Today when senior actor and better known today as Prateik Babbar’s father, Raj Babbar is celebrating his 68th birthday. I remember that when in the late 70’s I was introduced to the newcomer actor by his pr guy, it was friendship at the very first sight for us. I remember the first time I met him, he was staying at the Hotel Kings courtesy filmmaker Prakash Mehra who had signed him for his film Jwalamukhi and put him up there at his expense. The interview was scheduled to take place at 9 am over breakfast. I still remember, after 41 years, that when the breakfast- omelette with toasted bread came Raj requested me if we could share that instead of ordering for one more, because he did not want his producer yaane ki Prakash Mehra to know that he had ordered for an extra breakfast.
After that meeting, Raj who was climbing the ladder of stardom very quickly and we met frequently and we became such thick friends that though a fierce gossip columnist at that time, I was a permanent fixture at every birthday party of his at his Juhu apartment where I used to bump into then strugglers like Anupam Kher, Satish Kaushik, Shekhar Kapoor, Girija Shankar, besides Anupam Kher’s current wife Kiran who is now Kirron Kher. I had become over the years such a permanent fixture that I used to call Raj’s wife Nadira as Nadirabaaji , who used to be a good hostess who used to insist that I had dinner cooked by her and whenever it was late, I used to make it a point to stay back at their apartment ,sleep at their house and go to my office at The Hotel Oberoi Sheraton the next morning directly from their house.
Frankly, I never even dreamt that a day would come when my actor friend who was working in films in Hindi as well as Punjabi, would end up as a politician first with Janata Dal, then Samajwadi party, be a three-time member of the Lok Sabha and a two-time member of the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, and finally be the President of Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee.
To mark his birthday, I wish him and reproduce a rare interview with him, which appeared first 41 years ago in the now defunct FREE PRESS BULLETIN dt 16th February, 1980.
The venue was Melkote, a God forsaken village some 100 kms away from Bangalore then and Bengaluru now and civilization. To cover the location shooting of producer Surinder Kapoor’s Hum Paanch, a remake of the Telugu hit Manavoori Pandavulu, I had gone from Bangalore where I was covering the International Film Festival all the way to Melkote. The day I landed at the location site, Raj Babbar, one of the stars of the film was packing his things to move down to Bombay because Neetu Singh had allotted her last date to the producer of Mano Ya Na Maano and Raj had been summoned by a vexed producer to Mumbai, then known as Bombay, cutting short his schedule at Melkote. However, on his way to the airport, I managed to nab Raj Babbar for a tete-e-tete.
Raj is perhaps the only raw newcomer who has today become the apple of filmmaker’s eyes. He has cornered practically every big assignment and is working with top heroines like Hema Malini (Hum Teenon), Zeenat Aman (Insaaf Ka Tarazu), Rekha (Umrao Jaan), Raakhi (Bawre Nain), Reena Roy (Sau Din Saas Ke) and last but not the least Neetu Singh (Mano Ya Na Maano).
The credit for discovering Raj Babbar ought to go to B.R. Chopra, Raj tells me. “It was Choprasaab who signed me to play the lead in his Kahaani opposite Kim even before Salim and Javed had the opportunity to see my play Nadir Shah in Delhi where I was actively associated with the National School of Drama. Choprasaab took my audition test at the Hotel Ashoka. At that time he was making a small budget venture called Pati Patni Aur Woh starring Sanjeev Kumar, Vidya Sinha and Ranjeeta and wanted me to wait till the outcome of the film since he was not quite sure about its acceptance by the general public. He boosted my confidence in myself by telling me that I needn’t undergo the screen test because I had passed the audition with flying colors”
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It was after this that Salim and Javed asked him to come down to Bombay. Raj felt further encouraged to try his luck in the tinsel world here. “As I was toying with the idea of coming down to Bombay, I received a call from Prakash Mehra asking me to show him my stage play. He was impressed with what he saw of me in the play in Delhi and things moved well as far as my luck was concerned and I arrived in Bombay on January 1, 1980.”
Raj arrived in Bombay and was amazed to find the red carpet rolled out for him. He signed Jwalamukhi for Prakash Mehra though the first film for which he faced the camera happened to be Lekh Tandon’s Sharda. An array of films followed, which included B. R. Chopra’s Insaaf Ka Tarazu, Mohan Sahgal’s Daulat and Rajshri’s Jannat with Zarina Wahab.
Raj chuckles for a minute and recalls that when he went to the Rajshri guys for the first time, they were under the impression that he was on the look-out for a villain’s role, because they felt the name Babbar automatically conveyed a negative character.” They couldn’t believe that I could be a smart, handsome and dark young man”, Raj guffaws Raj, straightening his shirt collars.
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Raj has already done a Punjabi film with Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Om Puri and Rama Vij. “It was an offbeat film made by some friends of mine and hence I did the film Chan Pardesi. I have no intention of taking up any regional film at this stage of my career. I want to help myself before I set out to help others, especially the regional filmmakers, you see”. Now Raj does have a point there.
Raj prefers to do dramatic roles.”Well defined definite characters interest me and not the routine leading roles where one would not get any scope for improvisation. I am extremely choosy about my assignments. I hesitate to sign more films only because most of the proposals that I keep on receiving are multi star extravaganzas which are star oriented and not character oriented.”
Insaaf Ka Tarazu will be the first film of his to hit the screen, according to Raj Babbar, who is glad that none of the producers who had taken keen interest in promoting his career had bound him by any contract. “I have progressed from Sarika to Hema Malini as far as my career goes”, he says modestly.
Raj Babbar is here to stay. Refreshingly he does not subscribe to the worn-out ideas unlike the chocolate heroes of yore. “I am game for any kind of role as long as it is not meant as filler. In Insaaf Ka Tarazu, mine is the negative role of a rich young play boy who rapes a model played by Zeenat Aman. I care a damn for image. Image does not make an artist. It is the artist who is paramount for a film.”
And as if to prove that he really does not care for saddling himself with the image of a romantic bachelor boy, Raj has announced the fact that he is a married man, with a four year old daughter Juhi back home in Delhi. To prove that he means business and is here to stay, Raj has shifted into his own apartment at Juhu and also brought his wife-theatre artist Nadira and daughter Juhi to Bombay.
It is sad that times have changed, years have passed by and Raj has also become busy with his political career and hardly celebrates his birthday in Mumbai but I wish him a happy birthday