Indian cinema is 100 years old and the Kapoors have ruled it for 84 of those years. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Editor, Chandigarh, Vipin Pubby, actor Rishi Kapoor talks about his second innings on screen and wonders why all national assets are named after politicians.
Rakesh Rocky: You entered the film industry as a child actor in Mera Naam Joker, debuted as a lead in Bobby, and returned as a villain in Agneepath. What changes have you noticed in Indian cinema in all these years?
I have completed 42 years in the industry. Change is a part of life, and it’s human to opt for change. It brings to mind Kavi Pradeep’s song from I S Johar’s 1954 film Nastik, ‘Dekh tere sansaar ki haalat kya ho gayi Bhagwan, kitna badal gaya insaan’. This was written 65 years ago, I wasn’t even born then!
Change is inevitable — sometimes, it can come through technology, through choice, growth, evolution. We can talk and talk about how things have deteriorated and say, look at the content, music, lyrics… Technology has come in, trial and error method is gone, there is cut-throat competition and the audience will not forgive you. In our time, heroes could never be deaf and dumb, now they are because the dynamics of cinema has changed. Sensibilities have changed. With plush seats, air-conditioning, tickets have become expensive. A multiplex will screen for masses and classes, but the autodriver out there still wants to watch Dabangg and Ready.
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Jaskiran Kapoor: You’ve reinvented the role of the father in interesting ways. How have you managed that? Also, after being a leading hero for 25 years, you are now making waves with your second innings. Tell us about it.
I am ageing and, naturally, playing my age. I also look at each character in a new light. I can’t possibly play a typical filmi father standing at the edge of the stairs and shouting, ‘khabardaar agar tum andar aaye to (don’t you dare come inside)’ to my son. I like to do characters of today, like Agneepath’s Rauf Lala. People say he is a villain, I say he is an everyday guy who has both the good and bad in him.
I was a romantic hero for 25 years. Now, I want to play roles people can identify with, like the one in Bewakoofiyan. I am happy playing an everyday man. I immensely enjoyed playing Mr Duggal in Do Dooni Chaar; it was real.
Vipin Pubby: How do you rate Indian films vis-à-vis international cinema?
What is the need to compare? As Indians, we suffer from Oscar complex, but we have to serve a naashta (snacks) Indians like. Our films are like our food —meetha, teekha, namkeen (sweet, spicy, salty) — and Americans will never understand what’s palatable to us and vice-versa. Yes, they have an advantage of a bigger market, big budgets and universality of their language. But, whatever anyone says, Hindi films are enjoyed the world over and even I am recognised by young non-Asians, non-Indians on the streets of New York. Our films have all the rasas, they are more humane.
Vandana Sharma: Are you a strict father? Was your father a disciplinarian?
It depends on the yardstick one has. I never shared a drink with my father, but I have shared it with Ranbir. But there’s still a glass wall between him and me. I believe that there has to be a distance between a father and a son. There has to be aankh ki sharam, a respect which I had for my father.
Nitin Sharma: From leading man to a character actor, how did this transition take place?
I was called a ‘Jersey Man’ because of my sweaters. I was shooting non-stop, singing and dancing in Shimla, Switzerland, and was getting bored of it. I was middle-aged, gaining weight and thoroughly dissatisfied with what I was doing. I was only making money.
Neetu, my wife, said quit before you get bored. It was the late ’80s and early ’90s and all the Khans — Salman, Aamir, Shah Rukh — had entered the field. I did my last film as a leading man in 1998, Rakesh Roshan’s Karobaar with Juhi Chawla and Anil Kapoor, and decided that was it. I had been a romantic hero for 25 years, which is a record.
By God’s grace, I had a smooth sailing. I braved a toofan called Amitabh Bachchan. There were actors brandishing pistols, doing maar-dhaadh, and here was I, a hero with a guitar! Not many know that Shammi Kapoor retired at the age of 36. I retired at the age of 46.
It was a decision not many leading actors can take, for it’s difficult to come to terms with the situation. In spite of people laughing behind their backs, they still carry on as heroes. Call it narcissism, but it is immensely tough to give up this position of power and adulation.
In our country, an actor is wanted because of his youth, his ability to sing, dance, romance, and not because of his talent. An actor’s experience makes him great with age, and the West celebrates such talent. After Karobaar, I returned producers their money, sat without work for two and a half months and decided to write and direct Aa Ab Laut Chalein.
I am not made for anything except films. I may have retired from a position, but I still wanted to be part of this industry.
Shishir Tripathi: Are Indian directors afraid of attempting unusual films, like the one you are shooting for in Chandigarh, Shekhar Bhattacharya’s Aayi Bala Ko Taal Tu?
We are a scared lot because while people want to see good content-based cinema, the filmmakers have to see the mathematics behind it. They have to make their money, which is the most important element. People want change and get bored of the same stuff, but the question is who will put in the money for a content-based and not star-studded film like Aayi Bala Ko Taal Tu. Having said that, I feel if a film is engaging, people will go to see it.
Jaskiran Kapoor: Tell us about Aayi Bala Ko Taal Tu.
It revolves around the lack of toilets for women, and I play a minister, one of the lead characters, along with Shefali Shah, Divya Dutta, Ram Kapoor and Alok Nath. Statistics reveal that maximum rapes occur between 4 and 6 am when, due to lack of public toilets, women have to go to the fields. This is a film that highlights this problem, how the central government gives money, the state eats it, and the money never reaches the people.
There are so many pressing issues plaguing this country which need to be addressed, but if we deliver something in a boring capsule, no one will see it.
Mukesh Bhardwaj: How do you view the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party?
