The Lyallpur district in the North West Frontier Province was a conservative place in the 1920s. If you came from a good family, the thing to do was to become a lawyer or something equally respectable – not throw up your studies, get on a train to Bombay and hang around studios on the pipedream of becoming an actor. This is exactly what a young man named Prithviraj Kapoor did in 1928, to his father’s vexation. “A kanjar - is that what you want to become?” the senior Kapoor bellowed at his errant son.
Seventy-seven years later, as Madhu Jain points out in the introduction to her fine book The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema, "Each decade in the history of Indian cinema has had at least one Kapoor playing a defining part in it." That’s a lot of “kanjars” from one family. And in a neat little twist, the flag of this once-conservative clan has been held aloft in the 1990s and 2000s by women - Prithviraj’s great-granddaughters Karisma and Kareena.
It’s staggering enough to think that four generations of Kapoors (not counting Prithviraj’s father, who recovered sufficiently from his shock to play a tiny role in Awaara) have played starring roles in the history of Indian cinema. But even this is using the broadest, most conventional definition of "generation". In the cinematic context, the word has a very different connotation. Film is a relatively young art form and has seen many changes, some of them enormously fast-paced ones, in the first century of its existence. As a result, there have been cases when two actors who are separated from each other by just five years (in terms of age or in terms of when they began their careers) can be seen as representative of two different eras of film history. (An instance from Hollywood is that of the first generation of Method actors – notably Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. They were just 5-6 years younger than/junior to, say, Gregory Peck or Ingrid Bergman, but they could have stepped in from another world. They stood for a completely different approach to acting – and this approach in turn led to major changes in the look and feel of the movies they acted in.)
The point of this digression is that in actual cinematic terms, the scope of the Kapoor family’s influence was even wider than is suggested by “four generations”. For instance, Raj Kapoor and his two brothers Shammi and Shashi (each separated from the next by seven years) must properly be regarded stars of three different eras, considering the vast changes that occurred in Bollywood between the time Raj made his debut in the late 1940s and Shashi became a star in the early 1970s. It would be no exaggeration to say that the story of the Kapoors covers every major twist and turn in Hindi film history from the dying days of the silent era onwards. (Prithviraj Kapoor featured in the first talkie, Alam Ara, in 1931.)
This is an enormous, daunting canvas, and Madhu Jain’s approach to her memoir is the sensible one. Rather than attempt an integrated, steadfastly chronological account of the khandan, she writes The Kapoors as a series of mini-biographies. Separate chapters are dedicated to the life and career of each major member of the family; consequently, while there is some overlapping, this structure keeps the focus firmly on each personality and enables the reader to appreciate some very dramatic individual stories.
Here you’ll learn about young Prithviraj being hand-picked, swayamvar-style, from a line of studio extras by a top actress to play the male lead; about his early films and his love for the stage, out of which grew the theatre group Prithvi. Here you’ll get an insight into the personal demons that spurred Raj Kapoor to become Hindi cinema’s greatest showman, the influences that lay behind Shammi’s screen persona (one of the most original in Bollywood history), how Rishi Kapoor survived the Bachchan Era, and why his brothers’ careers fell by the wayside.
There is a wealth of anecdotes, most of them told entertainingly but also with restraint and taste. Rarely does Jain allow herself to get carried away – okay, so maybe she goes overboard in her florid descriptions of Prithviraj Kapoor’s good looks (“handsome, almost impossibly handsome, face framed by the abundant hair that often fell in cherubic locks…penetrating eyes brimming over with warmth and compassion…sculpted body…like an Apollo dropped down from the skies”). But I’m willing to overlook that bit – each of my grandmothers has described the man in much the same way, and in a most un-grandmotherly voice. (Some of the photographs, including the one on the cover, tell the story equally well.)
Importantly, this is no hagiography. Jain doesn’t shy away from holding a magnifying lens to the family’s less savoury side. She is especially sharp in noting Randhir Kapoor’s seemingly ambivalent attitude to his father – "his remarks reveal that he may have wanted a father more ordinary" – and uses this to dissect the burdens placed on the younger generation by the giants who preceded them. The Kapoor weakness for alcohol and food, and the subsequent tendency towards corpulence, are also discussed at length. As are some disturbing individual traits, like the “in your face faux-humility” displayed by Raj Kapoor in entering a room slightly bent forward, hands folded, saying “Mujhe Raj Kapoor kehte hain” – despite knowing very well that everyone there was in awe of him. But equally importantly, Jain’s handling of these flaws is frank and matter-of fact; she doesn’t gloat or get voyeuristic.
In her foreword, the author mentions that Shashi Kapoor’s advice to her when she started the project was to be honest. "I suppose that was a carte blanche to look at the less flattering side of the Kapoors as well as their achievements." She’s certainly succeeded. In less than 400 pages (too little space, one might have thought, to do this subject justice), The Kapoors paints a balanced, informative and very entertaining picture of a fascinatingly multi-dimensional family. “We are like the Corleones,” Randhir Kapoor preens at one point. This is a not fully comprehensible claim – but whatever the resemblances, the Kapoors are certainly much more colourful than Don Vito and his clan.