When Raj Kiran appeared on screen for the first time, he was sitting at the beach, surrounded by huge question marks carved on the sand. When his girlfriend Sarika asks him about all the markings, he says, 'Sawaal ek hi hai. Bas bada ho gaya hai'. One can’t help but wonder if this was a foreshadowing of the days to come. In part nine of Outlook's Sands Of Time series, we take a look at the life and works of Raj Kiran, the 'prince who got away'.
Roger Corman was a towering presence in Hollywood, despite his indie cred. Regardless of the kind of cinema he espoused, Corman is known to have given first breaks to some of the greatest filmmakers and stars of the 70s-80s, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Ron Howard, even Sylvester Stallone. In Hindi cinema, Babu Ram Ishara aka Roshan Lal Sharma was a Corman-esque figure. He launched such actors as Parveen Babi, Danny Denzongpa, Reena Roy, Raza Murad, and even cast an untested young actor named Amitabh Bachchan. All his films began with sensational epithets for the actors he was launching. The 1973 film Charitra, for example, begins with the introduction of Parveen Babi as the “hottest discovery”, along with “ace cricketer of India” Saleem Durrani, who Ishara also cast as a lead in the film.
Amongst the wide array of youngsters Ishara was launching in the 70s, there was a babyfaced, clean-shaven boy by the name of Raj Kiran Mahtani. Sarika, who had made a name for herself as Baby Sarika, was also being launched in her first heroine role opposite Raj. The film was Kagaz ki Nao(1975). The credits screamed: “Introducing…the youngest pair…Sarika & Raj Kiran”. Raj was rather fond of B.R. Ishara, affectionately calling him “Babu Da”. In one of his earliest interviews for the then-popular magazine called Sunday, Raj gushed about his mentor. “The first few days, he shot only my silent scenes till I got used to the camera”.
Kagaz ki Nao sank without a trace, but Raj’s work earned him some notice. He was being considered for another film with Sanjeev Kumar and Shashi Kapoor. But the future was still uncertain. Raj had allowed himself just one more year to try his luck in tinsel town. “Either I do something good in films in that period or I quit”, said he in the aforesaid interview, adding that planned to continue his college studies as a backup. “I wish they’d give the newcomers a chance. All the producers want to sign established heroes only. They never make an attempt to introduce a new face. How long can the industry depend on just two men (B.R. Ishara and Basu Chatterjee) to supply all the newcomers?
The very next film Raj Kiran found himself in was the caustic political satire Kissa Kursi Ka (1978), in which he was paired opposite Surekha Sikri. The film contained so much vitriol and sharp criticism of the political class and the ruling party that it immediately got in hot water. It was banned and was widely viewed only recently when it landed on YouTube. For Raj Kiran, stars started aligning in the year 1980, when all of a sudden, he had as many as 8 releases. Kedar Kapoor’s Manokaamna did well, as did Patita. But this year also witnessed Raj’s first brush with a big-budget masala entertainer, Subhash Ghai’s Karz. Most audiences still know him as the “guy who was reborn as Rishi Kapoor”. Raj gets bumped off in the first half an hour but his “shadow” lingers throughout the movie. There was a blink-and-you-miss part in Bulundi next year, where his rebellious rogue student character locks horns with the righteous professor played by Raaj Kumar.
Raj Khosla’s underrated Teri Maang Sitaron Se Bhar Doon (1982) offered Raj plenty of room to showcase his charms as a conventional Bollywood lover boy. Khosla’s impeccable skills of shooting songs came into play in the fascinating Aap Ka Aashiq Hoon Main from the film, where Raj just sparkles. Ditto for Pehli nazar mein ho gaya hai pyar. But the film didn’t perform as well as expected. One of Raj Kiran’s most overlooked performances came out that year. Star (1982) was one of almost a dozen Kumar Gaurav star vehicles that bit the dust. The film is mostly remembered - if at all - for how big a disappointment it was, and for Biddu’s exhilarating soundtrack (which became a huge hit when it was released as a private album called “Boom Boom” in the 90s). But what got criminally undermined in all this hoopla was the solid performance delivered by Raj Kiran in the film. It was an author-backed role, initially meant for Vinod Khanna. Raj plays the brooding, flawed and brawny brother of the hero who ends up falling in love with his brother’s lady love. He thinks with his fists and doesn’t deign to play the nice guy like his brother, the hero. It’s hard to recall a commercial film where Raj had so much meat to chew into. He has some great action sequences including a 5 minute 40 seconds electrifying confrontation scene in the middle of a stadium.
