Finally, the bells toll for RK Studios—seven decades after Raj Kapoor built it and three decades after he passed away in the summer of 1988. It isn’t just the brick, mortar, cement and whatever else it took to construct the sprawling studio on nearly two acres of land in the eastern Mumbai suburb of Chembur that will vanish into history when the demolition men turn up.

So, perhaps, will the spirit of the great showman and director which lingered on, long after he was gone.

For Raj Kapoor, this was more than a place where he conceived and made his films: it was his real home. At the risk of appearing maudlin, I would say it was where his soul resided. He told his eldest son Randhir Kapoor: “Whenever I die, take me to my studio—for it is possible that amidst the glitter of all the lights, I may get up again and shout: Action, action."

And that is how it almost happened. Raj Kapoor’s last journey was down the curving, tree-lined, undulating road from Deonar, the bungalow where he lived with his wife Krishna and sons Randhir and Rajiv, to the Chembur crematorium four km away—pausing briefly as they went past the gates of the RK Studios. Perhaps the iconic RK logo (perched on the gate and a passionate nod to his second film Barsaat with Raj Kapoor holding a violin in one hand and holding Nargis, arched backwards, with the other one) might have shifted ever so slightly.

I first visited RK Studios in the mid-80s to interview Raj Kapoor for an article I was writing for India Today. Constructed in the early 1950s, the office building was a nod to Cantonment architecture. Raj Kapoor’s legendary cottage was behind this building. Modest and cozy, it was the crucible of creativity. He even enticed Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer Subrata Mitra to become a regular in the baithaks in the cottage.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, The Kapoors. The First Family of Indian Cinema

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Raj Kapoor often used to refer to the cottage as his sanctum sanctorum…The door of the cottage was the line of control between Raj the film-maker and Raj the husband, brother, father, grandfather and social animal. His family never crossed the line…the cottage houses what was dearest to him. Besides the ladies in white, the walls had a garlanded photograph of his father. Deities of all religions hung on the walls. Besides the Hindu deities, he had a cross, and something from the Koran, He even had a Jewish scroll (his hairdresser Bertha was Jewish)

The cottage was his adda, a gathering of kindred spirits, especially over long drinking sessions. Tape recorders spooled silently, recording many of the brainstorming sessions of Raj Kapoor’s creative team. Ideas, baked and half-baked, stories, intimate revelations, stray bits of music and melody which teased his mind, impressions and plain gup-shup went on to those tapes.

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The three sons picked up the RK banner, and tried to keeping it flying by continuing to make films. In 1990 Randhir Kapoor completed Henna, the film Raj Kapoor had started but died before he could complete it. The youngest, Rajiv Kapoor, wielded the director’s baton for Prem Granth in 1996 and Rishi Kapoor made Aa Ab Laut Chalen in 1999. Randhir told me when I was researching for my biography of the Kapoors in the late 90s: “We are running on autopilot. We make films the same way, not on a conveyer belt."

The great showman’s sons were also showmen—rather, aspired to be. They prided themselves on doing so. But unfortunately they went over budget, even while they kept RK Studios going for decades, valiantly trying to carry on the “Raj Kapoor School of film-making" after their father died. Rishi Kapoor acted in films for other production houses and contributed towards running RK Films, as did to some extent Randhir Kapoor.

It wasn’t that the films were without merit. But they did not do well commercially. For some years the studio floors were not idle: other producers were making their films here.

As recently as last year cineaste, Imtiaz Ali filmed portions of his forthcoming movie, tentatively titled, The Ring with Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma in RK Studios. “We shot there for six days and I was constantly surrounded by the shadows of the great cinema that has been made here," Ali told the press. RK Films had produced as well as directed many movies, including Barsaat, Awaara, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Mera Naam Joker, Bobby, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili—Kapoor’s last film as a director.

However, the coming of the millennium didn’t auger well: few films were made here. Film City in Goregaon and studios closer to Juhu had become more attractive for film producers and those making television series. The fire which devastated RK Studios last year was the proverbial last straw. As Rishi Kapoor lamented: “A studio can be built again but the loss of the irreplaceable memorabilia and costumes of all RK films is tragic for all…"

The costumes and props from Raj Kapoor’s films used to be housed for a few years in what was once Nargis’s dressing room on the first floor of the studio. It was located behind the administrative building, where Randhir, Rishi and Rajiv have their offices. Her room, which had many avatars, faced Raj Kapoor’s dressing room. After she left, it served as a make-up room for the leading ladies who came in her wake.

