Sometime in the mid-’90s, I’d gone to the Kamal Amrohi studio to interview Gauthami. On my way out, I met a colleague who had a date with the Raaj... Raaj Kumar. I kept her company and when the summons came, trailed her into his make-up room for my only encounter with Jaani.
He was chatty and charming, sharing sliced bananas and elaichi (cardamom) tea with us. When a group of ‘desi’ Yankees turned up, he obliged them with autographs and photographs, then, asked the Boston-settlers poker-faced, “So, Jaani, what do you do in the US, sell cloth or Indian spices?” That was Raaj Kumar who described himself as “a spark from the dust of time”.
The comment took me back to Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972). I’d watched it first on my black-and-white TV and was mesmerised by the colours and poetry. “Aapke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai, inhe zameen par mat utariyega, maile ho jayenge (Your feet are very beautiful, don’t put them on the ground, they will get dirty).” This line from Salim changed Sahibjaan, a courtesan whose feet had already been soiled dancing in a pleasure parlour.
I learnt later from Tajdar Amrohi that Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra had been considered for the role earlier. Kamal sahab had even shot with Dharamji before differences cropped up between them. Some of the long shots were retained even after Raaj Kumar stepped in, after Meena Kumari’s portions had been canned. In fact, the lady whose feet he addresses was not the late
actor but her double.
Years later, I watched him in colour as Brigadier Suryadev Singh in Tirangaa (1992). Producer-director Mehul Kumar was sure he wanted only Jaani, Nana Patekar wasn’t so sure.
“Not just Nana, many others told me that if I cast the two hot-headed actors together, pata nahin tiranga lehrayega bhi ki nahin (Don’t know if the tri-colour will ever fly),” admits Mehul, who assured Nana that not a single word in the bound script would be changed. Nana warned him that if there was any interference, he’d walk out and never return. When Mehul repeated his words, Raaj saab laughed, “Have I ever interfered?” Tirangaa was completed in six months.
Mehul Kumar had made Marte Dam Tak (1987) and Jung Baaz (1989) with him earlier. He recalls how everyone was, when Raaj Kumar arrived at Madh island in a cab on the first day of Marte Dam Tak’s shoot, and started arguing with the cabbie who refused the fare. Mehul rushed out to make peace, wondering about the taxi ride. “My car broke down near my Juhu bungalow. I thought if I didn’t turn up on the first day, the press would dub me a truant,” he was told.
Will exit quietly
The last shot of Raaj Kumar’s funeral procession was canned outside Hotel Fariyas in Khandala. The actor insisted Mehul put one
garland on his ‘body’ saying, “Jab jaonga pata bhi nahin chalega (When the time really comes, you won’t know).” Later he rued over the fact that the film industry turned death into a tamasha (circus) and insisted his own exit would be a private, family affair.
Their last meeting was at Pranlal Mehta’s party, when Raaj Kumar insisted on a photo shoot with Mehul saying, “Jaani, phir mile na mile”(Who knows if we’ll meet again). On July 3, 1996, he left the world. Mehul got a call at Mehboob Studio, where he was shooting Mrityudaata (1997). When he enquired about the last rites, he was told everything was over, the family was simply informing a few close friends, who’d been on his list.
“He left so quietly, no one even knew,” sighs Mehul, remembering that Jaani would have turned 86 on October 8. “I’d wanted to make another film with him, where he plays an Indian scientist who invents a missile that can destroy any target. It was a larger-than-life role, perfect for Raaj, who ruled the industry as long as he was around.”