The life and times of Rishi Kapoor
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
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 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 Chaar, Karan 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.
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.
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