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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Book Review: The Master at Work, by Rahul Rawail, a Masterly Work

Book Review: The Master at Work, by Rahul Rawail, a Masterly Work

How many 15 somethings would be offered chances to work as assistants to legendary directors like Raj Kapoor (RK)? Rahul Rawail was 15 going on 16 when he came on board with the master, who was then making Mera Naam Joker, and stayed on to assist him in Bobby. Over the next few years, Rahul earned his spurs the hard way, for RK was a genius who did not use conventional teaching methods, did not suffer fools and was not easy to please. Although RK had a Chief Assistant Director already in place, the confidence he reposed in young Rahul was a source of tremendous motivation. Rahul has seen the master at work from very close quarters, and this book is both, an account of his master at work, and reproductions of His Master’s Voice - a generous dose of quotes about films and film-making from none other than Raj Kapoor himself, surely among the all-time great directors of Hindustani cinema.

Son of famous director Harnam Singh (H.S.) Rawail (Shararat, Mere Mehboob, Sunghursh, Laila Majnu), Rahul was a classmate of Rishi (Chintu) Raj Kapoor all through primary school. That is how ICSE passed lad landed-up at the sets of Joker, a teenager, who, along with his best friend, wanted to take a good look at the foreign, fair-skinned legs of the girls in mini-skirts, working in the circus scenes. Little did he know that this visit, on 08 December 1968, would define his destiny. He was fascinated at the way Raj Kapoor controlled a crowd of 5,000 at the Cross Maidan, Bombay, almost like a music maestro conducting a symphony. That visit led to a daily routine that lasted a full 15 days. At the end of those 15 days, the would be nuclear physicist had made up his mind to spend the next seven months between then and college as an apprentice assistant director to Raj Uncle. And, what’s more, Raj Kapoor gave him the million-dollar nod. This book is a compilation of incidents and conversations involving Raj Kapoor, Rahul Rawail, and many others, including, obviously, Rishi Raj Kapoor.

What a tragedy that Chintu did not live to read his pal’s book, but, naturally, it is dedicated to him. A foreword by Randhir (Dabboo) Kapoor, actor-director, Raj Kapoor’s eldest son and the only one still among us, follows. Besides Raj Kapoor, Rahul also assisted Randhir, in Kal Aaj Aur Kal and, partly, in Dharam Karam. The two have travelled together to promote the book, and were seen at the International Film Festival of India, Goa, last November, and the Rajasthan International Film Festival, Jaipur, last week. Randhir has not been keeping well and needs a wheel-chair and a nurse to take care of him. But he looks bright and radiant. In the foreword, Randhir laments that he never got to work with his director father (they did act together in Kal Aaj Aur Kal and Dharam Karam, directed by Randhir, playing father and son on both occasions), while Rahul became his favourite assistant. He also notes that the book “bares open the creativity, eccentricities, obsessions and techniques of Raj Kapoor.”

Still in his teens, Rahul was subjected to a prank orchestrated by his Guru, which involved him being asked to swing on a circus trapeze on the sets of Mera Naam Joker. As his brain froze, just before the ‘big leap’, the sound of laughter helped him defrost into a reality check. As compensation, the prank victim was invited to have lunch with Raj Uncle for the first time, during which the quirky commander told him to take a philosophical view of the incident. Soon Raj Uncle was to become Raj Sahab, and Babbu (Rahul’s pet name) was to become Rahul, because the temporary arrangement was going to be made permanent. Rahul joined college at the other end of town, but headed straight for RK Studios as soon as college was over for the day.

