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 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.