Sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik pays tribute to Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor with his sand art creation on Puri beach, Thursday, April 30, 2020.
If one were to describe Rishi Kapoor in a single phrase, it would be the embodiment of youth and romance. He defined love and all its protocols for the Gen X in India. An idea that, surprisingly, far from getting frayed at the seams, has been embraced heartily by millennials and Gen Z as well. Cool and retro-cool have come to live happily ever after in the persona of Rishi Kapoor.
Perhaps it has been so because the energy and liveliness he brought to romance was infectious and timeless. It’s also the reason why it’s hard to imagine him robbed of it now. That too at the age of just 67. He was full of life even in the thick of his treatment for luekaemia in the United States in 2018.
For a young man bequeathed with the enviable Kapoor blood and genes, Rishi was born into acting. The evidence of which was for all to see in his debut itself. Not the song ‘Pyaar hua iqrar hua’ in his legendary father Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955), when he was barely three, but as the young Raju later in Mera Naam Joker (1970). It was a complicated role, of a boy’s deep infatuation with his school teacher (played by Simi Garewal) and he brought alive the pain and anxieties of unattainable love well enough to bag the National Award for the Best Child Artiste.
It was the following film, again by his father, Bobby (1973), a quintessential Bollywood romance, that unleashed him, along with Dimple Kapadia, as heartthrobs of the nation. The film came to form a new template for rebellious love. It was a love across class barriers, a love in which eloping was a way of making a grand statement against societal constrictions. It was all about breaking free.
More of such youthful films started piling up for him in the 1970s and early 1980s — Rafoo Chakkar (1975), Khel Khel Mein (1975), Laila Majnu (1976), Kabhie Kabhie (1976), Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), Sargam (1979), Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981) and more. All of them were marked by a zestful musical score and cool dancing moves that have been rocking the dance floor till date. “I upped the youth quotient. Till I came along, older stars were playing college students. That was broken and overnight… I sang songs dedicatedly for 25 years. Only the Khan stardom has lasted that long,” he told The Hindu in a 2016 interview.
For the Spartan, pre-liberalisation 1970s and 80s India, his cinema would have been a wholesome package of headiness, abandon and recklessness. It reflected in his own body language and the colours and designs of the trademark sweaters and mufflers he wore while singing and dancing with his lady love against fetching backdrops, in the hills, by the sea and often abroad. These films were dreamscapes in which the audience could live vicariously. Some even tried to turn the aspirational into attainable. Bollywood screenwriter Ishita Moitra tells me that one of the reasons her mother agreed to marry her father was because he was called Rishi. Such was the delirious passion for him.
His romance was also decidedly more physical than the chaste and dainty ones of the 1960s. Perhaps a carry forward of the smouldering Raj Kapoor and Nargis pairing in Shree 420 and more. In the time honoured tradition of Hindi cinema, those were the days of jodis (couples). A hero could be nothing without the heroine. So Rishi had to have a Neetu Kapoor (they also married) or Dimple or the then Tina Munim.
His stand-out turns in this heady phase were as Akbar Ilahabadi in Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), a lost and found film about three brothers which became a paean to the secular spirit of the nation. The element of cool reached the peak as music got mixed with murder to serve the most entertaining reincarnation saga — Subhash Ghai’s Karz (1980). As Monty, Rishi strummed the guitar and sang ‘Dard-e-dil’ and danced to ‘Om Shanti Om’. The young India did as well.
Late 1980s and 90s marked the decline of those romances. There were two stand-out films that were love triangles, in fact. One had him and Kamal Haasan vying for Dimple in her much touted return Saagar (1985), and Chandni (1989) in which it was a fight between him and Vinod Khanna for Sridevi. Bol Radha Bol (1992), Damini (1993) and Eena Meena Deeka (1994) paved the way for the character roles of the 2000s. In between, in 1999, Rishi also turned to direction with Aa Ab Laut Chalen.
Cinema has way of often creating neat demarcations. It can box people in limiting slots. So a mainstream star may often get disregarded as an actor, unfairly so. Rishi Kapoor’s versatility and the ability to transform was immense and criminally undervalued. If his debut wasn’t radical enough, a few years down the line came Ramesh Talwar’s Doosra Aadmi (1977) that looked at the tantalising possibility of a young man-older woman relationship. He played a man, forced by tradition, to marry his widowed sister-in-law Hema Malini in Sukhwant Dhadda’s Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986), which was adapted from a Rajendra Singh Bedi novella. Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog (1982) made a progressive call for widow remarriage. “I did offbeat films like Doosra Aadmi and Ek Chadar Maili Si back then, both of which failed. I was stuck with the identity of a lover boy in colourful sweaters singing songs in Ooty and Switzerland. I wasn’t given enough challenging roles,” he said.
Rishi Kapoor was the typical old world star of Bollywood who would blind you with his charisma, glamour and swagger. At the same time, he also took easily to the new ways, transitioning seamlessly into character roles and films made by a new brigade of filmmakers. From Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) to Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 (2009) to Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009), from Nikhil Advani’s D-Day (2013) to Atul Sabharwal’s Aurangzeb (2013) and more recently as the lascivious grandfather in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor and Sons (2016) and the patriarch with a secular heart in Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018). The most scintillating of them all was Habib Faisal’s real slice of Delhi life — Do Dooni Chaar (2010) — in which he and wife Neetu returned to the screen as the middle-aged, middle-class Duggals working hard to bring up their two bright children. It felt so lived in, as though they hadn’t left the big screen at all.
In his later years, he took just as easily to the social media as he did to the new filmmakers. Anushka Sharma introduced him to Twitter and Abhishek Bachchan revived his long defunct account. And so he started tweeting with his characteristic bluster, was blunt, forthright, disagreeable and often politically incorrect and aggressive in putting his views across. He got trolled just as he himself took to trolling. His tweets questioning the naming of public places after the Nehru and Gandhi families got blown up into a huge controversy.
I also got a glimpse of his mercurial side once. It was for the interview on his new online avtaar that I WhatsApp-ed, him only to be rebuked for not having appreciated him in Kapoor and Sons. However, within minutes, he seemed to have cooled down and had me come over the next day for an interview at his Hill Road apartment in Bandra, a temporary abode, till the Pali Hill home would get redone.
“I started acting when I was 15. Now, I have played a 90-year-old in Kapoor & Sons. I know you didn’t like me in it, but it was important for me as an actor to have covered the entire spectrum,” he told me. It was a wide-ranging conversation conducted over glasses of pudina chhaas (mint buttermilk), which he claimed was the best I could get in Mumbai. I couldn’t have agreed more. What lingers on still is this one line: “I am happy being an abhineta (actor), not a neta (politician)… Acting gives me a high”.
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