The era of lights, camera and action came to a doleful end at Mumbai’s iconic RK Studios following its sale on Friday to Godrej Properties Ltd (GPL), which plans to convert the 71-year old property into a residential and retail development.
Launched in 1948, the studio served as the headquarters of movie legend Raj Kapoor’s film production company, RK Films, and many blockbuster movies were shot on its premises, particularly in the 1970s and 80s.
After failed attempts at renovating it following a devastating fire in 2017, the Kapoor family put it on the market.
RK Films existed as a banner before Raj Kapoor decided to expand it to a studio in 1950, reportedly using the earnings from his 1949 hit Barsaat. The 2.2-acre premises came up in Chembur. “In the Bombay of the 1950s this was a remote rural place, far from its centre in south Bombay," wrote Mihir Bose in Bollywood: A History.
It arrived just in time, as RK Films entered its golden period with Awaara in 1951, Boot Polish in 1954, Shree 420 in 1955 and Jaagte Raho in 1956. Unlike rival Navketan productions of the 1950s, which often headed into the streets to shoot (mostly out of necessity), RK Studios allowed the Kapoors to make their films in a controlled, and more cost-effective, environment. The elaborate dream sequence from Awaara was shot there–after sundown, the legend goes, as Chembur only got electricity at night in those days. So was Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua, one of the most famous Hindi film song sequences.
“RK Studios was hallowed ground, a monument that represented the heart and soul of Raj Kapoor, the kingdom of a great showman where iconic films were shot, legendary celebrations were held, a testament to the man’s great vision and love for cinema," Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, documentary maker, archivist and founder of the Film Heritage Foundation, said in an email to Mint. “Modelled on the great Hollywood studios, the emblem itself was an embodiment of romanticism and glamour like the creator himself. As a young filmmaker, it was a thrill to just stand at the gates and take a photograph."
The studio continued to turn up on screen in the 1970s and 1980s–even if viewers weren’t always aware that they were seeing it. Rishi Kapoor revealed in an interview to NDTV that while the exterior shots in the song sequence Hum Tum Ek Kamre Mein Band Ho in Bobby were shot in Kashmir, the interiors were in the Chembur studio.
RK Studios served as the venue for the Kapoors’ boisterous parties and several of their family weddings. It was also, as Rishi Kapoor said in his memoirs, the greatest film school one could ask for. “For me there could have been no film institute better than RK Studios," he recalled. “Since film sets were not out of bounds for us, we grew up comfortable in that ambience. The studio was like a temple for us, though we weren’t allowed to visit the sets when a shoot was in progress."
A fire blazed through the studio in 2017, gutting the historic stage 1 and destroying memorabilia. The last glimpses of the shoes from the song Mera Joota Hai Japaani and the puppets from Mera Naam Joker might well be in Dungarpur’s 2015 documentary, The Immortals. “Nothing remains of these after the fire," he said. “On my last visit to RK Studio I walked through the silent studio, the waiting room where Raj Kapoor’s and Prithviraj Kapoor’s large portraits looked on silently, the empty corridors that had once buzzed with activity, studio No. 1, where the dream sequence in Awaara was shot, now ravaged by fire, the staircase leading up to the makeup rooms and a large mirror and the statue of Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor’s cottage…I walked around and wondered again why the studio could not be saved. I watched as the boat from Sangam was loaded on to a truck and, along with a few other remnants of the studio’s legacy, rolled out through the gates for the last time, and will now be preserved by us in memory of the great RK Studio."
The sale to Godrej is a second, and permanent, physical death for the studio. Fortunately, it lives on in the films shot there, and in the memories shared by visitors and Hindi cinema’s first family.