First Irrfan Khan. And now, Rishi Kapoor. People often use the phrase ‘end of an era’ loosely, but in the case of Kapoor, who passed away on April 30 at a Mumbai hospital after a prolonged battle with cancer, it was more appropriate than usual. Only 67 and jolly as ever, he had arrived at a seductively productive second act in recent decades which made fans and critics look up to him in an altogether different light. The turning point in the new innings may have been Rauf Lala, the bearded Muslim gang lord from Agneepath (2012) who kills without compunction. The veteran star’s menacing badassery charmed the critics and enraged fans as much as it inspired but his good-boy image endured. Years later, he followed up Rauf Lala with advocate Murad Ali, totally on the opposite end of the ‘Good Muslim-Bad Muslim’ divide. The Mulk (2018) protagonist deals with prejudice and stigma to win the day, along the way proving his patriotism and restoring family honour. The powerfully-written film was pronounced “important” and “urgent”, with Kapoor’s nuanced performance coming in for special praise. Director Anubhav Sinha told Scroll.in that the role was written with Kapoor in mind: “Rishiji normally ends up doing slice of life and comedy films. This film was drama and tragedy. I thought that would be a surprising casting.”
On his way to becoming the latest ‘Serious Actor in Town’, Rishi Kapoor also cranked out some familiar stints which would have given fans something to smile about. There was the feel-good, highly-meta Chintu Ji (2009), the hilarious Subhash Ghai-inspired turn in Luck By Chance (2009), as love guru to Saif Ali Khan in Love Aaj Kal (2009), the ensemble role in Delhi-6 (2009), the Hrishikesh Mukherjee-sque Do Dooni Char (2010), the parodic (but widely-derided) gay principal in Student of the Year (2012), sleazy studio producer in Manto (2018) and last but not least, 102 Not Out (2018), an oldies catch-up with Amitabh Bachchan — the faithful partner-in-crime whose first reaction to the news of his ailing friend’s death was beyond shock. “I’m destroyed,” tweeted a bereaved Big B.
Then, there was Kapoor & Sons (2016), an endearing family tragicomedy with a message, but not preachy. That wasn’t Kapoor’s style. The star was on surer ground here, essaying the heartwarming role of an old, sunny patriarch (buried under mounds of prosthetics) waiting for the last family photo. Kapoor, as usual, infected the film with his lightness of touch, a chubby grandad you’d like to give a tight hug before you walked out of the cinema hall.
A star is born
But this is movies. And to the movies was RK born. As Raj Kapoor’s son, thespian Prithviraj Kapoor’s grandson and Shammi and Shashi Kapoor’s nephew, Rishi Kapoor could have easily crushed under the colossal weight of his titanic family. Yet, not only he survived but thrived. It was evident from the beginning that he would follow a well-chartered path. After all, this was Bollywood’s First Family. Every newborn was welcomed into the family as though a new star was born, a so-called future hero. “I was born lucky,” goes Kapoor’s very first utterance in his memoir, Khullam Khulla. That’s characteristic RK, always playing down his talent, always self-critical but never dishonest and less than outspoken. That really makes you wonder if he was born elsewhere, far away from the arc lights, would Rishi Kapoor had become an actor? You could argue that the famous surname may have merely helped open doors, but the gift was all his own.
Writing in Khullam Khulla, he described his childhood as a dream, “like an unending mela.” He went on, “I was enveloped by the Hindi film industry both inside the house and outside it.” The Kapoors, he claimed, were never apologetic about their profession. Initially, it seems, Kapoor was not interested in acting. But that didn’t stop Raj Kapoor from parading his reluctant son on camera. Rishi Kapoor became the youngest Kapoor to face the dream machine. He was only two when he appeared in the iconic rain-drenched song “Pyaar Hua Iqraar Hua Hai” in 1955’s Shree 420. Apparently, Nargis had lured the cranky toddler with a Cadbury milk chocolate to get him to act! Kapoor was next thrust in front of the spotlight in 1970 as a clumsy teenager in Mera Naam Joker, forced to bear what has been called his father’s legendary Freudian complexes. Kapoor was shown to be infatuated with his teacher. Come 1973, and the whole of India would become infatuated with this fresh-faced star in the blockbuster Bobby. All the baby fat gone. And RK Junior was ready for his close-up. Helmed by showman Raj Kapoor, the musical hit launched Kapoor alongside another newcomer, Dimple Kapadia. Reportedly, Mera Naam Joker’s debacle broke Raj Kapoor, but he quickly recovered his riches with the astounding Bobby.
Romance thy name
Much of the 1970s’ entertainment value comes from the illustrious joint efforts of Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai, Rajesh Khanna, Shashi Kapoor, Yash Chopra, Salim-Javed, Kader Khan and Prakash Mehra. Rishi Kapoor was its most exciting (if not the most important) contributor. While Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and likes were busy enlivening the Hindi screen with action-packed hijinks, it was left entirely to Rishi Kapoor, in a post-Rajesh Khanna era, to dish out bell-bottomed romantic optimism.
Romance came naturally to the boy born with chocolate boy looks and a racy, impulsive personality. He was a perfect mix of Raj, Shammi and Shashi Kapoor, taking the best from them. And so, he spent the 1970s in the company of beautiful women (including wife Neetu Singh with whom he has given one hit after another), glamorous costumes (you really feel like raiding his wardrobe) and picturesque locales. Rafoo Chakkar, Khel Khel Mein, Amar Akbar Anthony, Kabhi Kabhie were all films that helped Kapoor embody that period’s boyish romance. Who can forget Neetu Singh and Kapoor dancing with gay abandon on “Khullam Khulla Pyaar Karenge Hum Dono” in Khel Khel Mein? Or “Main Shayar To Nahin” from Bobby, “Parda Hai Parda” from Amar Akbar Anthony? This was a young rebellion blasting through the ’70s radio and stereo and Kapoor was right at the burning heart of it. If you want to be a great star in Hindi cinema, as we know, you have to prove it with great songs — something that Rishi Kapoor made his virtue. Much like the evergreen Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna before him, to whose ranks he now belongs.
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The 1980s turned out to be equally successful. A steady string of memorable films, moments and songs made it Kapoor’s decade. Karz, Prem Rog, Chandni and Saagar, all a showcase of his distinctly enjoyable excesses and madcap energy. The heartthrob was still stealing hearts way into the 1990s, with dazzling sweaters, bubbling enthusiasm and (lucky, him) ever-younger heroines. Many, however, felt that he was only beginning to get his due in the last decade including own son.
“My father is winning more accolades and awards than he ever did in his first stint,” Ranbir Kapoor observed in Khullam Khulla’s foreword, adding, “Nothing can keep a good actor down.” Wonder in the coming years how many more critically and commercially celebrated hits Rishi Kapoor would have cropped up in. He was hungry for more and thoroughly enjoying the limelight, mostly because the way audiences finally came to appreciate him for his craft more than just his movie-star good looks. After a lifetime of “I am Raj Kapoor’s son, Neetu Kapoor’s husband and Ranbir Kapoor’s father” card, Rishi Kapoor’s own identity couldn’t be clearer — a Hindi cinema giant, committed to a unique category and space all his own. “The show must go on,” as the RK refrain has it. But the show won’t be the same without Rishi Kapoor in it. Farewell, Chintuji.
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