Early 80s was also the time when “parallel cinema” had come of age, and many filmmakers were experimenting with form and storytelling. Among them was a whole bunch young directors who came in the wake of the Benegals and the Nihalanis. Raj appeared in at least two of such films which were off the beaten track, and his work was lauded. One was Mahesh Bhatt’s autobiographical Arth (1982), and Prakash Jha’s directorial debut Hip Hip Hurray (1984). The Arth song Tum itna jo muskura rahey ho remains one of his most recognisable (and most-watched) screen appearances. The intelligentsia who had, by and large, shunned the kind of films Raj had been a part of, were now nodding with approval at his performance as the jeans-and-kurta clad ghazal singer who spoke volumes with his eyes. In Hip Hip Hurray he played a football coach who has to lead a ragtag group of unruly teens to victory. Along the way, he woos the winsome Anuradha Roy (Deepti). Apart from Raj and Deepti’s heartwarming chemistry, the film had a soundtrack to die for, composed by Vanraj Bhatia.
But none of these films left a lasting impression on his career, and the decade that followed was a very dark time for Raj Kiran. He was getting very unremarkable work, mostly featuring as evil elder brothers to righteous heroes. Most of his filmography during this period is strewn with b-movies and maudlin family dramas where he was reduced to a laughing stock. Many of those scenes are relished by cult-mongers today, and with good reason. In the 90s, there was a report in the newspapers claiming he was arrested on charges of trespassing into an ashram in Whitefield, Bangalore. The report stated: "Police said Raj Kiran, who has been in the city central jail for nearly a month, was given local surety after his father arrived in Bangalore from Bombay on Wednesday…It is reported that Raj Kiran, who has been separated from his wife and children, attempted to trespass into the ashram on June 5 by scaling the wall with the help of ladder. However, it proved futile and he was handed over to the police by security men.”
In 1997, an interview surfaced in Cine Blitz magazine. The headline went I need work to survive…: Raj Kiran’s desperate plea. In the interview, Raj recalls the ashram episode: “It was just a case of trespassing and it was blown out of proportion. I cannot talk much about it since the case is in court. The trauma that I faced when I was put in jail, is indescribable. You can never understand the fear one feels, when you are told that you cannot be bailed out. I spent 34 days in jail and sitting there, I was not sure if I would ever be free. That is a very scary feeling.” The article mentions that Raj has been in America for a few years. Disillusioned and disappointed, Raj Kiran went off to America where his family lived, in search of a living. "I had a fairly good job there and for once, I was really happy."
But because of the trespassing case, he had to lose his job and start looking for movie gigs again, which were notoriously hard to come by. Vinod Pande, who had earlier directed him in Star, featured him in the sleeper hit TV serial Reporter (1994). But Raj Kiran’s journey to oblivion had already begun. There were a few more obscure roles here and there, until he stopped getting work at all. There were reports of depression and mental illness. He had moved to the US once again, apparently. None of this made headlines. Nobody cared. Nobody was interested in a has-been actor from the 80s. Nothing was heard about him for more than a decade after the 1997 interview, until his friends in the industry started noticing and asking questions.
Deepti Naval, his co-star from Hip Hip Hurray, Prem Jaal and Ghar Ho To Aisa, posted on Facebook asking about her friend’s whereabouts: "Looking for a friend from the film world his name is Raj Kiran – we have no news of him – last heard he was driving a cab in NY city if anyone has any clue, please tell . . .” She didn’t get any leads or any credible responses. In 2011, Rishi Kapoor tracked his family down in the United States. A Times of India report quoted him, “I was so relieved when Govind told me Raj was alive. But he was confined to an institution in Atlanta due to health problems.” What’s perturbing is that his family too has more or less left Raj to his own devices…apparently, he looks after his own treatment by working within the institution. It’s a heart-rending situation for an actor who was so successful at one time. But I’m just happy to know he’s alive.
There. He was very much alive, and…well. But it wasn’t that simple. Or easy. In a couple of months, Raj Kiran’s daughter Rishika put out a statement clarifying that her father was not in Atlanta, or in any institution. He was missing. "He is not In Atlanta. We have been looking for him for over eight years. We have involved the New York police and hired private detectives to find him. But he's not been found." Rishika says her dad disappeared from New York…He was the most loving father. Yes, he suffered from a bit of mental illness before he disappeared. We wanted to deal with this on our own, but those false reports forced me to come out in the open. I think this is totally unfair on my mother," she says.” She also said that Raj was a private individual, and hence the family chose not to talk about it earlier.
Later, there were some news articles saying Rishi and Deepti were requested by the family to stay away from this. Again, none of this was substantiated. But the fact is, even after more than 10 years of these events unfolding, nobody can confirm the whereabouts of Raj Kiran, the actor who gave himself just one year to “do something good in films”, or he would quit.
We’ve just stepped into 2022. Billions of people are on camera all day long. There are smart devices latching on to every word we say and cataloguing them. But there is one guy who got away. Let’s hope he’s reading this and chuckling to himself.