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04 September 2021

The Greats: Rishi Kapoor

04.09.1952 – 30.04.2020
Photo Credit: Express Archive

I first wrote this post, thinking I would post it on Rishi Kapoor's first death anniversary. Circumstances hindered that plan. So the next best thing, I decided, was to post this on his birth anniversary later in the year. So. Here it is. 
Rishi Kapoor had already had a very successful adolescent debut – he played the young Raju in his father’s autobiographical magnum opus, Mera Naam Joker. The character – that of a young boy whose sexuality is awakened in his teen years was sensitively portrayed by the director. Rishi’s portrayal gave him a National Award. It seems rather a strange coincidence that only a couple of weeks or so before he died, I’d found an uncut copy of Mera Naam Joker on YouTube, all 4+ hours of it. We watched it, my husband and I, and marvelled at how well it had aged.

A few years after that debut, Raj Kapoor would launch his son in his ‘adult’ debut – Hindi cinema’s first teenage love story, Bobby. It was a dream debut opposite a fresh-faced debutante, Dimple Kapadia (though Rishi would claim that the film was made to launch Dimple, not him). Rishi was 21, Dimple, 15. The film? A blockbuster.

But I, who watched Bobby, years after its initial release, was still too young to understand teenage angst or rebellion. Besides, Rishi looked too young to be an idol, and my heart was already taken by a tall man with sad eyes who played the harmonica. But Rishi was part of my childhood in many ways – that was the era when I think I watched a movie every weekend; my father loved Hindi films, and he took us to as many as were released. So I saw Rishi romance a new heroine in every film, loved the youthful energy he brought to his lover-boy roles, and enjoyed his films which were mostly entertaining.

By the time Sargam and Karz  came along, I was willing to watch a film solely for Rishi. It helped that he was one of the few heroes of the time who looked natural holding a daph, a guitar or playing a harmonium or piano. It didn’t matter if he actually knew music or not; he looked like he did, as much as he looked like he was actually singing. In an interview a few months before he died, Rishi explained how he had learnt to lip sync to songs from his father, who demanded that he actually sing the song while enacting it.

Karz was the turning point for me – that was when Rishi Kapoor entered the league of my favourite heroes (in the second rung after Amitabh, of course). The story, an adaptation of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud had some great songs, a fresh pairing in Rishi and Tina Munim, Pran in an avuncular role, and a female villain. The object of Rishi’s infatuation in his first film was now the murderess whom he seduces for revenge. Interesting premise, and the ‘masala’ elements of the film really worked.

As I grew older, and watched more and more films, I began to have a sneaking respect for a ‘hero’ who didn’t care he was playing second fiddle to the heroine. Rishi made his mark in several films which either had the heroine in the titular role, or otherwise had the lion’s share of reel time – Bobby, Kabhi Kabhie, Sargam, Doosra Aadmi, Prem Rog, Nagina, Chandni, Henna, Damini, Prem Granth, Daraar, etc.

Then of course, the Kapoor curse hit – Rishi’s love for the bottle and good food was a potent combination. His avoirdupois grew to be cloaked in knit sweaters. (Rishi claimed half-proudly, half-self-mocking, that his collection of knits meant that he never repeated a sweater.) The romancing continued. Only the girls and the locations changed – sometimes even the locations didn’t. Luckily, before the audiences began to point out the obvious, Rishi tired of the routine. As he put it – brutally honest as always – “How long was I going to wear a different sweater to romance a different girl?” He hung up his boots as romantic hero, only to make an exception to reunite with his Bobby the film was Pyar Mein Twist, a tale of second chances.

In the meantime, he appeared, as if on cue, in at least one film every year, playing avuncular older characters.

However, things began to change when Hindi cinema underwent another change – for the better. Fresh directors began to emerge, bringing a new ‘voice’ to the ongoing narrative. Mindless ‘entertainers' continued to be made, but there were some oases of hope – and Rishi joyously embraced ‘new-age’ cinema. Freed from the entrapment of ‘hero’ and not having to shoulder the responsibility of the film on his shoulders left him free to experiment. And the ‘chocolate-boy’ ‘teenage heartthrob’ took on diverse characters, good, bad, deviant – and exulted in that freedom.

The enfant terrible of Hindi cinema may still have been alive and well – in real life, Kapoor could be brash, rude, even obnoxious. But, to his credit, he admitted his faults, apologised when he was wrong, and was, above all else, brutally honest about himself – and others. But as cast and crew of his various films admitted, sometimes shamefacedly, Rishi was committed to his job. He was punctual, knew his lines, and made no objections to countless retakes.

