Rishi Kapoor has died, and with him, one of the most fascinating stories of Hindi cinema has come to an end. There are many words one can use to describe the 67-year-old who had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2018 — entitled brat, baby-faced loverboy, cantankerous patriarch, heartthrob, volatile, aggressive. Rishi Kapoor was all of these and more.
If there was one thing he knew how to do, it was to be all kinds of people while staying true to the one thing he knew how to do. Despite his rocky career, he once said, during an episode of Rendezvous with Simi Garewal shot in Melbourne in 2016, that he would never stop acting, because that was all he knew.
And he did act, all his life.
The price of being a Kapoor
Born on 4 September 1952, Rishi Kapoor knew early on that cinema was his future. As the son of the legendary Raj Kapoor, grandson of the monarch of Hindi cinema, Prithviraj Kapoor, and nephew of beloved actors Shammi and Shashi Kapoor on one side (who were also married to renowned actors) and Prem Nath, Rajendra Nath and Narendra Nath on the other, Rishi understood baggage. And the baggage of being part of Hindi cinema’s first family is a peculiar one, because you are privileged as well as burdened with expectations.
In a 2010 interview to Nasreen Munni Kabir, he said, “You know there’s so much expected of you. There is so much. People feel it’s very easy — you are a Kapoor, you can enter films easily, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s a big responsibility, it’s a big effort. You have to really be on your toes all the time… And you have to be lucky. There’s this thing about being lucky. There have been certain Kapoor boys who probably didn’t get that many opportunities that I probably got. So I am lucky to have been in in the frame. But yes, it does come with a lot of responsibilities.”
A dream debut, a rocky career
And Rishi certainly did luck out with his first film as an adult, Bobby, in 1973 (he had debuted as a child actor in his father’s Mera Naam Joker three years earlier).
Directed and produced by his father, the musical romantic drama about young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, who overcome parental objection to live happily ever after, wasn’t just a hit. It led to mass hysteria.
Madhu Jain, in her biographical work, The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema, recalls that “there were teenagers sporting shirts with ‘Bobby’ written on them. The actor was mobbed like a rock star… [his] character in Bobby became a blueprint for many of Rishi Kapoor’s subsequent roles. It wasn’t just the fair and lovely babyish face with its pair of lovelorn eyes [that] radiated puppy-love, warmth and sensitivity. An air of innocence and credibility followed him like a halo.”
All of this is true, but, as Rishi Kapoor himself had said many times, he became a wild, arrogant brat after the success of Bobby, and has even admitted that he paid Rs 30,000 for an award for that year, something he regretted later on.
After Bobby, his career took a nosedive, with relatively few solo hero hits, but Rishi, the eternal loverboy in the age of the Angry Young Man epitomised by Amitabh Bachchan and the action-hero swagger of Vinod Khanna, held tenaciously on, and saw a fair amount of success in multistarrers, including with these very colleagues.
And oddly, whether or not the films were successful, he was never really criticised, and they cemented his persona as the youthful loverboy with a twinkle in his eye, a song on his lips and a rhythm in his feet. Bobby set the template for a generation of movies about young lovers rising to defeat the tyranny of parental restrictions (but always through love, not force), which came packaged in kitschy sunglasses, shiny shirts, shinier bell-bottoms, leather jackets.
A volatile personal life
Neetu Singh, a child actor who went by the name Baby Sonia, was one of the candidates for the titular role in Bobby, which eventually went to Dimple Kapadia. Much has been written about how, after Bobby was made, a 16-year-old Dimple was rushed into marriage with superstar Rajesh Khanna, leaving the much younger Rishi heartbroken.
But he didn’t stay heartbroken for long, thanks to Neetu, who had made her adult debut opposite Rishi’s brother Randhir with Rickshawala, also in 1973.
The Rishi-Neetu pairing is one of the most beloved in Hindi cinema, and as Madhu Jain says, the 1970s belonged to them, with movies like Rafoo Chakkar, Khel Khel Mein, Kabhi Kabhie, Amar Akbar Anthony and Zinda Dil.
