran, Kulbushan Karbanda and Danny Denzongpa in a double role, Raaj Kumar carried the movie entirely on his shoulders.

Raaj Kumar’s only regret in his career was that he could not become a romantic hero like Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. His rugged looks and gravelly voice were not suited for soft, romantic roles. His one major attempt at a romantic lead, in Heer Ranjha (1970) opposite Priya Rajvansh, bombed at the box office. It is the only Raaj Kumar movie that I regretted watching.

Ironically, Raaj Kumar was struck by throat cancer in the late 1980’s, but still delivered great dialogs in Saudagar (1991) and Tirangaa (1992), before he finally lost his battle and died in July 1996 at the age of 69.

It’s Raaj Kumar’s birthday this week, and I thought a small tribute to this eccentric and lovable hero was called for.

Well said, Jaani!

Cheers … Srini.

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