In his prime, he may have been dismissed as a romantic hero serenading his heroines; however, as I went through quite a few of his films following his demise, good, bad and indifferent, I realised that I never saw a bad Rishi Kapoor performance. He was never indifferent; he never sleep walked through his roles. He was a natural in front of the camera, and it showed up lesser actors’ lack of talent. You couldn’t blame Rishi for it; he was the most generous of co-stars – vouched for by the many people who worked with him – who worked for the betterment of the scene rather than an extra two seconds of his face on screen. No one has ever accused him of stealing their thunder, or cutting their scenes, or changing the script to suit his image. No wonder he worked in so many multi-starrers, two-hero, and heroine-dominated films. That lack of vanity showed in his performance as well.

Today, on his birth anniversary, a very subjective list of some of my favourite Rishi Kapoor performances. 

1. Raju

Mera Naam Joker
/ Directed by: Raj Kapoor / Co-starring: Simi Garewal 
A young adolescent, out of place among his richer classmates, finds compassion and understanding from his new English teacher (Simi Garewal). Her friendliness offers the lonely young boy a lifeline, which soon develops into a crush. Anyone who has undergone the heartbreak of an adolescent crush can understand Raju’s agony. The first of three parts of a semi-autobiographical film was a gentle coming-of-age saga which begins when Raju is around 14 or so. Rishi Kapoor won a well-deserved National Award for Best Child Artist this role.

2. Akbar Ilahabadi
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) /
Directed by Manmohan Desai / Co-starring: Neetu Singh 
 The time was the 70s when Amitabh Bachchan overshadowed everyone around him. The film was a multi-starrer, co-starring Vinod Khanna, a rival claimant to Amitabh’s throne. It was directed by Manmohan Desai, a Amitabh favourite. And yet, Rishi Kapoor not only had a lion’s share of the songs, he made his presence felt as the affable qawal, Akbar Ilahabadi. He provided the romance, the youthful zest and the humour in a film that was as zany as any Desai could dream up. With his see-through shirts (which Rishi scoured Fashion Street to buy), a hairline moustache and ebullient charm, Rishi sailed through the film, leaving us as much in love with his Akbar as Neetu’s Salma.
3. Monty
/ Directed by Subhash Ghai / Co-starring: Tina Munim
A film that supposedly failed upon release [I watched it in a packed theatre in Bangalore] and so devastated Rishi Kapoor that he fell into a depression, Karz has reclaimed its status. This Indian adaptation of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud has become a cult film over the years. As a young singer whose past life surfaces, leaving him to seek justice for a grievous wrong that was done to him and his family, Rishi was magnificent. It was this film that made me look a little closer at Rishi, the actor – the scenes where he terrorizes his antagonist, the micro-expressions that flicker on his face only to vanish under a veneer of charm, the terror those expressions incite in the viewer – this was a different Rishi from the ‘lover boy’ image that his previous roles had conferred on him.

4. Deodhar (Dev)
Prem Rog
(1982) /
Directed by: Raj Kapoor / Co-starring: Padmini Kolhapure

Rishi was one of those secure actors who didn’t mind playing second-fiddle in films which either revolved around the heroine or had a strong female protagonist. In Prem Rog, that protagonist is Rama (Padmini Kolhapure), the pampered, spoilt daughter of a rich Thakur household. Dev’s (Rishi) love for Rama is unspoken, neither understood nor requited. Until Rama, who becomes a widow just a day after her marriage, returns home, grieving, traumatized and scarred by experiences no child should experience. Dev’s quiet friendship offers Rama both solace and support, and now, the forced-to-mature-quickly young girl is drawn to his unconditional love. Rishi’s Deodhar is compassionate, courageous, determined, and matter-of-fact. It was a stellar performance.
5. Rohit Gupta
Chandni (1989) /
Directed by: Yash Chopra / Co-starring: Sridevi
I know Yash Chopra is considered the King of Romance, but truth be told, his romances leave me cold. I find them vapid, even regressive, and his notions of man-woman relationships leave me shuddering. Chandni’s Rohit, particularly, is the kind of man who, if he were my boyfriend, I would want to hit on the head with a cricket bat. [No, hiring a helicopter to shower me with rose petals would not cause my heart to flutter with joy; it would only cause me to question his intelligence. And mine, for falling in love with him.]
Rohit is the type who decides for his girlfriend’s life for her, and then appears at just the wrong moment to tell her that now he’s back, she should be falling over herself in joy. So why is this film here in this list? Because… Rishi Kapoor. Chandni was watchable purely because of him and Sridevi. [I felt sorry for Vinod Khanna – his was a thankless role and he definitely caught the short end of the stick.] Rishi expressed joy, guilt, regret, and hurt in that one scene, and made us understand his actions, even sympathise with them, even if (like me) we didn’t find them comprehensible.

