Prithviraj Kapoor (3 November 1906 – 29 May 1972) was a pioneer of Indian theatre and of the Hindi film industry, who started his career as an actor, in the silent era of Hindi cinema, associated with IPTA as one of its founding members and who founded the Prithvi Theatres, a travelling theatre company based in Mumbai, in 1944.
He was also the patriarch of the Kapoor family of Hindi films, four generations of which family, beginning with him, have played active roles in the Hindi film industry. The Government of India honoured him with the Padma Bhushan in 1969 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1971 for his contributions towards Indian cinema
Kapoor was born in Lyallpur on 3 November 1906. His paternal grandfather, Dewan Keshavmal, was a powerful influence during his childhood. Kapoor received his higher education at the Edwardes College in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and joined a two-year program in law to become a lawyer. It was here that his talents on stage first received expression.
Kapoor began acting career in the theatres of Lyallpur and Peshawar. In 1928, he moved to Bombay with the help of a loan from an aunt. There he joined the Imperial Films Company. He acted as an extra in his first film role, though he grew up to get a lead role for his third Cinema Girl in 1929.
After featuring in nine silent films, including Do Dhari Talwar, Sher-e-Arab and Prince Vijaykumar,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 Sikandar (1941). He also joined the Grant Anderson Theater Company, an English theatrical company that remained in Bombay for a year.Through all these years, Kapoor remained devoted to the theatre and performed on stage regularly. He developed a reputation as a very fine and versatile actor on both stage and screen.
By 1944, Kapoor had the wherewithal and standing to found his own theatre group, Prithvi Theatres, whose première performance was, Kalidasa’s Abhijñānaśākuntalam in 1942. His eldest son, Raj Kapoor, by 1946, had already struck out on his own; the films he produced had been successful and this was also an enabling factor. Prithviraj Kapoor invested in and founded Prithvi Theatres, a travelling troupe which staged memorable productions across India. The plays were highly influential and inspired young people to participate in the Indian independence movement and the Quit India Movement. In over 16 years of existence, the theatre staged some 2,662 performances. Prithviraj starred as the lead actor in every single show.One of his popular plays was called Pathan (1947), which was performed on stage nearly 600 times in Mumbai. It opened on 13 April 1947, and is a story of a Muslim and his Hindu friend.
By the late 1950s, it was clear that the era of the travelling theatre had been irreversibly supplanted by the cinema and it was no longer financially feasible for a troupe of up to 80 people to travel the country for four to six months at a time along with their props and equipment and living in hotels and campsites. The financial returns, through ticket sales and the rapidly diminishing largesse of patrons from the erstwhile princely class of India, was not enough 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 Kapoor progressed into his 50s, he gradually ceased theatre activities and accepted occasional offers from film-makers, including his own sons. He appeared with his son Raj in the 1951 film Awara as a stern judge who had thrown his own wife out of his house. Later, under his son, Shashi Kapoor, and his wife Jennifer Kendal, Prithvi Theatre merged with the Indian Shakespeare theatre company, “Shakespeareana”, and the company got a permanent home, with the inauguration of the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai on 5 November 1978
In 1996, the Golden Jubilee year of the founding of Prithvi Theatre, India Post, issued a special two Rupee commemorative postage stamp. It featured the logo of the theatre, the dates 1945–1995, and an image Kapoor. The first day cover, (stamped 15-1-95) showed an illustration of performance of travelling theatre in progress, on a stage that seem fit for a travelling theatre, as Prithvi theatre was for sixteen, till 1960. On the occasion of 100 years of the Indian cinema, another postage stamp, bearing his face, was released by India Post on 3 May 2013
His 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 Raj Kapoor and grandson Randhir Kapoor.
Kapoor starred in the legendary religious Punjabi film Nanak Nam Jahaz Hai (1969), a film so revered in Punjab that there were lines many kilometres long to purchase tickets.
He also starred in the Punjabi films Nanak Dukhiya Sub Sansar (1970) and Mele Mittran De (1972).
He also acted in a Kannada movie Sakshatkara (1971) directed by Kannada director Puttanna Kanagal. He acted as Rajkumar’s father in that movie.
In 1954, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, and in 1969, the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. He remained Nominated Rajya Sabha Member for eight years.
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.
1954– Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship by the Sangeet Natak Akademi
1956– Sangeet Natak Akademi Award by the Sangeet Natak Akadem
1969– Padma Bhushan by the Government of India
1972– Dadasaheb Phalke Award (Posthumously) for the year 1971, for his immense contribution to Indian theatre and cinema
Kapoor was aged 17 when he contracted an arranged marriage with the 14-year-old Ramsarni Mehra, Their eldest child, Raj Kapoor, was born in December 1924. By the time Prithviraj Kapoor moved to Mumbai in 1927, the couple were the parents of three children. In 1930, Ramsarni joined Prithviraj in Mumbai. The following year, while she was pregnant for the fourth time, two of their sons died 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 three further children: sons Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor (who were to become famous actors and filmmakers in their own right) and one daughter, Urmila Sial.
After his retirement, Prithviraj Kapoor settled in Mumbai, in a cottage called Prithvi Jhonpra near Juhu beach. The property was on lease, which was bought by Shashi Kapoor, and later converted 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 Kapoor died on 29 May 1972 and was followed by his wife on 14 June