If one had to pick a single decade that really impacted the trajectory of Hindi cinema, more than any other, it would have to be the 1970s. This was, after all, when the sociopolitical films of the immediate post-Independence era and their antidote, the sparkling romances of the 1960s, gave way to what we now call Bollywood.
This was the decade that saw the birth of the masala film, that undefinable genre that encompasses every genre, with movies like Nasir Husain’s Yaadon Ki Baaraat and Hum Kissi Se Kum Nahin. This was also the decade that saw the rise of Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man, with Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer and of the ‘Westernised’ glamour of bell-bottoms and slinky, sparkly bodycon gowns with thigh-high slits — think Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi.
And in the middle of all this action and drama and rage against the establishment, the 1970s were also the golden years of the wholesome, adorable, twinkly-eyed loverboy and his equally wholesome and chirpy-sweet favourite girl, famous for her short skirts, tall boots and pigtails. I’m talking, of course, about Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh.
The two of them, often called India’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, danced their way through the decade and into people’s hearts thanks to their youthful charm and the kind of chemistry that was only possible with real-life lovers as well as friends — partners in the true sense.
Rishi and Neetu acted in multiple movies together throughout their career, from Rafoo Chakkar and Amar Akbar Anthony in the early years to Do Dooni Chaar in the new millennium.
But, perhaps, one of their most fun outings together was 1975’s Khel Khel Mein, directed by Ravi Tandon. In fact, in a video shared on Instagram by the director’s daughter, actor Raveena Tandon, Rishi said his association with Neetu began principally thanks to Ravi and this film.
As we celebrate Rishi Kapoor in the week of his birth anniversary, his first after his death in April, here is a look back at Khel Khel Mein.
A prank gone wrong
Rishi Kapoor plays Ajay, a sweet, naive college student who becomes the butt of all pranks played by spoilt, flashy Vikram (Rakesh Roshan) and his gang of friends, including Nisha (Neetu Singh). A few pranks, songs and a canteen fight later, Ajay and Vikram become friends and he becomes part of the gang.
In between singing for the college Annual Day celebration and sneaking into the girls’ hostel compound at night to meet Nisha, Ajay also becomes an unwilling prankster, egged on by Vikram and Nisha and much of the first half of the movie is standard college fare, with the three of them loafing about and playing harmless pranks on unsuspecting victims.
Things take a sinister turn when, for a lark, the three send a typewritten extortion note to a nearby jeweller who Vikram insists is a stingy miser.
They don’t believe they will actually get the money, but when they do, Ajay, by now extremely uncomfortable with the whole enterprise, tries to convince Vikram to return the cash. Nisha, too, now feels the joke has gone too far, but Vikram is on his own trip. And then, they find out the jeweller has been murdered.
But just when Ajay and Nisha are about to go to the cops and confess everything, someone named Inspector Bhupendra Singh informs them their friend Vikram is dead.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game, complete with an unidentified stalker and mysterious men who aren’t who they seem.
Yet, even in all this, Ajay and Nisha find time to sing, dance and romance. It’s implausible, but also a good thing, because R.D. Burman’s tunes for this movie are great fun, and still on every ’70s hits playlist. Decades later, it was a song from this film that gave Rishi Kapoor the title of his memoir, Khullam Khulla. It was how he lived his life, no secrets, no-holds barred, brash, youthful and full of energy.