An author’s note then leads us into a prologue, which is penned in the form of a dream sequence, ideated by his master’s picturisation of a landmark dream sequence in a film of the 1950s, wherein he has a conversation with his benefactor. Rahul points out that RK’s films were the handiwork of a large team, but at the helm was the Holy Trinity of Cinema: Raj Kapoor, the director-editor, his cinematographer, Radhu Karmakar and his sound recordist, Alauddin Khan. Rahul introduces you to names you might not have heard and personalities you might have never seen publicly, enumerates their contributions and responsibilities, and gives them due credit. One such man was named Dambara, and served as the head projectionist at RK. The nights spent watching Raj Kapoor’s favourite scenes and songs, from his debut film Aag onwards, from 10.30 pm to 5 am, were called Dambara Nights. Did you know that besides songs from RK produced films, there was only one other song that was screened during these Dambara nights? This was ‘Main hoon Alladin Alladin Alladin, Mere paas charagh-e-cheen’ from the old film Sargam, in which Raj Kapoor acted under the direction of P.L. Santoshi, father of present-day director Rajkumar Santoshi.

Whenever Raj Kapoor’s private life comes up for discussion in any gathering, it centres around two subjects; wine and women. Rahul has given ample space to his master’s fondness for original Black Label Johnnie Walker whiskey, and when, how often and how much he consumed the spirit. However, he completely by-passes the existence of women in Raj Kapoor’s life. Hardly surprising, considering his closeness to Mrs. Krishna Raj Kapoor, the mentor’s wife, and, to be fair, his whole family. So, if you are expecting some juicy stuff, you have picked the wrong book. After all, he does warn you, doesn’t he? Just read the title again: Raj Kapoor-The Master at Work. Yes, Rahul does chronicle what happened outside working hours, on several occasions, but the book is essentially about the art and craft of Raj Kapoor, the director-editor.

Getting into the thick of things, Rahul sets the scene by including a chapter titled Working with the Master, and then zeroes in on six facets of film-making that made Raj Kapoor what he was. From the time when Raj Kapoor rose after the box-office disaster of Mera Naam Joker (1970), to formulate a teenage love story in which he did not act himself, to the thundering success of Bobby, we have many a lesson to learn in film-making. Rahul devotes five chapters to Bobby (1973), and adds another, as a finalé. That strikes a personal chord with me.

I had occasion to spend some 10 days on the sets of Bobby, exactly fifty years ago, which is where I met Rahul for the first time. Rahul is about a year younger than me, as was Chintu. Although we did not meet very often after that, he remembers me from then.

My hope of bagging a role in Bobby was not fulfilled, but I got a chance to replicate the Raju-Bobby love story on radio, as the radio voice of Chintu, in a series of 15-minute sponsored radio programmes, to promote the film, produced by Ameen Sayani, who is to me what Raj Kapoor was to Rahul Rawail. The programmes became a milestone in broadcasting history and even won a prize. I too saw the master at work, albeit briefly, but this is Rahul Rawail’s, an insider’s account, not mine.

For those of you who might be wondering whether Rahul has talked about his own independent work, outside RK, in the book, yes, he has. He mentions the film Gunahgar (1980), which would have been his first film as director, but…As a full-fledged director, Raj Kapoor gave him Biwi o Biwi (1981) while the Sangam co-star of Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, offered him Love Story (1981). For a while, he was working on both films simultaneously. Now you must be curious to know why there is no credit at all to the director in Love Story, and he tells you exactly why, in some detail. Incidentally, four years later, Esmayeel Shroff was not credited for directing Pighalta Aasmaan.

There is a chapter each on four of the films Rahul directed in the 1980s: Love Story, Betaab, Arjun and Dacait, but nothing on his films of the 1990s and 2000s. Although these were assignments that he bagged on his own merit, Raj Kapoor did contribute in some form – with suggestions, as adviser or as critic. And of course, as the teacher who had taught him so much -  almost all he knew about film direction was imbibed from Raj Kapoor. I wonder whether Rahul remembers, but on a flight from Mumbai to Singapore, in 1996, I was pleasantly surprised to find him and a few others of the unit of Aur Pyar Ho Gaya on board. I said “Hello” to him, and he introduced me to the new girl they had signed as heroine. Her name was Aishwarya Rai. Guess I was among the first few privileged persons to meet the star to be, and shake hands with her.

