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01 May 2020

The Hyphen In Between

My mind is reeling. I began to write a tribute, and all I could think of were clich├ęs. If I had been writing on paper, the room would have been littered with crumpled balls of paper because I just couldn’t find the words to express what I felt. And I felt like I had to be honest about my feelings, because the man I was writing about – Rishi Raj Kapoor – was brutally so, to the point of being rude, sometimes. I felt like crying – the loss was so personal. Did I know the man? No, of course, I didn’t. But he wasn’t a stranger – I’d known him for so long. Right from my childhood, in fact.
04.09.1952 – 30.04.2020
“Son of a famous father, father of a famous son. I’m the hyphen in between.” That was his Twitter handle.
If he wanted to stretch that metaphor, Rishi Kapoor could have stretched it further. He was also the hyphen between the superstardom of Rajesh Khanna and the juggernaut that was Amitabh Bachchan. He had taken over the mantle of romantic hero from one, and held his own against the other. This, during an age when romance seemed dead, and youthful angst was being exemplified on screen by a tall, dark, intense young man with brooding eyes and a baritone voice.
For me, Rishi was definitely a part of my childhood. From Bobby, which I saw on a re-run years after its original release, to Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, where Rishi and Zeenat were more interesting than the leads, Tariq and Kaajal. In fact, what I remember most from that film is the qawwali, Hey agar dushman, zamana 
And that was the point, really. Rishi was one of the few heroes who had some truly great songs to his credit. Songs that made you want to sing along; songs that made you itch to dance. It also helped that he, like his uncle Shammi Kapoor, had an inborn sense of rhythm. If I were to make a list of songs that I liked between the 70s to the 90s, I’m willing to bet that at least 70% of those songs would have been picturised on Rishi Kapoor. 
He slipped easily into the role of love; he romanced his heroines so naturally one couldn't help but fall in love. However, Rishi never did get his due as an actor, not at his prime. Despite some really decent work – whether it was in Ek Chadar Maili Si, where he played a young man forced to marry his widowed sister-in-law who had brought him up; or Prem Rog, where he falls in love with a young woman who marries another, only to have her return to him as a widow; or Khoj, where he played the distraught husband whose wife goes missing, he brought a certain competence to his roles. But it was his ‘second innings’ that was truly spectacular. Whether it was that he was free of being ‘romantic’ or whether it was because he truly didn’t give a damn, Rishi loosened up. I will never forget his performance, alternately comic and pathos-ridden, as producer ‘Romi Rolly’ in Luck by Chance (2009). Just when I thought he couldn’t surprise me anymore, he turned up as a Rauf Lala, a sex trafficker, in the remake of Agneepath. 
He was so deliciously evil. It was as if ‘Bollywood’ had suddenly discovered that Rishi could be evil – he was the corrupt DCP Ravikant Phogat in Aurangazeb (2013); he was Iqbal Seth in D-Day (2013). And if I liked him in 2010’s Do Dooni Char, where he and Neetu played protagonists again – and how well! – films like Mulk, Kapoor & Sons, 102 Not Out, etc., made me appreciate how good an actor he was.  
Rishi’s earlier films had made me smile. His later ones showed me the talent that had been hidden under that veneer of good looks and charm. 
When asked how he stayed relevant, he muttered, in an unusually self-deprecating tone, that he had been "born lucky and stayed lucky". But that’s too simplistic – there was an abundance of talent; the give-a-damn attitude which made him take up roles that went against his ‘image’; there was the sheer joy of acting. And behind all that was a serious dedicated professional who wore his lineage lightly.   
"I want to live as an actor and die as one," he had said once. He got his wish. Khuda hafiz, Akbar Illahabadi. You made me smile. And that’s how I will always remember you.

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