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Bollywood's First Family

We are the Corleones of the The Godfather,' says Randhir Kapoor rather grandly about his clan.

Madhu Jain, who spent seven years researching the first family of India's cinema, discovered that there was no tribe quite like the Kapoors in the history of motion picture, world over. For four generations this colourful khandaan has dominated Hindi films. And they still do.

Jain, in her biography The Kapoors, traces the life and times of some of the most successful stars of the family.

Beginning today, offers five exclusive excerpts from the book:

The Socialist from Peshawar: Prithviraj Kapoor

It was one of those muggy, post-monsoon days when the quiet of the Arabian Sea and the heavy, still air over Bombay could dampen the spirits of even the most optimistic.

Prithviraj Kapoor, not quite 23, and fresh despite two days and nights (third class) on the Frontier Mail from Peshawar, stepped off the train at the terminal in Colaba, which was located next to the Cooperage playground at the time, and hailed a Victoria.

'Mujhe samundar dekhna hai,' he told the Victoriawalla in that booming, stagey voice of his. He had never seen the sea, and could not wait to get to the Gateway of India.

Once there, he looked up at the sky and pledged: 'God, I have come here to become an actor. If you don't make me one here, I will cross the seven seas and go to Hollywood.'

God listened. But he didn't make it easy. All Prithviraj Kapoor had with him that day in 1928 was a hockey stick, a small trunk, a felt cap and Rs 75 in his pocket. Had it not been for a generous and adoring aunt his pockets would have been empty.

His father, Bashesharnath, a ruddy bon vivant Pathan with a walrus moustaches and an ample girth, had become purple with rage when his son had told him about his plans to become an actor. 'Kanjar -- is that what you want to become?' he exploded.

Bashesharnath was in the police. Prithviraj's grandfather, the rather stately Dewan Keshavmal Kapoor, had been the tehsildar of Samundari in Lyallpur district (now in Pakistan). Young Prithviraj had already received his bachelor of arts degree from King Edward's College in Peshawar and was studying to be a lawyer at the College of Law in Lahore. For this Hindu Pathan family, actors belonged to the 'debauched' world of wandering street performers and nautanki groups, people outside the pale of society.

After Prithviraj Kapoor made his pact with god at the Gateway of India, he asked the Victoriawalla to take him to a hotel. He did not know a soul in this city, nor did he have a single address. The driver left him at Kashmir Hotel, opposite Metro cinema, where he got a room for five rupees a night. The next morning he asked the manager of the hotel where the nearest film studio was. Aware by now that his Rs 75 would not last very long, he walked to Imperial Studios on Kennedy Bridge, near the Royal Opera House. The studio belonged to the legendary Ardeshir Irani, who made India's first talkie Alam Ara in 1931.

The imposing gates of the studio would have deterred a lesser mortal. Prithviraj just stood there. He might have had to stand a long time had the gateman of the studio not been a Pathan. Prithvi spoke to him in Pashto. The guard, Behramshah, happy to discover a fellow Pathan, let him in and advised him to stand in line with the extras. Prithvi returned there every morning. He worked as an extra for the first few days in the silent film Challenge (1929).

On the third day, Ermeline, a Jewess star-heroine, passing by the line of extras, stopped in her tracks when she saw Prithviraj. She was immediately struck by the extraordinary looks of this tall, fair, strapping man with the head of a Greek god, a Roman nose and good legs. The gamine actress was the leading lady of Cinema Girl, a film then being made by the Imperial Film Company. And like a princess inspecting a line-up of men to choose a husband during a swyamvara, she picked Prithviraj to play the male lead opposite her in the film.

So, thanks to Ermeline, this charismatic Pathan from Peshawar never had to stand in line as an extra again. And this was the beginning of a career in films which spanned more than four decades -- from the silent era to Technicolor and 70mm.

Excerpted from The Kapoors: The First Family Of Indian Cinema by Madhu Jain, published by Penguin Books India, with the publisher's permission, Rs 595.

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