Language-wise, the writing is easy to grasp, though occasionally lacking literary merit and tripping on sentence constructions. But you might not need to google a dictionary, except, maybe, on the rare technical references. Film school students and film directors at large have a lot to learn from the book, though it deals with an era when films were shot on celluloid, cameras were known by names like Mitchell (American brand, founded by Henry Boeger and George Alfred Mitchell) and Arriflex (founded by August Arnold and Robert Richter in Germany) and flatbed German editing tables that went by the moniker Steenbeck. There are several sentences and terms in Hindustani, which is only right, because not everything will retain its flavor when translated into English. Let me sound a warning to those with a puritanical set of mind and mores: there are several expletives and cuss words in the book. But knowing Raj Kapoor and Rahul Rawail, they have been kept to a bare minimum.

Here are a few quotes from the man himself:

*On the Awaara dream scene, “The character I played was a tramp, a downtrodden human being who had never experienced the big life. So, when he dreams about his lady love calling out to him, he places her in a surreal ambience, which is much larger than anything he has ever imagined. It is a spectacular setting where a man of his stature would dream about a utopia, but would finally encounter the demons of his past.”

*On why he used to sit only at the centre table of the Wayside Inn, from his childhood till very late in life, “This is the place Dr. Ambedkar sat and wrote the Constitution of India. I sit here so that it can inspire me to do constructive work.”

*On the role of an editor, “When I edit, I have the liberty of placing any scene at any place, unlike a surgeon, who cannot shift your organs from their designated position.”

*On the tendency of some directors to take the same shot from multiple angles, “You can’t just arbitrarily take shots from all angles. When you have already seen the scene in your mind’s eye, how can you just suddenly say that oh, let me take it from this angle also. This shows you have no confidence in your vision.”

In Rahul’s words:

*On the audience’s reactions when they saw Dimple Kapadia for the first time on the screen in Bobby, “When she was seen in the iconic shot, with the besan (gram flour) streaking her hair, people were on their feet and there was standing ovation. This was the power of Raj Kapoor’s visual narrative.”

*On the bridge set in Arjun, “The outlay of the set was heavily inspired by the street set erected in Shree 420, where the song, ‘Pyar hua ikraar hua’ was picturised. Lanes and by-lanes were laid out in a similar manner as the Shree 420 set. I insisted that a bridge was required and it turned out to be an exact replica of the Shree 420 bridge.”

*“The climax of Sangam, I think, is one of the most brilliant sequences ever filmed. If Raj Sahab was at a position in the room then Vyjayanthimala ji was standing at a position diagonally opposite to him and Rajendra Kumar Sir was standing diagonally opposite to her, to form a triangle. The three of them stood in the formation of a triangle, which was maintained throughout the scene. While speaking, if Vyjayanthimala ji walks towards Raj Sahab, he replies and walks away from her.”

*On the preview screening of Dacait, “This dramatic shot led to the mother with the sheared hair dancing to the beat of a drum. This heart-wrenching moment brought not only tears, but also had the audience sobbing uncontrollably. KamalHaasan couldn’t stop crying his heart out, and a lady even passed out.”

Neither a voracious reader nor a creative writer himself, Rahul Rawail was in long-term contact with Pranika Sharma, who has put together the entire narrative, dictated by him, over ZOOM. A lot of persons have been thanked for their help in the venture. There is no glossary, bibliography or filmography included, either of Raj Kapoor or of Rahul Rawail, something a few readers might miss. A hardcover edition, with 250 pages, Raj Kapoor-The Master at Work is published by Bloomsbury, and has a cover price of Rs. 699. It is available on Amazon at a much lower cost.

Those who know about Raj Kapoor will need no convincing to order a copy. Those who don’t can consider themselves unfortunate and enrich their knowledge by procuring it as soon as possible. Raj Kapoor-The Master at Work is very good work by Babbu…oops, Rahul Rawail.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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