6. Shekhar Gupta
Damini (1993) / Directed by: Rajkumar Santoshi / Co-starring: Meenakshi Seshadri

Damini was an ode to Meenakshi Seshadri, made by a director who was self-admittedly head over heels in love with her. Meenakshi, never really known for her acting chops, did a reasonably competent job as an ordinary young woman who’s forced to take a stand during extraordinary circumstances. The critics raved about Sunny Deol’s dhaai kilo ke haath and other wolf-whistles-to-the-gallery dialogues which helped him, as the reviews of the day stated, to ‘walk away with the honours’. What most people didn’t notice then was that Rishi had a thankless, but more quietly nuanced role – that of the odd man in a joint family who’s torn between the wife he loves and his family of origin, and his own sense of right and wrong.  
7. Romi Rolly

Luck By Chance
(2009) /
Directed by: Zoya Akhtar
Zoya Akhtar has often mentioned that Rishi Kapoor was the first person she signed when she was struggling to make her debut film. As a once-successful producer now down on his luck, Rishi infused his ‘Romi Rolly’ with the pathos and frustration of a man who knows he’s been left behind in the rat race. Loosely based on, it is alleged, Subhash Ghai, Rishi’s performance made you realise just how unforgiving an industry can be to what it considered its has-beens. (Incidentally, in the late 70s, Raj Kapoor bemoaned how the changing trends in the industry had sidelined film-makers like him.) Rishi’s performance was finely notched – not a note out of place, as he walked the tightrope between pathos and bathos, never making the mistake of turning the performance up a notch to evoke audience sympathy.
8. Santosh Duggal
Do Dooni Char (2010) / Directed by: / Co-starring: Neetu Singh
Ah, what a comeback! For Neetu, that is. Despite the long hiatus from films, she proved she had matured as she aged. But. The film belonged to Rishi, Santosh Duggal seemingly an extension of his real persona – opinionated, short-tempered, obstinate, but honest and principled. This little gem of a film showcased the reality of the Indian middle-class – the ones caught between the aspirations of their upwardly-mobile progeny and the often-sour reality of their existence. Santosh Duggal is a man of principles who struggles to live up to his children’s expectations. It is a tale of two Indias, often trapped within a single household. The atmosphere was both believable and lived in, the characters, not just the two ‘leads’, people whom we have all met and known. The language, the relationships, the suddenly flaring-up feuds and the camaraderie between neighbours came through the tight screenplay that set the narrative amidst Delhi’s crowded lanes and middle-class neighbourhoods.  
9. Rauf Lala
Agneepath (2012) / Directed by: Karan Malhotra 
There had been hints of grey in Rishi’s characters before – Zehreela Insaan, Badalte Rishte, Khoj, even Karz. But this was out and out villainy, much to the dismay of his fans who had grown accustomed to his avuncular older characters (as in Dilli-6). But Rishi, so seemingly miscast, bit into this new role with relish. As Rauf Lala, the man who inducts Vijay (Hrithik Roshan) into the world of crime, and is an unapologetic child trafficker, Rishi’s kohl-lined eyes evoked only dread every time he appeared on screen. His performance was so chillingly real that the audience hated him. Interestingly, Rishi was hesitant about playing the character and had, in fact, rejected the offer, only to be persuaded by both Karans – Johar (the producer) and Malhotra (the director). In a post-film interview, he remarked on taking a look test for the film – according to him, a first in his career.