RK Films was in effect a Nargis-Raj Kapoor banner for a few years. Nargis played a much greater role in RK films than is widely known and acknowledged: supervising the lighting on occasion, going into the production details, recognizing the potential of the actress Nadira, giving generously when the money was needed, and much more. She was alongside him through much of their golden years together. They were in sixteen films together, beginning with Aag in 1948 and ending with Jaagte Raho in 1956.

The late P.K. Nair, who headed the National Film Archive of India from the mid-1960s to 1991, described the importance of her role in RK Studios. “When I was on the sets of Jagte Raho she was virtually directing a scene. There was a multi-storeyed building with a spiral staircase. Nargis was involved in the preparation of this scene: Raj Kapoor was running in one of the corridors, while she was giving instructions to the light people. She became important in the running of the studio."

For relic hunters and those on a nostalgia trail of the artefacts from Raj Kapoor’s films, the makeshift museum (it used to be Nargis’s dressing room) was a treasure trove—now gone, with the fire.

In my book, I wrote about the museum.

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Mamaji, the keeper of the memories of the place…directs me to the ‘museum’. A chowkidar leads the way, switching light after light, interminably it would seem as we walk down the long, dark corridor. And as he does so, faces from the past swim into view from the old posters of RK Films on the walls—a luminous Nargis in Barsaat and Awaara; Raj Kapoor, both intensely young and ageing, in Aag and Mera Naam Joker; Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia caught in transit between childhood and adulthood in Bobby.

A door opens and memories stir. The ghosts haven’t quite fled. Bits and pieces from Raj Kapoor’s life and work lie scattered, like a dust-covered jigsaw puzzle. A stack of Archie comics lies in one corner. Incongruously, next to them, in a glass cabinet, are two dog-eared books: The Miracle of Fasting and Live in Agelessness. A huge black umbrella that partially protected the love-struck couple from the studio rain in the unforgettable anthem for lovers Pyar hua, ikrar hua in Shree 420 is propped up, without a context. Nargis’s elegant long black dress from Awaara drapes a mannequin. Even the knife with which Raju kills Jaggu the daku in the same film is on display.

Glass-fronted cupboards line the wall, spilling over with clothes and accessories from his films: Vyjanthimala’s saris from Sangam, Mandakini’s cholis and lehengas from Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Dimple Kapadia’s funky frocks from Bobby, Padmini’s saris from Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. There’s even a separate cabinet for the many topis (hats) Raj Kapoor wore in his films.

…But suspend disbelief for an instant, switch off the mind’s censors and open an inner ear. The saucy magic of Mur mur ke na dekh wafts by as you gaze at the shimmering evening dress which Nadira wore with such elan in her maiden vamp role in Shree 420. Never mind that the cigarette has long been dispatched to Israel, to the then prime minister who was infatuated with the actress after seeing the film. Let your eyes rest awhile on the torn coat and oversize shoes and you can almost see Raj Kapoor’s indigenous tramp figure walk by jauntily singing Mera joota hai Japani. Even the stick he slung over his shoulder with the pathetic little bundle at the end is intact. Flutes, a mandolin, an accordion, a set of drums and many of the instruments that made the memorable music of his films also have a place here. Dimple’s infamously pesky bikini from Bobby is also there somewhere, hidden from view.

But the most heart-tuggingly poignant prop is the self-referential life-size clown figure of the joker from Mera Naam Joker—the film’s failure at the box-office almost led to Kapoor selling RK Films. The painted clown has become an even more pathetic figure with the passage of time. He has lost his wig, and is slumped on a chair, though the red suspenders and the patch on his blue pants have survived in their original state.

We leave this repository of Raj Kapoor’s dreams. And as we walk back up the corridor into the present, the guard switches off the lights one by one, plunging them once again into darkness.

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The Kapoors are all set to sell RK Studios. The fire last September may have destroyed all the tangibles. The striking RK logo vanished. But the films made here and the passion for cinema of the original showman of Indian cinema will live on in our collective memory.

Madhu Jain is Editor, The Indian Quarterly and author of The Kapoors. The First Family of Indian Cinema.

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