“Main shaayar toh nahin, magar aii haseen, jabse dekha maine tuhjhko mujhko shaayari aa gayi”
The year, 1973. The film, Bobby. The actor, Rishi Kapoor, singing that song to his beloved, Dimple Kapadia. Bobby was a smash hit. Overnight, the Rishi Kapoor-Dimple Kapadia jodi became such a rage that it seemed there had been no youthful romance before it, and in a manner of speaking, there hadn’t. Raj Kapoor’s talent for telling oversize stories melding soppiness and sharpness, combined with his eye for spotting pubescent beauties, a basket of lilting melodies, and a mint-fresh pair, did the trick. Polka-dotted bikinis and an artful streak of ‘besan’ adorning the hairline (referencing Dimple’s opening scene) became the look du jour for young women, and every single young lovelorn ‘aashiq’ became a ‘shaayar’, praying for a ‘band kamra’ and lost keys.
The wearer of those trademark double-knit sweaters, colourful mufflers, and the life-long lover of ‘pyaar, mohabbat’, passed away this morning in a Mumbai hospital, after a two year struggle with cancer. He had spent a year in the US, getting treated, and had returned late last year, in a buoyant mood. His family said that he was ‘jovial’ right to the end, and that sounds just about right for a man who had supped (and sipped) well, laughed loudly, and loved well and fully. He was 67.
Bobby was one of those films which turned iconic even while it was playing in theaters. It resurrected the flailing fortunes of Raj Kapoor, who was then reeling from the crash and burn of his 1970 laced-with-melancholy, semi-autobiographical opus, Mera Naam Joker. It gave the wavy-haired fair-and-handsome Rishi, who had a small but significant part in the former, his break-out film. Shaking himself out of broke stupor, Raj Kapoor had made Bobby as a quick get-out-of-jail card, but it came off as the kind of 100 watt launch reserved for star kids, from the house of the flamboyant showman who lived life, king-size: a star was born. And Rishi Kapoor became the golden boy of Bollywood, the singing-dancing-romancing hero we all loved to love.
That Rishi Kapoor would be a star, was ordained. And he remained one all through his long career, dotted with all kinds of films, good, bad and plain indifferent, toplining the youthful, bashful charmer that he played so well, till there came a time when he couldn’t, and tipped over into that stage when an actor can be called a veteran.
In the last few years, Kapoor played the kind of suave, worldly, wine-sipping dads who are more supportive pals to their kids in Yashraj’s Hum Tum (2004), graduating to grandpa status in the Karan Johar production Kapoor & Sons (2016), where he was buried under horrible layers of latex, fully surplus to the requirements: Kapoor, always a star but also always an able actor, could have given us age without the make-up. He had the mileage.
There are so many films that Kapoor played lover-boy, with a great deal of success. In his best iterations of youthful lover, he dialled down the mannerisms, looked straight into the eyes of the girl, and smiled that smile. Never as crinkly as his uncle Shashi’s (no one could better that smile), it was still a smile that did the trick. It melted the heart of the girl in front of him, and all the swooning ladies in the auditorium.
In 1976, Rishi was part of Yash Chopra’s evergreen romantic multi-starrer, Kabhi Kabhie: those were the days of bell-bottoms, and bouffants and floppy collared-shirts, and hangdog lovers. Rishi aced the look, and brightened up the film considerably. The same year, he had a huge success as a solo hero with, Laila Majnu’ in which he and Ranjeeta played the mythic star-crossed lovers. But Kapoor could also be surprisingly light on his feet, and his comic timing was on full display in the 1975 double-bill Khel Khel Mein and Rafoo Chakkar, in which he made whoopee with Neetu Singh: the two would go on to make another extremely popular ‘jodi’ in a number of films, and to marry.
Kapoor was right on top, all through the 70s. Making movies as a lone star (many of which he seemed to do on auto-pilot: how many times could you go around the trees, cavorting with the leading lady of choice, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, Divya Bharti, without it appearing same old?), and as part of some great entertainers, jingly-jangly multi-starrers, which was the burgeoning go-to genre of its own during that most exciting decade of Hindi cinema: Amitabh Bachchan was the swiftly rising new star in those years, and Rishi Kapoor’s ability to ease into narratives that he didn’t fully own, allowed him to carve a space of his own, both in the films which was chock full of stars, as well as in those where he was the only big male helmer.
He also had the ability to switch between broad brush-strokes and delicacy, and we saw that in 1977, a great year for him donning studded, blindingly shiny sequins, strumming the guitar, he disco-ed it up in Nasir Hussain’s musical Hum Kissi Se Kam Nahin. The same year, in a remarkably versatile flip, he appeared in the sombre drama, Doosra Aadmi: in the way it depicted realised feelings amongst grown-ups, this Ramesh Talwar film would be current even today.
And once again, the same year, a switcheroo. Who can forget Akbar Allahabadi in Amar Akbar Anthony: that paan-stained-teeth, dil-phenk ‘aashiq’, singing that timeless qawwali: purdah hai purdah, and making puppy eyes at the burqa-clad Neetu Singh? It was a believe-it-or-faint Manmohan Desai entertainer, and Rishi Kapoor provided a well-judged balance to the burly bluster of Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna, creating an instant classic, which spoke so beautifully to the sectarian, inclusive nature of India, inside and outside the movies.
So many movies, so many memorable characters. The 80s was the decade when Bollywood was swamped with unimaginative repeats, tired re-treads. Even here, Rishi managed eyeballs. Monty in Subhash Ghai’s 1980 reincarnation drama, Karz, Dev in one of Raj Kapoor’s last significant outings Prem Rog (1982), the pain-filled, in-search-of-redemption Mangal in Sukhwant Dhadda’s Ek Chadar Maili Si (1983), Ravi in Saagar (1985), chiefly remembered only because it resurrected Dimple Kapadia’s dwindling career, Rohit in Chandni (1989), where Sridevi’s nau-nau choodiyaan became the staple of all shaadi-songs. And then came Deewana in 1992, in which his co-star was a mop-haired, dimpled rank new-comer. His name was Shah Rukh Khan, and he would go on to carve his own brand of youthful romance in Bollywood.
Kapoor’s days of playing lover-boy may have been over but there was no way you could keep a good Kapoor down, especially the kind of Kapoor who managed to adapt: we saw him play a conflicted son-and-husband in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini, a seasoned lover in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, an out-and-out bad guy in Agneepath, a version of himself in Chintuji, a harried householder in Do Dooni Chaar (along with Neetu, equally delightful), and his star son, Ranbir’s father, in the plain awful Besharam, one that he would have wanted to throw off his vast-and-varied CV.
Like old wine, or, better still, the finest scotch, favourite Kapoor tipple, Rishi kept getting better. Two years back, he played a patriarch, a Muslim, and a patriot, in Anubhav Sinha’s stirring Mulk: his anguished speech, when he speaks of his love for his ‘watan’, was the moving core of the film. ‘Pyaar kaise saabit kiya jaata jata hai.. pyar kar ke hi na..’
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In his trenchant social media feed (he was a very popular figure on Twitter, with millions of followers, and delighted in taking on trolls with great gusto), he was constantly making the case for ‘pyaar’ and ‘bhai-chara’, fading values that lent a meaningful pillar not just to the movies, but life itself.
A star who exemplified love, who made people fall in love, is no more. His ‘adaa’, his smile, his stories, will live on. The shy ‘shaayar’ turning into a heavyweight thespian, will live on: khullam khulla pyaar kareinge hum dono, he sang, iss duniya se nahin dareinge hum dono.
He went, still singing that song.
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