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The Life & Times Of Rishi Kapoor

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Rishi Kapoor

When the end came  for Rishi Kapoor, he was not prepared for  it. Death  was  the last thing on  this indefatigable  actor’s mind  when  it snatched  him away  from us  on April  30, 2020. Rishi was just  67 .

Some months before  his death when I had inquired about his health he was  annoyed that  people assumed the worst.

 “I am not going anywhere,” Rishi snapped as  only he could. Short-tempered volatile moody and  mercurial, Rishi  , known among  friends and family as  Chintu(a nickname  he abhorred)   couldn’t suffer fools. If you were not in his  good books you would know. If  he didn’t like  a film  he would  not hesitate in  informing   the  filmmaker in his face, even if  it was his son Ranbir  Kapoor’s debut film Saawariya directed  by the grandmaster  of gorgeousness  Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Rishi didn’t like his son’s debut film. I remember at the film’s premiere when I smiled and congratulated  Rishi he stared at me and asked, “You really  liked it?”

This prolific actor who began his career at  the tender age  of  3 with a fleeting appearance in his father the illustrious Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 in  1955, was  equally unsparing about his own work.  When I would praise   a film or a song featuring the  urgently affable actor he would  often snap back,  “What is so special about it?”

What, indeed.

What  was  so special  about every Rishi Kapoor  film, was Rishi Kapoor. He had the supreme power  to make his presence felt even when the script  and  the  director focused  elsewhere.  Rishi always  knew how to stand out in a frame. He  didn’t have to  try to get noticed. His command over the  medium  was  so strong and his screen presence so palpably powerful  yet  miraculously effortless that   the audience ended up noticing him even in the  film  where the  female hero  was the  cynosure  of  all eyes.

 Rishi did  any  number of heroine-oriented  films  and made his presence felt. Among them  I’d pick Raj Kapoor’s  Prem  Rog (1982)  Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Damini(1993)  and  Yash Chopra’s  Chandni(1989) ,  K Vishwanath’s Sargam(1979) and Raj Kapoor’s Henna(1991)  as  illustrative  of  Rishi’s unostentatious acumen  for shining even when the  spotlight  was  on  the heroine. These  stories “belonged” to the   female protagonist. But Rishi’s presence stealthily  swept into the  arc of muliebrity to leave a lasting  impact.

 In the  boxoffice hit Prem  Rog there is a pre-wedding celebration sequence where the film’s leading lady is seen dancing to the  popular Lata Mangeshkar song Yeh galiyan yeh chaubara. Rishi  who plays her  faithful friend and protector,  stands watching  Kolhapure dance,his face swathed in the  indescribable  pain  of  lost love.

If, as  Amitabh  Bachchan says, no one could lip-sync songs  better than Rishi  Kapoor, then it is equally true to say  no one could react  to  another co-star’s singing the way Rishi  could. 

Rishi  was  not  afraid to share the screen  frame with co-stars. He  was  a very generous star who  treated Amitabh  Bachchan and newcomer Sammir Dattani  with  equal  respect. Dattani  who had  the privilege  of sharing screen  space with Rishi Kapoor in Pyar Mein Twist(2005)  remembers how helpful and generous the senior actor was  towards Dattani and his co-star Soha Ali Khan.

 Rishi loved working with  newcomers. He felt  they enthused him  into staying young and vigilant as  an actor .In his long and  lionized career  Rishi  played the lead opposite  any number of  new actresses:  Ranjeeta Kaur in  Laila Majnu(1976),  Shoma Anand in Barood(1976),  Kajal Kirron  in Hum Kissise Kam Nahin(1977), Bhavna Bhatt in Naya Daur(1978),Jaya Prada in Sargam(1978), Vinita Goel  in Janam Janam(1988),etc etc. The list is endless, as the actor’s quest for reinvigorating  his career was  relentless.

Though typecast  as a lover-boy  from his  debut as a leading man  in his father Raj Kapoor’s musical  blockbuster Bobby(1973) some of  Rishi Kapoor’s  best  performances featured him in  image-breaking dark roles,such as  the angry  rebel  in  his early film Zehreela Insaan(1974). This  film with Rishi scowling behind a fake moustache, came right after  Bobby. The audience rejected his attempt to  play an anti-hero so  soon after his  romantic  debut  in  Bobby.  He had no choice  but to go back to playing the  lover-boy in Khel Khel Mein(the  first of many films he did with his  future wife Neeetu Singh),  Laila Majnu,  Amar Akbar Anthony and  Hum Kissise Kam Nahin, all super-hits  until   Rishi’s career  was  eclipsed   by the Amitabh Bachchan wave .

But  Rishi  found a way  out. He  co-starred in a string of films with Mr Bachchan in  the  1980s . not bothered  with the length  of his role, as long as  he had at least one  or two  meaty scenes to chew  on.