But real life wasn’t quite as blissful.
The early success of Bobby had made Rishi, in his own words, “positively obnoxious.” The heady combination of lineage and fame swept him along a path of self-destructive behaviour, and the person it affected the most was Neetu. In an interview with Filmfare, which Madhu Jain refers to in her biography, Rishi said, “I used to be a bit of a bit of a bully and was short on the temper fuse. Since Neetu and I were constantly shooting together, she bore the brunt of it all. And when the flops follow, the frustration makes one a bigger monster.”
It was in 1980 that things really took a turn for the worse. Subhash Ghai’s reincarnation saga Karz might be considered a cult classic now, and has spawned many remakes and tributes, but it was only moderately successful upon release.
Rishi was shattered, and as he wrote in his autobiography, Khullam Khulla (named after a song in Khel Khel Mein), “I was so demoralised I couldn’t face the camera anymore… I would tremble on the sets and feel faint… I now began to blame my marriage for my diminishing fanbase.”
And it was diminishing. Perhaps the decline began because he had never been anything but a romantic hero on screen, unlike his contemporaries, so his fans found it difficult to accept him after his marriage. And perhaps it continued because, despite the many flops, he clung so desperately to the young, romantic hero tag even though his leading ladies got progressively younger, like Divya Bharti and Juhi Chawla.
In The Kapoors…, Madhu Jain writes how Raj Kapoor gave Rishi, then a toddler, a sip from his glass of whiskey. “And before he could say, well, Black Label, Rishi [who was perpetually making faces in the mirror] began to act like a drunkard in front of the mirror.”
Decades later, alcohol would prove to be Rishi Kapoor’s greatest enemy, friend and demon. The Kapoors are known for their love of the good life, and Rishi has been fairly honest about his bouts with the bottle.
Neetu Singh, in the Filmfare interview, spoke in detail about Rishi’s alcoholism and how he would become physically violent after a few drinks. She recalled that the only person who tried to protect her was her son, Ranbir, who spoke up when “Chintu [Rishi’s nickname] got so high that he smashed everything in sight. But [Rishi] could never remember anything the next day”.
In a 2013 interview with India Today, Ranbir recalled his often strained relationship with his father, and how, as children, he and his sister, Riddhima, would sometimes be waiting on the steps all night for his parents to stop fighting.
Neetu even walked out on Rishi sometime in the 1990s, and filed an FIR against him for domestic violence, as Madhu Jain writes. She returned in 2000, when his sister was getting married, but it was a different Neetu. Gone was the nervous bride who religiously devoured Jane Fonda exercise tapes because Rishi said he would cheat on her if she became fat. The new Neetu was more secure, confident, strong and took charge of her husband’s health and career.
The indestructible Rishi Kapoor
The new millennium saw not only a new Neetu, but also a reinvented Rishi Kapoor. Instead of rolling down hills and dancing around trees with women much younger than him, he started playing senior roles. But not just any senior roles.
Some of his best work is actually his more recent, seen in movies like Hum Tum (in which he plays Saif Ali Khan’s father), Do Dooni Chaar (a gem of a movie about a middle-class couple’s struggles in which he was paired opposite Neetu again), Kapoor & Sons, in which he played the mischievous, jocular patriarch of a family coming apart at the seams, and lovely cameos in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (also with Neetu) and Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance. And Mulk, a 2018 movie in which he plays Taapsee Pannu’s father-in-law, is one of the finest films of the last few years, with a vital message about communal harmony.
In fact, Rishi Kapoor was all about speaking up when it mattered — and sometimes, even when it didn’t. He had, in the last few years, taken to Twitter in a big way, often ruffling feathers and getting into spats with people.
But if he was rude to others, he didn’t spare himself, either. In a 1997 interview to Simi Garewal on her show, he said, “I don’t think there’s anything to trumpet about. I don’t think I have done any great work.”
Today, his legions of fans deciding which movie to watch in tribute would disagree.