Prithviraj Kapoor (3 November 1906 - 29 May 1972) was a noted pioneer of Indian theatre and of the Hindi film industry. He was also the patriarch of the Kapoor family of Hindi films, five generations of which family, beginning with him, have played active roles in Bollywood.
Prithviraj was born on November 3, 1902 at Samundri near the town of Lyallpur in the Punjab to a middle-class family belonging to the Khatri caste of Hindus.Prithviraj could speak both Hindi and Hindko.His father, Dewan Basheswarnath Kapoor, was a sub-inspector of police. Prithviraj received his initial education at Lyallpur and at Lahore.
His paternal grandfather, Dewan Keshavmal, was a powerful influence during his childhood. Baseshwarnath was posted at Peshawar, and so Prithviraj received his higher education at the Edward College, Peshawar, India.
It was here that his talents on stage first received expression. Prithviraj's son Shammi recollects that Prof. Jai Dayal, a member of the faculty, was instrumental in nurturing his talent.
The Indian professor was in love with an English lady by name Nora Richard, who in turn was a theatre aficionado with a passion for Shakespeare and Ibsen. The couple found Prithviraj the perfect material for many roles in the plays they mounted. This was his grounding in the art of the theatre.
Prithviraj graduated from Edward college, Peshawar, a feat that few of his descendants were destined to match. He also studied law as a graduate student for one year, but his heart was in the theatre.
In 1928, with the help of a loan from his aunt, Prithviraj moved to the city of Bombay (present-day Mumbai) which is the hub of the Hindi film industry.After featuring in a couple of forgettable silent films, Kapoor did a supporting role in India's first film talkie, "Alam Ara" (1931).
His performance in "Vidyapati" (1937) was much appreciated. His best-known performance is perhaps as "Alexander the Great" in Sohrab Modi's "Sikander" (1941). Through all these years Prithviraj remained devoted to the theatre and performed on stage regularly. He developed a reputation as a fine actor on both stage and screen.
By 1944, Prithviraj had the wherewithal and standing to found his own theatre group. His eldest son, Raj Kapoor, had already struck out on his own; the films he produced had been successful and this was also an enabling factor.
Prithviraj invested in and founded "Prithvi Theatres", a travelling troupe which staged memorable productions across India. In over 16 years of existence, the theater staged some 2,662 shows. Prithviraj starred as the lead actor in every single show.
By the late 1950's, it was clear that the era of the travelling theatre was past; that art-form had been irreversibly supplanted by the cinema. No longer was it financially feasible for a troupe of up to 80 people (as Prithvi theatre was) to travel the country for four to six months at a time with their tons of stage props and equipment, living in hotels where possible and at campsites otherwise. The financial returns, through ticket sales and the rapidly diminishing largesse of patrons from the erstwhile princely class of India, was just not adequate to support such an effort.
Many of the fine actors and technicians that Prithvi Theatres nurtured had found their way to the movies. Indeed, this was the case with all of Prithviraj's own sons. As Prithviraj progressed into his 50's, he gradually ceased theatre activities and accepted occasional offers from film-makers, including his own sons.
His notable filmography of this period includes "Mughal E Azam" (1960) where he gave his most memorable performance as the mughal emperor Akbar,"Harishchandra Taramati" (1963) where he played the lead role and unforgettable performances as "Porus" in Sikandar-e-Azam (1965) and the stentorian grandfather in "Kal Aaj Aur Kal" (1971) where he appeared with his son and grandson Randhir Kapoor.
In 1969, Prithviraj was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the government of India. After his death in 1972, he was posthumously awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for the year 1971. He was the third recipient of that award, the highest accolade in Indian cinema.
Prithviraj Kapoor's descendants have contributed richly to the Hindi film industry and he is thus reckoned the patriarch of the 'first family of Hindi films.' All three of his sons became noted actors and film-makers and two of his daughters-in-law worked in the same field. Nearly all his grandchildren, including Randhir Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Rajiv Kapoor, Karan Kapoor, Kunal Kapoor, and granddaughter Sanjana Kapoor have worked in the field of films, either as actors or film-makers or both.
Karisma Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor, two of the top film-stars of today, are Prithviraj's great-grand-daughters, being the grand-daughters of his eldest son Raj Kapoor.
As was customary in that era, Prithviraj married at a young age. At age 18, Prithviraj married the 15-year-old Ramsarni Mehra, in a match that was arranged by their families. Their eldest child, Raj Kapoor, was born in December 1924. By the time Prithviraj moved to Bombay in 1928, the couple were the parents of three children.
In 1930, Ramsarni joined Prithviraj in Bombay. The following year, while she was pregnant for the fourth time, the couple suffered the tragic loss of two of their three children in the space of one week.One of their children, Devi, died of double pneumonia while the other child, Nandi, died of poisoning in a freak incident when he swallowed some rat-poison pills strewn in the garden.
The couple went on to have four children further. All three of their surviving sons, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor, were to become famous actors and film-makers in their own right. They also had one daughter, Urmila.
After his retirement, Prithviraj settled in Bombay, in a cottage near Juhu beach. The property was later to be convered into a small, experimental theatre, the Prithvi Theatre. Both Prithviraj and Ramsarni suffered from cancer in their declining years and died within a fortnight of each other. Prithviraj died on May 29, 1972 and was followed by his wife of 64 years on June 14th the same year.