My political knowledge is zero, but as a citizen of this country, I have the right to voice my grouses. I have no political aspirations, but I have questions. For instance, why are roads used for what they are not meant for? We have vendors, hawkers on platforms, pavements and roads; from marriages, funerals to festivals, religious processions to political rallies to nature’s call —everything happens on the road. Politicians do not want us to raise our voices because these people on the road are their vote bank. I don’t want to displace these people or snatch their livelihood.
But why not rehabilitate them, move them to a better place? Similarly, why doesn’t anyone question why every national asset is named after a politician? Why is the Bandra-Worli Sea link called the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link? Why is it not called M F Husain or Lata Mangeshkar or J R D Tata Sea Link? I have nothing against the Congress, but why is everything named after Rajiv or Indira Gandhi? Why not after people who have given their everything to the development and progress of a city? Who will listen to me? They will say he is just an actor, a joker! But someone has to raise a voice. Everything christened after one dynasty is unacceptable to me. Also, why are we not proud Indians? We spit, litter, do nothing to instil a sense of pride in us as Indians. We are taught all this in school, but nothing happens in reality. It’s time it does.
Sanjay Kumar: Genetics versus social environment — what affects you as an actor?
I feel there is nothing called genetics or dynastic rule. There are so many brothers, sisters, family members who have not made it, and I don’t want to name them. There are so many within our family; it’s just love, divine blessings, luck in our case. Neta and abhineta are two kinds of people who are made by janta’s vote — either through their work or the screen. If you are good at what you do, you will be given a chance and accepted.
Nitin Sharma: You are a third- generation actor. How was it growing up in the Kapoor household?
I don’t remember having a normal teenager’s life. Mera Naam Joker came in 1970, I was 15-16 then and out of school. I assisted my father in Kal Aaj Aur Kal in 1971. The film didn’t work because of the India-Pakistan war. There were blackouts and the most to be affected at such times is the entertainment industry. Four shows were cut down to two, and we lost heavily. We were in debt, our studios were mortgaged and, till 1973, Raj Kapoor didn’t even own a house. Here is a man who established the RK banner in 1945, made films like Barsaat, Aag, Sangam, Jis Desh Main Ganga Behti Hai, and then one film left him bankrupt. So, the first thing my mother made him do after the success of Bobby was buy a house.
My father wasn’t a very educated man or a bookworm, but he was a wise man. I feel that comics influenced him and he wanted to make a regular love story. This was his comeback film, with newcomers. Actors like Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore called to say that they would work for free, but here was a Punjabi whose ego was hurt, who wanted to prove something. Bobby happened. And it was never a vehicle for me. It was titled after the heroine. Raj Kapoor was not someone who would introduce his son. This film was to get rid of the debt, he could do what he wanted to, it was a product of his cinematic thinking, and it was the biggest film of its time. At 21, I was a superstar who couldn’t work with any of the leading actresses, because be it Rekha, Hema Malini or Zeenat Aman, all of them looked older than me. So, I ended up with new girls, Neetu Singh being one. It took me time to find my footing in the industry. All this is in my memoirs that I am penning now.
Ifrah Mufti: How did you handle your success then and that of your son’s now?
There is no comparison. I was a star when Ranbir wasn’t even born. I am a nobody today and Ranbir is a star.
Sukhmani Kaur: Kapoors are known to take risks.
When I got a break, I was told by my father to walk, fall, get up and learn on my own. There was no guidance from him. He was a father, not a secretary. Prithviraj Kapoor was the same; I am Ranbir’s father, not his secretary. If that had been the case, I would’ve never allowed him to do a Barfi! or Wake up Sid or Rocket Singh. Which hero plays a sardar, deaf and dumb guy? It’s not conventional star material. But when Barfi! happened, it silenced Ranbir’s detractors, it was in the Rs 100-crore club, it won awards and, as a result, he created his own monster. People now refuse to see him in any other kind of role. So a usual potboiler like Besharam didn’t work. This is called risk taking.
Rakesh Rocky: Our films and stars are popular in Pakistan. How important is an artist’s role in such relations?
There is no relationship between politics and actors. Yes, we can be good ambassadors for our country. For instance, Divya Dutta and Om Puri are holding five shows of the Punjabi play Teri Amrita in Lahore. I have many friends in Lahore. There are good ties among people. It’s only politics that makes it rough.
Ankush Khurana: Do you plan to direct more films?
My workload has increased so much that it doesn’t allow me to venture into direction.
Chitleen Sethi: Tell us about your marriage.
We have worked in 13 films together and when we got married, we decided that one would be the breadwinner and the other homemaker. I insisted that Neetu should work with me in Do Dooni Chaar. But she hardly has any love for films anymore. We have two lovely kids, Ridhima is married, Ranbir is a successful actor.
Japjeet Duggal: If a film were to be made on politics, who would you want to play — Narendra Modi, Manmohan Singh or Rahul Gandhi? And, of these, who as the prime minister?
I would want them to play themselves, as they are the best of actors and orators.
Jaskiran Kapoor: You are known for your temper and arrogance. Do these fuel the actor in you?
When Saawariya released, I knew one thing: Ranbir has the junoon an actor needs and his kids will never go hungry. I had the same passion. He gets it from me, and he has created an image.
I work in a field that grabs attention. I hate the very thing that makes an individual a star. This is not because of any disillusionment or arrogance. It’s just that I am nervous and maybe it’s a psychological disorder. It’s my weakness. Ranbir is the exact opposite of me. He is passionate, he sits with his fans, discusses things, takes pictures. In the 100 years of Indian cinema, the Kapoors have contributed in 84 years, and I am proud of this legacy, proud to be an Indian, proud to be a Kapoor.
Transcribed by Jaskiran Kapoor.