Of Movie Magic & Concrete: Why RK Studios Should Have Been Saved

Heritage considered important to a country’s culture is preserved around the world. Why not film studios in India? 

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File image of RK Studios in Chembur in Mumbai.
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In 1950, Raj Kapoor was making a film called Awaara. The third film under his RK Films banner, the film was special to the young actor-director. It would be the first film he would shoot in his studio in Chembur. RK Studios, then just four walls without a roof, began construction after the success of Kapoor's earlier film, Barsaat. When time came for the song ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’ in Awaara to be shot – the same dream sequence which would inspire hundreds of films – Raj Kapoor decided to shoot it in RK Studios; roofs be damned. Movie-magic dreams don't always need concrete, you see.

Years later, when I first saw RK Studios, the concrete was well-entrenched. The studio's legacy, even more so.

RK Studios was synonymous with some of the most iconic films and actors of Hindi cinema. Awaara, Shree 420, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Bobby, Mera Naam Joker... the list is endless. But the studio's real impact was off-screen; the Kapoor family legends, the Holi parties and of course, the galaxy of actors and actresses who called the place their home. Which is why when I first saw the white building with the red logo – derived from Raj Kapoor's Barsaat with Raj Kapoor holding a violin in one hand, and Nargis on another arm – I was in awe. I was doing my Master’s degree at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, but more than that, I was born and brought up in Hindi cinema lore. Cinema was the closest thing I knew to magic, and standing in front of the white gates of RK Studios, I felt like I had been given a chance to peek behind the magician's curtain.

I never went inside the studios, or glimpsed at anyone (even though Raj Kapoor’s bungalow was right behind my classroom). But just the existence of the studio stood as testament to the glorious history of a part of Indian cinema. Every day, I would walk past the white gates and the red logo and smile at the friendly guard sitting outside. For a minute, I would forget about work and thesis; the RK Studios building reminded me of magic which was bigger than me.

Why Aren’t Film Studios History Worth Saving?

Which is why when I heard the news that RK Studios was being sold off, I was infuriated. It just felt like another instance of our indifference to film heritage as a country. Despite being an essential part of the history of Hindi film cinema, RK Studios was reduced to a block of concrete on prime real-estate land in the end.

Speaking to the media on the sale of RK Studios, Randhir Kapoor said, "After the fire (in 2017), it was not economically viable to build the studio again." Which is an argument echoed by other families in Mumbai who own erstwhile film studios. For instance, Taidar Amrohi, son of Kamal Amrohi said in an article in Livemint that running Kamalistan (Amrohi's studio) would only bring Rs 10-15 lakhs a month. As the Hindi film industry moves towards shooting on location or preferring to shoot in state-of-the-art studios, original studios are losing their importance.

This is where the government comes in. In countries across the world, governments step in to subsidise or take over heritage spots, and take up the cost of its maintenance. It's what happens in India too, with monuments like Humayun's Tomb and Taj Mahal. Heritage deemed to be important to a country's culture are preserved. Why not film studios then?

Film studios – and the history they were witness to – are an important part of India’s film heritage. Why couldn’t RK Studios have been converted to a museum? In fact, the government could have invested in film studios across Mumbai, turning the city into a living and breathing experience of Hindi cinema. Finally a physical manifestation of the place we know and love as “Bollywood.”

Instead, thousands of Hindi film lovers across the world have to watch in anguish as iconic film heritage gets destroyed to construct luxury condos for the rich. Swimming pool included. The razing of RK Studios ironically displays a lack of exactly that virtue which Raj Kapoor fostered in 1950 when he built the studio – imagination. We could have imagined a future where India's film history coexists with our present. Instead, we looked at a temple of audacious dreams and saw just concrete.

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