Born in a distinguished family in Shimla, Motilal Rajvansh, hailed as one of the greats of Hindi cinema, was educated in Shimla and Delhi. A chance trip to Bombay – with the intention of joining the Navy – was instrumental in his entry into the world of cinema. He fell ill and missed the test and instead was spotted by the director K.P. Ghosh. Motilal made his debut at the age of 24 in Shaher Ka Jadoo (1934) opposite Sabita Devi, becoming a superstar almost overnight, starting a career in films that were to span three decades. It is said that the director KP Ghosh was so impressed by his performance that he remarked he had finally found the actor he was looking for.
In the next few years, every film he acted in attained box-office success - Silver King (1935), Lagna Bandhan (1936), Jagirdar (1937), Kokila (1937), Captain Kirti Kumar (1937), Dr. Madhurika (1935) and Teen Sau Din Bad(1938). According to the actor, his performance in the light comedy Teen Sau Din Bad was among his best. For this film Motilal polished shoes at Bori Bunder in an outdoor shot, laying the groundwork for his reputation as a natural actor. He was so good that one hardly realized he was acting, a breath of fresh air when performances onscreen were often stiff and rigid. The twinkle in his eyes and his mannerisms ensured that he appealed to the audiences.
Motilal’s association with Sagar ended in 1937 and soon he worked with Ranjit Movietone and worked in movies such as Divali (1940), Shadi (1941), and Achhut (1940). Achhut had Motilal in the role of a Dalit man, a role he carried out so convincingly that audiences forgot the suave, debonair man whom they had been used to seeing in film glossies. Equally comfortable with comedy as with serious roles, Motilal worked in about 30 films as a lead hero.
For Hamari Beti (1950), the film in which Shobhana Samarth introduced her daughter Nutan, Motilal also turned screenplay and dialogue writer, revealing his mastery in other branches of film making. Between 1949 and 1953, he acted in 2 Roop Shorey comedies that did very well and were lauded for his comic performances: Ek Thi Ladki (1949) and Ek Do Teen (1953).
The fifties and early sixties saw him continue to scale the heights of success. His roles were varied with his portrayal of R.K. Narayan’s memorable conman in the S.S. Vasan film Mr. Sampat (1952), the rakish and debauched Chunni babu in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) or the villainous turns in movies like Paigham (1959) and Anari (1959).
Strangely, his devil-may-care attitude extended to his real life as well, and tales abound about his love for racing, flying, gambling and cricket, and his rumored romances with Shobhana Samarth and Nadira.
The actor who had once quipped that he had “survived three heart attacks, an air crash, and a near-drowning”, could not “cheat death” in the end – his final illness took its toll on June 17, 1965, months before the release of Chhoti Chhoti Baten (1965), his dream project, which he had written, directed and produced. Motilal, the charming, natural actor always with a glint in his eye, died penniless.