Krishna Raj Kapoor: the grand matriarch

Best described as the keeper of the Kapoor clan, Raj Kapoor’s wife who died on Monday at the age of 87 was legendary for her quiet yet solid presence in the showman’s life, says Madhu Jain

October 02, 2018 09:39 pm | Updated 09:39 pm IST

Behind every successful man:  Raj Kapoor and Krishna Raj Kapoor leaving for Tehran

Behind every successful man: Raj Kapoor and Krishna Raj Kapoor leaving for Tehran

Krishna Raj Kapoor was probably the real woman-in-white in Raj Kapoor’s life. His anchor, she was, to invoke the metaphysical poet John Donne, the inner fixed foot of the compass and her husband the other one, leaning outwards. Krishna Raj Kapoor was the keeper of the keys, the house, the family and indeed the larger family of the Kapoor clan—and most important the kitchen. She evolved gradually from a shy bride of sixteen brought up in Rewa (now in Madhya Pradesh) to the grand matriarch and much-loved “bhabhiji” of the film fraternity.

Study in contrast

They could not have been more different. Raj Kapoor’s father, Prithviraj Kapoor, was a thespian and a desi Bohemian touring the country with his Prithvi Theatres. Her father Raisaheb Kartar Nath Malhotra was a policeman—an inspector general of the Central Provinces. Raj Kapoor once famously said that he was happy with his Ambassador car; the Mercedes was for his wife. Just as he equally famously and not very generously said that his wife was the mother of his children and Nargis was the mother of his films.

It wasn’t always an easy life for the elegant Krishna Kapoor, the daughter of a burra sahib. She had always wanted a beautiful home and the finer things in life. Initially, the young couple lived in a rented house in Chembur and she did embroidery on saris to help run the house. Apparently, she even sold her jewellery so that her husband could make Barsaat (1949).

Behind the scenes

Impeccably turned out in her white, embroidered organdy saris, pearl strings and well-coiffed hair, she was a picture of poise to the outside world, no matter how difficult things might have been at home.

She was also its pillar of strength. Describing his mother as an “anchor for the family”, Rishi Kapoor said she had to be both mother and father for them: “Raj Kapoor’s sons were not academically the best. But our mother sent us to the best schools. We went all the way from Chembur to town for our education.” In other words, she enabled them to acquire the outward polish of South Bombay.

Krishna Kapoor was responsible for her husband’s “showman” title—quietly working behind the scenes to make her husband’s legendary parties special, and talked about. She may have been brought up in a privileged household and barely able to boil an egg; but, the Kapoor kitchen turned out the fabled yakhani pulav, jungli mutton and paya under her stewardship.

Beneath her much-admired poise lay a delicious sense of humour according to her grandson Ranbir Kapoor: “My grandmother says these really funny things with a poker straight face. She will be standing in line at some serious function, seeing off guests and she’ll say these funny things from the corner of her mouth.” He recalls her going reluctantly to Disneyland and then enthusiastically hopping on to the maximum number of rides. Histrionics and a comic streak were in her genes: after all she was the sister of actors Premnath and Rajendranath.

Women in white

Nor was Krishna Kapoor a doormat. She left their Chembur home several times when the closeness between Raj Kapoor and Vyjanthimala became too apparent and humiliating, especially during the filming of Sangam . She moved to Nataraj Hotel on Marine Drive and later to Chitrakoot apartments on Malabar Hill. Interestingly, she didn’t leave when he was making films with Nargis. Industry insiders say that while Nargis was discreet, staying in the background when Krishna Kapoor was around, Vyjanthimala did not. Apparently, her brother-in-law Shammi Kapoor warned her: he had noticed that the dancer-actress had started wearing white. As had Nargis, Lata Mangeshkar, Simi Garewal, Devyani Chaubal and others when they were around Raj Kapoor.

The woman in white remains an enduring figure in the mythology of the Raj Kapoor persona. Perhaps it was Krishna Kapoor all along. He first saw her when she was 16 and he 22. He had gone to Rewa with Premnath (the Kapoors and the Malhotras were closely related). Raj Kapoor followed the sound of a sitar and quietly sat next to Krishna Malhotra who was playing it and accompanied her on the tabla. She was wearing white and had a flower in her hair.

The writer is Editor of the literary and cultural magazine, The Indian Quarterly and has extensively covered the world of cinema in her work that includes authorship of the book The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema.

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