10. Iqbal Seth
D-Day (2013) /
Directed by: Nikhil Advani
Rauf Lala paved the way for Iqbal Seth a.k.a Goldman, loosely based on Dawood Ibrahim. Few would have thought Rishi could pull off the notorious gangster but he melded into the role like a chameleon. With the demeanour no doubt mimicked from his meeting with the real Dawood when he was a young star, Rishi’s Iqbal Seth managed to present an ominous aura every time he appeared on screen. The very act of slipping into Marathi when he loses his temper added verisimilitude to his portrayal as did his suavity and attitude.
11. DCP Ravikant Phogat
Aurangazeb (2013) /
Directed by: Atul Sabharwal
It seems once filmmakers knew Rishi could play the bad guy, the floodgates opened. Aurangazeb, the same year, saw Rishi don the role of DCP Ravikant Phogat, a corrupt police officer who manipulates events and even his own nephew Arya (Prithviraj Sukumaran) in order to destroy Yashvardhan (Jackie Shroff) and usurp his business empire. And he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, not even murder. It was a skilled, nuanced portrayal, and showed the younglings in the film that the veteran actor still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

12. Murad Ali Muhammed
Mulk (2018) / Directed by: Anubhav Sinha 
From the disaster that was Ra.One, director Anubhav Sinha finally came into his own, making Mulk, a film that looked at the collateral damage to terrorism – the family of the terrorist. Shahid (Prateik Babbar), a youngster, is brainwashed into joining a terrorist organisation and becoming part of a bomb attack. SSP Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor) shoots Shahid dead when he tries to escape instead of surrendering. As the police comb his house looking for evidence, the news spreads. Soon, the neighbourhood in which Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor), Shahid’s uncle, has lived his whole life begins viewing them with suspicion. Rishi’s Murad wears his Muslim identity with pride – he sports a beard, does namaz five times a day, and is insistent that he’s only answerable to his iman and mulk. But what happens when that mulk has no space for him? Mulk is a film that called for sanity and objectivity. And Rishi, who signed the film fifteen minutes into its narration, is its lynchpin.

13. Amarjeet Kapoor
Kapoor & Sons (2016) /
Directed by: Shakun Batra
I wonder how director Shakun Batra completed the film with Rishi swearing at him day in and out because he felt he was losing his spontaneity with every subsequent retake. Rishi’s argument was that new directors didn’t mind calling for retakes from every angle because they were shooting digitally and didn’t have to waste raw stock. Besides, the wholescale prosthetics that were required to turn him to a nonagenarian must have added to his misery. He was however gracious enough to apologize publicly to Shakun, saying that while he had offered to quit the film once or twice, Shakun must have wanted to throw him out at least once every day. Be that as it may, Rishi’s Amarjeet Kapoor, the patriarch of the dysfunctional Kapoor family, was a hoot. He was like no ‘dadaji’ ever – he was always up to mischief, called a spade a shovel, nurtured a crush on Mandakini, and flirted with anyone female. He also enjoys play-acting his own death, so when he really has a heart attack, his family are not unduly concerned. At first. He also has one sentimental wish – a family photograph of “Kapoor & Sons – since 1921’. That, actually, could be his own life, in a nutshell, the Kapoor family having been a part of the Hindi film industry almost since its inception. His pot-smoking, porn-loving, bhajan-listening grandpa may be too cute in some scenes, but the veteran actor does not descend into ham territory. 
Babulal Vakharia
102 Not Out / Directed by: Umesh Shukla / Co-starring Amitabh Bachchan 
This may seem like heresy from an avid Amitabh-fan like me, but truth be told, Rishi’s performance was hands down the better one in this film. When Shalini and I discussed this, we came to the conclusion that Rishi was always natural in his performances and continued to be so, whereas Amitabh, having played larger-than-life characters through most of his career needs a strong director to rein him in. Unfortunately, most directors seem to be in awe of the Amitabh persona, and Bachchan more often than not, hams to the hilt in most of his recent performances. He’s decidedly over the top in this one as the centenarian who wants to beat the world record for being the world’s oldest man. 
Rishi, playing his sad and grumpy 70+ son, Babulal Vakharia, outshines him in almost all the scenes the two have together. (Amitabh does get better as the film moves from the decidedly [hammy] comic sequences to the more serious second half.) Rishi’s hypochondriac, morose Babulal works because of the actor’s excellent comic timing, even when he’s being decidedly morbid. To be fair to AB, Rishi had the more complex character to play with, but I must confess to rooting for ‘old-school beta’ more than I did for ‘cool baap’.  

As I was making this list, I also realized that I liked as many films in his second innings as I did when he epitomized romance. That stands testimony, not only to his versatility but also his longevity as a performer. Rishi Kapoor didn't consider himself a superstar. He was an actor first and foremost, a performer who lived to entertain.

But whatever else he was or was not, he was one of a kind. They don't make actors like him any more. 

You are missed, sir. You will always be. 

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