Heard Fauji, recalled Raj Kapoor…

The credit for making Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) a household face must go to the late Raj Kapoor. Not the Raj Kapoor you’re more familiar with. This Raj Kapoor was a colonel in the Indian Army. 

In fact, once, when a general’s car was driving past Kapoor, he forgot to observe the soldier’s protocol of stopping to salute the vehicle. To which, the general got off his car and asked the officer, “Who do you think you are—Dilip Kumar?” 

He replied, “No, sir, I’m Raj Kapoor!” The affronted general believed the officer was kidding, and almost had him sacked from the Army. Why did I think of Col Kapoor? 

Because blokes on social media posted that this week marked 35 years of SRK’s breakout TV show, Fauji, that appeared Wednesday evenings on Doordarshan—sometimes surpassing the meter-breaking ratings of Ramayan on the national broadcaster! 

Delhi-based Col Kapoor wrote, directed, produced Fauji. The series, set in an academy, training the sharpest Indian Army officers to become elite commandoes, began with a disclaimer in the opening slate, that might be impossible for anything to do with the military anymore: “All events and characters on this show are based on truth.”

This columnist’s 2002 interview with Col Raj Kapoor

SRK played young Lt Abhimanyu Rai. His first set of fans were children, like me, playing Fauji-Fauji with plastic guns in the neighbourhood thereafter. 

As Renuka Shahahe, who subsequently acted opposite SRK in the serial, Circus, told me once, “Shah Rukh was already a superstar [before Bollywood, after Fauji]. 20,000 people used to gather to watch him on the sets [of Circus].”

When I asked the beautiful Shahane to recall her favourite SRK anecdote, she laughed, “The first time he met me, he asked, ‘Why are my heroines always so ugly?’ He was brash like that. Maybe he thought his heroine in Fauji wasn’t so good-looking either!”

That would be actor Manjula Avtar, playing a medical doctor in Fauji, who Lt Rai initially chases down in the manner of borderline stalking—the one facet about desi content from the ’80s/’90s that inevitably ages badly. 

To be fair, there was also Major Vikram Rai (Rakesh Sharma), with as desperate a female suitor (Ameena Kapoor), who follows him around the academy, while he shows no interest. Vikram, the instructor, and Abhimanyu, the student, are brothers. 

Fauji was equally fit to be a family drama, besides authentic enough for an ensemble showcasing of the Indian Army, with its own “buddy” culture of shared bravado, rather than bland heroism. 

Young boys eyeing their love-interest, dealing with insecurities, vulnerabilities, faced with danger, chiefly the son-of-a gun, Captain Narayanan (A Kanan), who would enter the screen with his own, chilling background score!

I’ve been re-watching Fauji, lately (four episodes down, as we speak). Age has altogether dimmed out the lights on the screen, making the show look like a terribly shot silhouette, with scenes that seem so staccato. It’s still easy to tell the strong script, setting, plus characters, with the whacked out potential energy of our own Top Gun!

“I say chaps,” if SRK must remake anything he’s ever done, it should be the series that made us first gawk at him from a distance at Nirula’s food-joint in Chanakyapuri: “Damn, is that karate brown-belt, Abhimanyu Rai?” Rest is history, chemistry, geography, and a lot of mainstream Bollywood that followed for inescapable omnipresence. 

In Fauji itself, Lt Rai and his course-mates rightly take the piss out of the portrayal of Army in Bollywood. That’s because Col Kapoor, who’d served in the military for 27 years, knew what he was so enthusiastically talking about.

I guess we store memories as narratives. And my memory of the memory of Fauji itself involves a boy in my neighbourhood, who died at dinner, because a pea seed/matar fell into his wind pipe. He was engrossed watching Fauji.

The second memory is almost as tragic. That’s when I went over to meet Col Kapoor in Delhi, as a rookie newspaper intern, in 2002. Col Kapoor was 71 then, but he looked older. 

He was already old, when he portrayed the affable cop in Gulzar’s Angoor (1982)! He plays General ‘Khoon Pasina’ Kochchar, heading the commando training academy, in Fauji. Best known still for starring in the Volfarm ad: “Thoda ketchup try karo? Ketchup hota kaddoo bhara!”

He spoke to me about how “the camera chose SRK”—the show’s OG lead was Vikram, and not Abhimanyu Rai. Taking a shine on me—for all the time I had, to patiently listen to his stories, including the one above about the general nearly throwing him out of the Army—Col Kapoor invited me over for drinks in the evening.

I was a virgin to whiskey. We may have polished off a bottle or two between us. Emotional for the unlikely bond, Col Kapoor handed me his entire photo-dump of rare Fauji stills, BTS, etc, to use, as I please: “Be careful with it, son. There are no negatives/copies. I’m handing you my life’s wealth,” he said.

I left that album behind in the autorickshaw to my hotel. He called, for many days, after. I just didn’t have the heart to pick up the phone. What would I say? Col Kapoor passed away, 2019.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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