Puru Raaj Kumar on legendary actor-father Raaj Kumar who made a statement with his style.
Raaj Kumar was the only actor of his generation to be obsessed with golf. Every item in his wardrobe was unique because it was custom-made. He would devote as much time and attention on his clothes and accessories as he did on his acting ability. He is known to have said that his favourite hobby was to get his shoes polished.
He sent his tailor to London to learn the art of cutting a suit and flew people across to Germany only to bring back spare parts for his cars.
Raaj Kumar was one of a kind. Waqt (1965) was the turning point in his acting career. It was the beginning of his powerful dialogue delivery in that unmistakable voice. It was also the beginning of “… Jaani” with a puff of the pipe, a phrase that still lives on with his fans around the world. His son and actor Puru Raaj Kumar, on his Papa, the style icon, as a natural.
Most people describe my father’s style as eccentric. I wouldn’t say that he was fashion conscious, but he has always had a lot of flair and immense style. In my opinion, he was more a visionary when it came to styling. Be it his shoes, his clothing, his accessories, his dialogue delivery or his demeanour. He always liked everything very exclusive. It had more to do with his temperament and the way he was than to do with who he was. Some people develop a style after they achieve success, but my father always had it. Sometimes when I go through old photographs of him before my birth, I realise how stylish he was even then.
When it came to style he was a natural.
I’ve seen pictures of him shot at the airport when he would leave town. It used to be a big ceremony when he would travel abroad. My entire family, even my aunts and nieces would accompany him and bid him a tearful farewell. It sounds funny, but it happens even now and I find it cute.
My father had a very distinct wardrobe when he would travel by air. He would carry a red bag, right through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, up till he was alive. He wore an olive green chauzer (which is like a safari) and an olive green shirt. That was a given.
All his clothes were custom made, be it his trousers, his shirts or his suits. He never bought clothes off the shelf. It never mattered to him if he was wearing a designer label or not. That was the most distinct thing about him.
He only wore natural fabrics and took personal interest in his wardrobe. He would wear ethnic clothes often. Readymades were not for him. Even if he did pick something up, he would have it changed according to his taste. He took personal interest in everything he wore. He had a collection of the original ethnic bundee (coat) from Rajasthan but he gave it his characteristic style with a little modification. He would usually buy the fabric himself and get it stitched by his own tailor. He had his own set of tailors and cutters. We still continue with the tradition. That comes from him.
He was never into branding. People would come up to him and say, “I’m wearing a Versace,” and that was his chance to catch them because most designer clothes also have a polyester blend. He was a visionary as far as clothes were concerned. He could carry off most colours brilliantly.
My father would choose the weirdest of fabrics. I remember there used to be this curtain joke happening all the time. It’s true. Some of the fabrics he picked up really did look like it was meant for curtains. That sounds bizarre but when Jean Paul Gaultier designs bizarre clothes for the ramp every one gets excited. But that’s what creativity is all about. My father would say, “If you’re a creative person, it shows in everything you do.” And it was true of him.
There is an old English belief that a suit is an heirloom that goes from generation to generation. The father wears it then the son wears it and then the son’s son wears it. He had an amazing suit collection from all over the world. He definitely knew how to cut clothes himself. He sent his tailor, Ferns to London to learn the art of cutting a suit because most people make mistakes with cutting. Cutting a suit is perhaps one of the most difficult and the most important aspect of making clothes. You can have a very good fabric but if you don’t cut it correctly, it doesn’t fall correctly. It just doesn’t work.
He loved his shoes. He once said to a journalist that his favourite hobby was to get his shoes polished. He even had some shoes made from fabric. When I’m at home I wear a pair of wood and fabric sandals that belong to him. When we were kids, I remember we would make shoes of cloth with his guidance. I was twelve then and I used to think it was bizarre and quite funny. When I grew older and read fashion magazines like Vogue, I realised it was trendy.
I clearly remember an evening when he was entertaining some people from the Russian Culture Centre. He was wearing a full brocade outfit. I think it was totally over the top but he carried it off wonderfully. I think his style was all about the way he carried off his clothes. I think I have inherited his sense of grace in carrying clothes. I’ve also been told that most colours and clothes suit me. I’m grateful to him for that.
For some people, style is being casual, cool and comfortable with what they’re wearing. For my father, style meant making a statement with what he wore. It’s quite difficult to develop that. But he did it very well.
He had a pipe, which was his trademark accessory even in the movies. He has an awesome collection of 150 pipes—from miniatures to long and short pipes, which he picked up while travelling. He had most of the pipe brands in the world. The most fabulous one, which I smoke once in a while, is made from coral.
Then there was his Navratan ring, specially designed by him and his sister in accordance with the planetary system. It was made in gold with a diamond in the centre, surrounded by nine gemstones. Some members of my family say it was for good luck and some others say it wasn’t. It’s probably what he told different people while he was getting the ring made.
He also had a large watch collection. All his watches were limited editions. He had a wonderful Baume & Mercier gold watch, which he bought at an auction. One of them had a dollar as the dial of the watch. He would design bracelets for his watches. He had a flair for design. He even designed his sunglasses in the shape of cat eyes and got them made from Agnelo’s (which is now at Hill Road, Bandra). That was a unique feature of his style. He was the only one ever who wore such a pair. It had a typical frame that can be seen in many of his photographs.
His favourite colours were red, black and white. Even his cars were black and white. He was passionate about his cars. He was the only one to have a Volvo in Bombay at the time. He would have people fly to Germany to buy so much as a spare part for his cars. For some people it’s a criminal waste of money. To him, it was passion for his car.
My father would spend long hours on the golf course when he had the time. He loved to play golf and even initiated me into the game. He had a handicap of 16. Once a year, Papa would take us for a long holiday to Kashmir, where he taught us to play polo.
He only signed a couple of films a year so he would have enough time for his family. He never brought his work home. Work was never a topic of discussion. I have been to his set only a couple of times in his entire career. He didn’t like to have us there.
Strange, but true.
This story was first published in the March 2002 issue