Missing Samundri in Bollywood
Raj Kapoor in Awara (1951)
Ishtiaq Ahmed on the ties that connect Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj Kapoor to a small town in Pakistani Punjab
Prithviraj Kapoor spent much of his childhood in Samundri, West Punjab, where his great grandfather had settled although their ancestral roots were in Peshawar. His career spanned the era of silent films into the early 1970s. He had the privilege of acting in the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara (1931). His Prithvi Theatres staged plays for more than 16 years. Among them, Pathan based on Hindu-Muslim unity was the most famous.
To hear someone talk about Samundri from his deathbed thousands of kilometres away in Mumbai was a very moving experience
Prithviraj was not only a great film personality; he was also a dedicated social worker. He collected money for Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab and East Bengal who fled to India in 1947, but when right-wing Hindus wanted revenge from Muslims and threatened to drive them out of India he campaigned vigorously against it in the best traditions of Gandhian humanism. In real life, he represented Pathan and Punjabi large-heartedness at its best. As a nominated member of the Indian upper house of parliament, the Rajha Sabha, Prithviraj pioneered a bill for the abolition of the death penalty.
It was however his son Raj Kapoor whose creative genius always impressed me profoundly. While Dilip Kumar was Tragedy King and Dev Anand the handsome Matinee Hero Raj Kapoor was the complete artiste – actor, director and filmmaker. He even was an incisive film editor and the music in his films was carefully chosen by him. The Kapoors spoke Punjabi at home. In fact, Raj Kapoor’s close relative Jugul Kishore Mehra converted to Islam to marry Nasreen – the grandmother of famous actress Salma Agha – and remained in Lahore where he was a famous personality of the All-India Lahore Radio and later Pakistan Radio Lahore. He took the Muslim name of Ahmed Salman.
In my formative years, it was Raj Kapoor’s magnum opus, Awara (1951), which caught my fancy and imagination. I saw it first in 1962 and then went on to see it 24 times more; on one occasion, every matinee show for a week at Palace cinema, McLeod Road. Unfortunately, that Lahore of cinemas is no more and the other day when I went past McLeod Road it greatly saddened me to see the landscape and cinema landmarks all but gone. The Lahore of 2017 is not my Lahore anymore but I want to hold on to the memory of that old petite Lahore. Anyhow, I had seen Awara some 25 times when the 1965 War brought down the curtain on Indian films and it was many, many years later that I got hold of a video copy of the film, and now I have it on DVD.
The idealism of Awara deeply influenced my sense of romance. Written by Khawaja Ahmed Abbas and V. P. Sathe Awara was a film inspired by Nehruvian humanism and socialism. The idealism of the film – that nobody is born evil or low and we are all largely, if not wholly, a product of circumstances quite beyond our control – was a message that went to my heart readily, although I now realise that class barriers can successfully be overcome only in films and never or rarely in real life.
Awara was a film inspired by Nehruvian humanism and socialism
During the summer holidays of 1972 I and a friend, Khalid Mahmood, decided to pay a surprise visit to another friend, Rana Afzal, who hailed from Gojra, a small town close to Lyallpur (Faisalabad). We arrived in Gojra via Samundri on a hot afternoon and Rana Afzal was indeed the perfect host.
At 1.30 pm All-India Radio’s Hindi Service announced a recorded interview with Prithviraj (he had died a few weeks earlier, but we did not know that). To my great surprise Prithviraj began by talking about his childhood in Samundri and particularly mentioned Hameed Pehalwan with whom he spent much of the time. He also talked about Peshawar a great deal, saying that when he lived in Calcutta he would face the Grand Trunk Road and remember that it went all the way to his beloved Peshawar.
It was a strange coincidence that Khalid and I had just been in Samundri, perhaps only an hour earlier, where the bus stopped to drop and pick passengers. To hear someone talk about Samundri from his deathbed thousands of kilometres away in Mumbai was a very moving experience.
The irony could not be ignored that we had gone past Samundri, a small hamlet, for the first time in our life without even having a good look at that rustic community while Prithviraj could not visit it after 1947 although he longed for it until his last moments. It captured the tragedy of the 1947 Partition in its most human dimensions. Irrespective of whether it was good or bad politically, it shattered the lives of millions of ordinary human beings. Rana Afzal and Khalid Mahmood belonged to refugee families from East Punjab. Their elders also talked about their lost homes so the Punjabi trauma had hit all communities devastatingly.
In Stockholm I met Riaz Cheema and we became close friends. The Kapoor Saga connected with him too. His maternal uncle Chaudhry Naimatullah and Prithviraj were class fellows first in Edwards College, Peshawar, and later at Law College Lahore. Both were very keen sportsmen.
On one occasion, Naimatullah answered the roll-call in a class at Law College when Prithviraj was playing truant but the teacher immediately sensed that the latter was absent, probably because Prithviraj was too stunning a personality not to make a difference when absent from class. Both Naimatullah and Prithviraj continued to exchange letters much after Partition.
So, with all this background in mind I wrote to Raj Kapoor about his father and his love for Samundri and Peshawar. I had read somewhere that two of Raj Kapoor’s younger brothers had died in Bombay and so I also enquired if that was true. On May 7, 1986 I wrote to Raj in which I mentioned my visit to Gojra in 1972 that had taken me past Samundri and how it coincided with his father reminiscing his childhood in Samundri on All-India Radio.
A prompt reply from Raj Kapoor dated May 12 1986 written on RK Films & Studios official letter pad arrived a week or so later, which I share with the public now. It clearly shows the high level of social consciousness which informed Raj Kapoor’s artistic sensibilities.
Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University; Visiting Professor at the Government College University, Lahore, and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore