Popular leading as well as character actor Raj Kiran appeared in hit films such as Karz (1980), Ek Hi Maqsad (1988), Hatya (1988), and Khoon Bhari Maang (1988). He featured in approximately 130 films as an actor. Making his acting debut in B R Ishara’s Kaagaz Ki Nao (1975), which starred Sarika, his career saw a boom in the 1980s. He was mostly typecast as a romantic and kind-hearted hero. However, once his career started declining in the 1990s, he is believed to have slipped into a depression. It affected his mental health so severely that he had to be admitted to the Byculla mental asylum in Mumbai. Later, he reportedly went to America, and disappeared without a trace not only from the industry but from the face of the earth with even his family unaware of his whereabouts.
Baby-faced and clean-shaven, the 19 June 1949-born Raj Kiran Mahtani was launched in B R Ishara’s Kagaz Ki Nao (1975) opposite Sarika in her first heroine role. Later, Raj would praise his director, revealing that Babu da—as he called B R Ishara—shot only his silent scenes for the first few days, until he got used to the camera. Though the film flopped, Raj still won some attention and was being considered for a Sanjeev Kumar-Shashi Kapoor starrer. He had decided to give himself one more year to try and do something good in films or then quit. Later, he would rue the lack of opportunities for newcomers, sharing, “I wish they would give the newcomers a chance. All the producers want to sign established heroes only. They never make an attempt to introduce a new face. How long can the industry depend on just two men (B R Ishara and Basu Chatterjee) to supply all the newcomers?”
Next, he featured in the political satire Kissa Kursi Ka (1978), directed by Amrit Nahata. The cast comprised Shabana Azmi, Raj Babbar and others, and he himself was paired opposite Surekha Sikri. The film was sharply critical of the ruling dispensation and was banned.
The year 1980 turned out to be a watershed year for him, with no less than eight of his films releasing. There was the Kedar Kapoor-directed romantic drama Manokaamna which did well, as did I V Sasi’s drama film Patita. Most importantly, the year saw the release of his first big-budget entertainer – the revenge thriller Karz, starring Rishi Kapoor, Tina Munim and Simi Garewal. Directed by Subhash Ghai, he played the character named Ravi Verma, who is killed and goes on to be reborn as Monty (Rishi Kapoor). Even though his character is eliminated in the first half an hour of the film, Raj’s ‘shadow’ lingers through the course of the film. The film’s performance was declared ‘average’ nationwide during its opening. Years later, it went on to be considered a cult classic and was even remade several times over.
The following year, he appeared in a small but noticeable role in the Esmayeel Shroff-directed Bulundi (1981), playing a rebellious student who gets into a conflict with the righteous professor played by Raaj Kumar.
He made his mark in the Raj Khosla-directed Teri Maang Sitaron Se Bhar Doon (1982), which also featured Nutan and Padmini Kolhapure. Playing the conventional lover boy of Hindi films, he shone in the songs Aap ka aashiq hoon main as well as Pehli nazar mein ho gaya hai pyar.
He delivered another solid—though largely unappreciated performance—in the Kumar Gaurav-starrer Star (1982). The film saw Raj essay the role of the brooding, flawed brother of the hero, who ends up falling in love with his brother’s love interest. The role offered him considerable scope for performance and also included some impressive action sequences. The two aforementioned films, however, did not perform as well as expected.
With the growing popularity of the parallel cinema movement, he also appeared in two offbeat films. Arth (1982), Mahesh Bhatt’s autobiographical drama, saw him play a character named Raj in the romantic drama involving a filmmaker who is having an extramarital affair with an actress and decides to leave his wife. When Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) deserts Pooja (Shabana Azmi) for Kavita (Smita Patil), Pooja chooses to leave home with only the Rs 2000 that she had when she got married. She is helped by Raj to surpass the difficulties of life as a single person, to find a job and to rely morally on herself. Raj and Pooja become good friends, and he falls in love with her but she refuses his proposal, saying she is empty within. Eventually, she decides to learn to live independently, as marriage would only weaken her. Raj was appreciated for the sensitivity he brought to his part as the “the jeans-and-kurta clad ghazal singer who spoke volumes with his eyes.” The song Tum itna jo muskura rahey ho became one of his most recognisable screen appearances.
In Prakash Jha’s directorial debut Hip Hip Hurray (1984), he essayed a computer engineer named Sandeep Chowdhary, who is waiting to start his first job. He takes up a temporary gig as a sports instructor at a school in Ranchi, where he encounters an apathetic school principal (Ram Gopal Bajaj) and develops a relationship with a history teacher named Anuradha Roy (Deepti Naval). Eventually, he leads the football team, a motley group of unruly teens, to victory. The film won appreciation for the lead pair’s heartwarming chemistry, as well as the soundtrack composed by Vanraj Bhatia.
The decade that followed was not a fruitful one for Raj. He was mostly seen playing a devious older brother in B-grade films and melodramatic family dramas.
In the 1990s, a newspaper report claimed that he was arrested on charges of trespassing into an ashram in Whitefield, Bangalore. “Police said Raj Kiran, who has been in the city central jail for nearly a month, was given local surety after his father arrived in Bangalore from Bombay on Wednesday…It is reported that Raj Kiran, who has been separated from his wife and children, attempted to trespass into the ashram on June 5 by scaling the wall with the help of a ladder. However, it proved futile and he was handed over to the police by security men,” the report stated.
Raj would speak about the incident in an interview in 1997 to Cine Blitz magazine titled ‘I need work to survive…: Raj Kiran’s desperate plea’. He called the ashram episode “just a case of trespassing,” claiming that it was blown out of proportion. “I cannot talk much about it since the case is in court. The trauma that I faced when I was put in jail is indescribable. You can never understand the fear one feels, when you are told that you cannot be bailed out. I spent 34 days in jail and sitting there, I was not sure if I would ever be free. That is a very scary feeling.” The article mentions that Raj had been in America for a few years; disappointed with his professional life in films, he had attempted to make a living in America, where his family lived. He claimed that he had a fairly good job there and, for once, was really happy.
However, as a result of the trespassing case, he lost his job and had to start looking for acting roles again. Vinod Pande, who had earlier directed him in Star, signed him on for the TV serial Reporter (1994), which became a hit. However, after a few random roles, work dried up.
Amidst reports of depression and mental illness, he apparently moved to the US again but nothing was heard about him for at least a decade following his interview of 1997. Thereafter, his old colleagues and friends in the industry started attempting to trace him. His once-co-star Deepti Naval posted on Facebook, “Looking for a friend from the film world his name is Raj Kiran – we have no news of him – last heard he was driving a cab in NY city if anyone has any clue, please tell . . .” In 2011, Rishi Kapoor tracked his family down in the United States. A Times of India report quoted Kapoor, “I was so relieved when Govind (Mahtani, Raj Kiran’s brother) told me Raj was alive.” He was supposedly confined to an institution in Atlanta due to health problems, and supported his treatment himself by working within the institution.
However, a few months later, Raj Kiran’s daughter Rishika came out with the news that her father was not in an institution in Atlanta but was missing. “He is not In Atlanta. We have been looking for him for over eight years. We have involved the New York police and hired private detectives to find him. But he's not been found.” She also maintained that Raj was “the most loving father”. “Yes, he suffered from a bit of mental illness before he disappeared. We wanted to deal with this on our own, but those false reports forced me to come out in the open. I think this is totally unfair on my mother,” she said, adding that Raj was a private individual, and hence the family chose not to talk about it earlier.
According to reports, after several years of waiting, his wife Roopa Mahtani remarried and is now Roopa Mashruwala. His daughter Rishika Mahtani shares a birthday post every year in memory of her father.
After more than 25 years of going missing, Raj Kiran’s whereabouts still remain a mystery.