But the  actor’s  most accomplished  performances  are to be  found  in little-known films  where he  didn’t have  to play the  sweater-draped lover-boy. I’d  say Rishi’s  best  performances are   in  J P  Dutta’s Hathyar(where he  played  the straight-laced  sibling of an underworld  don), Keshu Ramsay’s Khoj(a whodunit where, playing against his image,  he was  cast  as a murderer),  and  later in  his  career  post his  youthful days, in Zoya Akhtar’s  Luck By Chance,Habib Faisal’s Do Dooni ChaarKaran Malhotra’s Agneepath, Shakun  Batra’s Kapoor & Sons and  Umesh Shukla’s  102  Not Out . These are  the  films that showcase  Rishi’s raging range  that extended from the cute to the strange.

Also Read:  Prabhas In A double Role In Salaar

 Rishi Kapoor’s last truly accomplished  performance  was  in  Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk  in  2018.  Thereafter his last four films were  woefully poor in content.  Luckily there  is so much  to remember Rishi by ,where  do we begin!

 Despite his  mammoth accomplishments  Rishi Kapoor always  felt  shortchanged. He  always grumbled about not being given recognition  for his performances.

He  once  told me, “I never did  believe in the awards.Except  the  National award which  I got for Mera Naam Joker when I was 14.  It’s gotten much worse now. I use awards trophies as doorstops in my home. What they have done to film awards is truly tragic. They’ve reduced them to trivia. Shameless. Agar sabko khush karna hai  toh phir award ka matlab kya hua?(if they are only given to please everyone then what is the relevance of awards?)”.

I remember years ago when a younger actor got a thoroughly-undeserved National award for mediocre film, a livid Rishi  rang me  up in the night and ranted about the other actor’s mom lobbying for the award. Ten minutes after the call Rishi’s lovely wife—and definitely the force behind the tempestuous actor’s longevity—Neetu Singh Kapoor rang me up to gently request not to write any of what he has said.

They were  married  for  40 years  , till death, Rishi Kapoor’s death, did they part. They had their ups  and  downs as a  couple—who doesn’t? In fact  there came  a time  in their marriage  in  1997 when Neetu  resolved  to  quit.

Ranbir during the  making of his  debut film Saawariya would  talk about  the heated  all-night violent quarrels  in the Kapoor residence while Ranbir  and his sister Ridhima, then kids, would sit  on the  stairs  all night, frightened  and  nervous listening to their parents scream at each other.It all came to head one November  in 1987 when  Neetu called the  cops . Apparently she complained  about  the domestic  violence.

It can be said with absolute certainty  that  the last ten years of his  life Rishi was completely dependent on his wife for taking care  of his every need.So  much so that  the affable  Neetu once  told me   in an interview, “He can’t do without me for even a minute. When I go for my weekly movies with friends he calls me constantly. That’s why I don’t act in movies any longer. He never stopped me. But even if I were away shooting he wouldn’t be able to take it. He can’t be in the house without me. Since Rishi and I grew up together and sort of merged into marriage I don’t mind his dependence on me.”

Neetu Kapoor  had never known any love  for a  man  besides one. It is the  literal truth that she fell in love with  Rishi Kapoor and there was  no other  relationship in her life before  or after  that.

Rishi and  Neetu met for  the  first time when they were  signed  together  for Zehreela Insaan. The  producers  wanted to repeat  the Bobby pair.  But Dimple had decided  to quit after  Bobby , and there  was  no other  established heroine at that time who looked compatible on screen  with  Rishi.  Hence  the   time  they  Neetu  and Rishi needed  to spend together  was amply taken care of by  the  number  of films they  signed.

It wasn’t love at  first  sight, though.Neetu  found  Rishi  to be unbearably obnoxious  to  begin with.  He would rile and tease her endlessly, comment on her clothes  and makeup , pull her hair,  tease her with silly riddles. They  were  like two  kids who loved to hate each other.  By the time they  did  Kabhi Kabhie together  in 1975 she knew  she wanted to marry  only  this  man.  It took Rishi  longer to come to terms with the inevitability  of   their lifelong  togetherness.

 The  couple  got married  in  1980. The  two  had a stormy but durable marriage that  lasted for  four decades. Neetu  was never asked to quit her career  after marriage. She didn’t have  to.  There  was no room for a  career  when married  to  a man as demanding  possessive and  singlemindedly  in  love as Rishi Kapoor.

Rishi  loved  his wife.  But he  loved his career just as much. To every role  he played, Rishi Kapoor brought  a  depth, dynamism and resonance way beyond the script .He possessed  the rare ability to make the mundane look exciting on screen.His  son Ranbir Kapoor  is a chip off the old block. But he can never be his father.

There can never be another Rishi Kapoor.