Several eulogies and beautiful tributes have followed the sad, and premature, passing of Rishi Kapoor. As well as his redoubtable contribution to Indian cinema, one must also remember his involvement, probably involuntarily, in the first most famous case of product placement in Indian cinema, the Rajdoot 175 GTS, better known as the Bobby bike.
Even though interesting and exciting automobiles always figured in many of the Bollywood films, the automobile did not play an important enough role until the blockbuster Bobby arrived in 1973. Produced and directed by Raj Kapoor, Bobby’s story line was hardly any different from that of scores of other Indian popular movies which had preceded it. Once again, a love story between a boy, Raj, the son of a rich man, and Bobby, a young girl from a poor family, with the two fighting against all odds to make their love possible, despite the social differences. What made the movie special was the way the story was treated, the freshness of the two protagonists, and the amusing little motorcycle that Raj used, the yet-to-be-launched Rajdoot GTS 175.
The story is about how the 18-year-old Raj Nath (Rishi Kapoor in his very first role), son of the rich industrialist Mr Nath, falls in love with 16-year-old Bobby (Dimple Kapadia, in also her first role). She is the granddaughter of his former housekeeper and educator, and the daughter of a poor Goan fisherman, Jack Braganza. When Raj is visiting his old housekeeper, he sees Bobby for the first time, and, it is love at first sight. Raj though realises that his temperamental father will not easily accept the relationship with the daughter of a poor fisherman. Of course, all is eventually well, as Raj’s father admits his mistakes, and takes in Bobby as a daughter-in-law.
Movie-goers in India took to the refreshing charm and demeanour of the baby-faced Rishi Kapoor and the sheer gorgeousness of Dimple Kapadia, as well as the symbolism of the cute and accessible motorcycle which transported the two to their trysts for all the song-and-dance sequences. Reflecting an optimistic, young teenage sense of romance and adventure, the Rajdoot GTS 175 became synonymous with the movie, and has since been referred to as the 'Bobby bike', a moniker which stuck on, even if that was not the official one.
The success of the Rajdoot 'Bobby' GTS 175 though, was short-lived, unlike the movie, which was rated by Indiatimes Movies as the “Top 25 Must See Bollywood Films.” Not only was Bobby one of the top-20 grossers in the realm of Bollywood, it was an astounding success in the Soviet Union, where more than 62 million saw the film.
The use of the film Bobby to promote Rajdoot’s new motorcycle, the GTS 175, was not coincidental. The movie-maker Raj Kapoor’s elder daughter Ritu Kapoor was married to Rajan Nanda, the son of the founder of Escorts Limited, H P Nanda. The Rajdoot GTS 175 was an Escorts product. In fact, this was perhaps one of the first cases of a product placement in an Indian movie.
As a product placement, it worked brilliantly – in a matter of months everyone across the country knew of the Bobby bike. In theory, the market placement and planning of the product was very intelligent too. The mainstay of Escorts Limited until then had been the workhorse Rajdoot 175 bike, popular in rural India with farmers, milkmen and small traders. With a factory set-up in 1962, Escorts had turned to Polish motorcycle manufacturer KZWM Polmo-SHL, which was, at that point of time, manufacturing the model M11, for technical collaboration.
The SHL M11 was unusual in featuring an Earles fork front suspension, a swing-arm with two telescopic shock absorbers with hydraulic damping, which contributed to the excellent ride quality of the Rajdoots, reason enough why rural India, with its terrible road conditions, took to the motorcycle from Escorts. Even as the Rajdoot 175 became one of India’s better selling motorcycles, it was the scooter segment, which was setting the sales charts afire. Escorts decided to develop a scooter using the same engine and gearbox as in the motorcycle. The buying customer did not take to the Rajdoot Rajhans scooter. Escorts found itself with a lot of unsold scooters, unsold scooter parts, as well as tanks from the as-unsuccessful Rajdoot Ranger motorcycle derivative of the classic 175.
The boffins at Escorts were smart enough to come with a product— no doubt inspired by the Honda Monkey bike series of small-wheeled motorcycles launched by the Japanese giant in the late 1960s – which combined the bits and pieces of the leftover parts. The new little machine had its engine, transmission and suspension from the full-size Rajdoot 175, the wheels from the scooter, and the tank from the Rajdoot Ranger, all combined to give the product a cheeky, funky look, made even prettier with Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia astride the one in Bobby.
But then, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. After the initial excitement and success of the Bobby bike, sales plateaued, and then dropped off altogether. Escorts struggled on with the GTS until 1984, when the last Bobby bike rolled off the assembly line. Most of the Bobby bikes were junked – just a handful have been saved by motorcycling enthusiasts, such as the one on these pages, owned and restored by Lokesh Lakshmipathy.
(Author of several automotive books, founder editor of many leading auto mags, Gautam Sen has also consulted with most of the Indian auto majors. He has also worked with several leading car designers such as Gérard Godfroy, Tom Tjaarda and Marcello Gandini, among others