By Hindustan Times
It was a Kodak moment for Bollywood’s first family. Raj Kapoor (RK) was being conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. But just as his name was announced, he was felled by an asthmatic attack and collapsed in his chair.
For a minute, there was shocked silence and then the auditorium reverberated with the sound of applause as President Venkatraman walked down to present the award to RK who was gasping for breath. Soon after, he was rushed to Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences from where ‘critical’ bulletins emerged with grave frequency, lending credence to the belief that maybe the 63-year-old Joker wouldn’t be back for his last laugh.
Barely out of college, I’d seen the legendary actor-filmmaker only in movies, but during that month-long vigil I got to know the man from reminisces of colleagues. And on June 2, 1988, when the curtain came down, the tears were for real as I worked on a collector’s special. That was one edition the staff didn’t get to take home because every copy was sold out within minutes.
The showman reached out to the world from the cover, arms outstretched, a whimsical half-smile on his clown face from the famous Mera Naam Joker still. The film was Raj Kapoor’s dream. He started work on it soon after Sangam in 1964 and it took six years for him to materialise it into a two-part film chronicling the life of a joker, through the three women he’d loved and lost.
RK found his muses: school teacher Mary, the starry-eyed Minoo Master who befriends him as a boy buddy and Marina, the Russian gymnast in his real life heroines, Nargis, Padmini and Vyjayanthimala.
He reinforced this in his own words in a personalised piece for Screen weekly: “Mera Naam Joker is a film about laughter, yes, but it is also a film about the human heart… A film about human tragedy…”
The broken heart was his own. In fact, in the last scene, Raju gathers up the fragments and tells the audience, “My show has not ended, nor my story…” Raj Kapoor had planned a sequel but the unexpected debacle left him reeling from a burden of personal debts. It took a Bobby (1973) to get him out of the red.
My daughter Ranjika is immune to the magic of the big top but I have fond memories of Gemini Circus where Mera Naam Joker was shot with a 20-member troupe from Russia. This included Kseniya Ryabinkina who was a ballerina from Moscow’s Bolshoi theatre, a clown named Seredia, a couple of geese, a dog and three bears. RK was the ringmaster and for the first time in his life woke up before mid-day to orchestrate the show.
The Joker and his Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan Iske Siva Jana Kahan were an integral part of my childhood years. It was only later that I learnt that Raju had been as human as you and me and this song crooned by Mukesh had been his last.
His son Nitin Mukesh told me that his father had been on a concert tour of Canada while he had been holidaying in the US. An SOS telegram informing him that his father wasn’t keeping too well had brought him to Montreal on August 23, ’76.
Jeena Yahan was the last song of the show and after the first stanza, Mukesh suddenly stopped and handed over the mike to his son, watching with a smile as Nitin Mukesh kept the legacy going. Four days later, Mukesh was dead.
For Raj Kapoor Jeena Yahan had been the motto of a never-say-die film fraternity. Today it embodies the spirit of Mumbai. Despite repeated terror attacks, this is a city where dreams refuse to die... A city where no matter what happens, the show must go on…