Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh pose for a photograph in Mumbai. File/ AFP
Saibal Chatterjee, award-winning film critic
Given the way things panned out, it might be difficult to believe that Rishi Kapoor wasn’t his showman-father’s first choice for the Bobby (1973) lead role. Papa Kapoor, still counting the losses he incurred on his 1970 mega-flop magnum opus Mera Naam Joker, could not afford the superstar of the day, Rajesh Khanna. He was forced to look within the family.
Rishi had featured in one of the three segments of Mera Naam Joker as a boy who has a crush on his schoolteacher. He even won a National Award for the performance. Made on a tight budget, Bobby hit the bull’s eye, turning both 21-year-old Rishi Kapoor and 16-year-old Dimple Kapadia into instant stars.
Rishi Kapoor, who passed away early April 30 due to leukaemia-related complications at the age of 67, never ever looked back even though his eventful acting career had more than its share of box-office disasters. His hits – he had plenty, solo male lead vehicles as well as multi-starrers – certainly sustained him and kept his fan base interested in their icon, but he remained largely unaffected by the reverses.
It was easy to see why. Rishi Kapoor was a true-blue natural, an actor with an uncanny sense of timing, whether he was delivering dramatic dialogues, romancing the heroine, or resorting to antics in order to tickle the funny bone. There was something about him that was refreshingly uncomplicated – he never seemed to be making an effort to make an impression. But he always did.
Kapoor was Hindi cinema’s first chocolate-boy hero, but he was always much, much more than that. No matter what scene the screenwriters would write for him or what potboilers the directors would mount for him, he had a way of rising above the mediocrity that surrounded him in an industry intent on inveigling the masses. He sailed through even the most ludicrous of scenes with such an air of conviction, self-belief and ease that one could not but feel that he was enjoying himself thoroughly.
Kapoor thrived on a distinct screen persona. It did not, however, limit him in any way. As early as in his second film as a lead actor, Zehreela Insaan, a commercial debacle directed by Puttana Kanagal, he sought to break the anodyne lover-boy image that Bobby saddled him with for the rest of the 1970s and a large part of the 1980s. His attempts to break free often backfired, but he never let that interfere with the playful approach that he brought to the ‘serious’ job of portraying of screen romance.
Only Rishi, with soulmate Neetu Singh in tow, could belt out Khullam khulla pyaar karenge hum dono iss duniya se nahin darenge hum dono (Khel Khel Mein, 1975) at a time when defiant, uninhibited public demonstrations of love weren’t so common, or romp about in drags and croon (in Asha Bhonsle’s voice, no less) Chuk chuk chak chak Bombay se Baroda tak (Rafoo Chakkar, 1975). Remember that this was the year of the Emergency and the year of Sholay and Deewar, Aandhi and Nishant, Chupke Chupke and Amanush. Rishi Kapoor had the liberty to stay put in his own orbit and do his own thing without putting anybody off.
That was his signature. An affable, spirited approach enabled him to carry the world along with him. It may have been a coincidence but it was absolutely apt that Rishi Kapoor had a key role to play in Shahrukh Khan’s debut film – Deewana, 1992, opposite Divya Bharti. The older romantic had the entire nation – especially women and the youth – eating off the palm of his hand for two decades. It was time for him to pass on the magic vial to a worthy successor, SRK, who took over the big-screen charm offensive legacy and honed it in his own unique way.
While guarding his primary turf, Kapoor delivered a variety of films through the 1970s and 1980s – Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (which had the anthemic Bachna ae haseenon lo main aa gaya on the soundtrack), Sargam (which had the song Dafliwale dafli bajaa, the only number in the history of Ameen Sayani’s Binaca/Cibaca Geetmala to occupy the top spot on the countdown all through its 25-week run), Prem Rog, Karz (another film, another unforgettable foot-tapper, Om shanti om/Mere umar ke naujawaanon dil na lagana o deewano) and Doosra Aadmi.
And how can anybody forget Amar Akbar Anthony, an Amitabh Bachchan film in which Rishi Kapoor never allowed himself to be overshadowed? Or Yash Chopra’s Kabhie Kabhie (in which he, true to form, sang Pyaar kar liya toh kya pyaar hai khataah nahin)? Or Saagar (where he went toe to toe with the mercurial Kamalahasan in the heady Kishore Kumar-SP Balasubramaniam bar-room duet, Yun hi gaate raho) and Chandni? His oeuvre also included H.S. Rawail’s Laila-Majnu, in which he played the mythic lover as only he could.
In the new millennium, Rishi effortlessly graduated to playing his age. Here too, he frequently hit the ball out of the park. His most notable films of this phase of his career testify to his lifelong willingness to take risks and go the whole hog with them. He did just that as a Delhi schoolteacher struggling to make ends meet in Do Dooni Chaar (2010), as a venal human trafficker in Agneepath (2012), as an impish 90-year-old grandfather in Kapoor & Sons (2016) and as a respected Muslim lawyer fighting to clear his family’s fair name after his nephew goes astray and is sucked into a terror in Mulk (2018).
It wasn’t without reason that Rishi Kapoor was an evergreen star. Even as he advanced in years, he did not abandon his youthfulness and his puckish humour. The zeal informed everything he did until that final trip to the hospital. We will remember the ‘Zinda Dil’ Rishi Kapoor who never budged from his ‘Khel Khel Mein’ spirit!
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