Obituary: Raaj Kumar

Raaj Kumar was one of India's most popular and stylised film actors, best remembered for his flamboyant looks and stylish dialogue delivery in a cinematic career which spanned over four decades.

With his deep baritone and flawless delivery, he raised dialogue to unusual heights in all his 60 films, ensuring that a majority of them were box- office hits.

Scripts in Bollywood, India's film capital city of Bombay, were specially written for him, while his reclusivity and eccentricity created an aura of mystery, making him even more en- igmatic and sought after. Unlike other Bollywood stars, Kumar kept mostly to himself and a small group of loyal friends and little, if anything, of his personal life was featured in glitzy film magazines. Most of what did appear was either conjecture or had to be withdrawn.

Kumar began life as a police officer in the late Forties, attached to the Mahim police station in uptown Bombay, but he quit the service following his alleged involvement in a murder case and instead made his screen debut in 1950 in a film called Neeli ("Blue"). After two other lesser known films, he earned his spurs in the classic hit Mother India, a patriotic film made in 1957 in which he had a small, but prominent role.

But it was Pakeezah ("The Pure"), a highly charged film of the late Sixties which made Kumar a household name. In it he plays an aristocrat who unabashedly falls in love with a cheap but fiercely attractive dancing girl after seeing just her feet in the darkness of a railway compartment. A torrid love affair between the aristocrat and the courtesan follows, which breaks through India's rigid social and class barriers but ends, expectedly for the times, in tragedy.

Pakeezah rocketed Kumar to fame, and for years thousands of young suitors tried passionately to imitate him in wooing their loved ones. It was followed by a string of successes like Heer Ranjha, a timeless story of a forbidden love, much like Romeo and Juliet, set in the northern Indian province of Punjab, Waqt ("Time"), Haqeekat ("Reality"), Saudagar ("Merchant") and Karma Yogi ("Beggar of fate"), all made from the late Sixties to the late Seventies.

Unlike other Bollywood actors who often take on two or even three films simultaneously, Kumar was selective and professional in his approach, rarely ever working in more than one film at a time. In the Nineties, he acted in only two films, Tiranga ("Tri-coloured Flag") and God and Gun.

Born Kulbushan Pandit in Loralai, now in Pakistan, in 1933, into a middle- class Brahmin family, he graduated locally, and after independence and the creation of Pakistan moved to Bombay. After he left the police he changed his name to Raaj Kumar and made his first screen appearance in 1950.

Though hugely successful and rich he was considered an eccentric in Bollywood because he drove the same ancient Plymouth car for 40 years and retained the same driver, hairdresser and tailor for an equal period. A keen Urdu poet, Kumar was a witty conversationalist and a moderately good golfer.

Kulbushan Pandit (Raaj Kumar), actor: born Loralai, India (now Pakistan) 8 October 1933; married (two sons); died Bombay 3 July 1996.

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