With natural charm and tremendous tenacity, how Rishi Kapoor straddled past and present
As someone who was born on the cusp of the millennial generation, I never saw Rishi Kapoor as a heartthrob but only as a dependable, first-rate actor.
This article was first published on 2 May, 2020, two days after Rishi Kapoor passed away.
I cried along with his 'kids' when Rishi Kapoor was hanging on to a cliff in Anil Dhawan's 2000 directorial Raju Chacha. Sixteen years later, I cried with Rishi Kapoor when he urged his 'grandsons' Fawad Khan and Sidharth Malhotra to return because he misses them after his son Rajat Kapoor's sudden demise in Shakun Batra's 2016 family drama Kapoor & Sons.
And between both these times when Rishi Kapoor brought me to tears, he also made me laugh uncontrollably on several occasions. He even made me cringe, and left me in awe of his impeccable charisma.
To me, a millennial born at the cusp of age group, Rishi Kapoor was never a heartthrob, like he was to many women my mother's age in the 1970s and '80s. He was the Raj from Bobby, a ladies' man, much before Shah Rukh Khan owned the character name in Aditya Chopra's 1995 romantic drama Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
He was always a father-figure to me, "papa" as he was called in Raju Chacha. It was also the first film, Rishi confesses in his memoir Khullam Khulla, that he changed his perception as an actor. As the new millennium kicked off, much like his longtime co-star Amitabh Bachchan, he chose to graduate into a character actor rather than sticking to only the leading man.
And boy, what a gift that decision was! What started with Raju Chacha went on till Anubhav Sinha's courtroom drama Mulk two years ago. Though Rishi only had a supporting role that lasted till the interval of Raju Chacha, his omnipresence could be felt throughout the film. I would think of his amiable face as I rooted for Ajay Devgn's titular character to avenge Kapoor's death in the film.
Two years later, I saw him in a completely different shade, probably like no one else would have witnessed him as before. It was in Anurag Basu and Amit V Kumar's horror thriller Kuchh Toh Hai in 2002. Though I had seen the original film of which it was a shoddy remake, Jim Gellispie's I Know What You Did Last Summer, I still could not see Rishi Kapoor's major villainous reveal coming.
Kapoor, however, mentions in his memoir that he was dissatisfied with the final product, and even had a minor argument with producer and good friend Jeetendra. The friendly favour gone wrong prevented him from giving his nod to yet another pal, Rakesh Roshan's offer to play Hrithik's father in his sci-fi directorial Koi... Mil Gaya. Rakesh ended up playing the short part himself, and the film turned out to be a blockbuster.
Rishi Kapoor really came into his own, and the box office would agree, when he played Saif Ali Khan's father in Kunal Kohli's 2004 hit Hum Tum. While the film was a Hindi remake of Rob Reiner's 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, it was steeped in the colours of Raj Kapoor's 1973 film Bobby, starring Rishi and Dimple Kapadia. Even the title of the film was an ode to the Bobby song 'Hum Tum Ek Kamre Mein Band Hon,' and the name of Kirron Kher's character was Dimple, yet another nod to Bobby.
Rishi's character in the film was introduced in retro style, with him playing the piano and singing, 'Main Shayar To Nahin,' another gem from Bobby. I realised I was missing out on something when my parents laughed to all the Bobby references in Hum Tum. It compelled me (or rather my parents, and I had no choice but to comply) to watch Bobby. I remember at that time I found it to be yet another boy-meets-girl romance but that was only because I got introduced to it much later. Bobby was truly the first young romance of Bollywood, decades before the genre became a staple.
Rishi reunited with Kirron in another Kunal Kohli film, Fanaa in 2006. It gave me the pleasure to watch him with two of the finest actors of all time, Kajol and Aamir Khan. Again, when he dies towards the end of the film, I jumped with joy that his death was avenged by Kajol when she shot Aamir. It may be a true love's sacrifice for the bleeding hearts but for me, it was revenge served Kashmiri cold.
Later, Rishi returned to films in the capacity of a leading man, through duds like Pyaar Mein Twist (where he reunited with Dimple after decades) and Chintu Ji. He confesses in the memoir that he figured out he was no longer bankable as a lead star, and would thus limit his presence to what he did the best — supporting roles. He was remarkable in even underdeveloped character roles like Namastey London, Delhi-6, Patiala House, and Housefull 2.
Around the time when Rishi was gradually making a mark with his second innings, came his son Ranbir Kapoor's debut film in 2007. He was the new guy in the town and naturally invited comparison to his legendary father from the 1970s and '80s, particularly because of the boyish charm and perception as a romantic hero.
I was already intrigued by Rishi Kapoor's work and the constant comparison to Ranbir further prompted me to watch his past work. Unfortunately, the first film I picked was Nasir Hussain's 1977 potboiler Hum Kisise Kum Naheen because it had the iconic song 'Bachna Ae Haseeno,' which was rejigged for the Ranbir Kapoor-starrer 2008 film of the same name. I got why the father-son comparison was inevitable but I still could not fathom why Rishi Kapoor was a phenomenon back then.
What I also could not fathom was his histrionics in Zoya Akhtar's 2009 directorial debut Luck By Chance. He played Romi Rolly, a has-been film producer. A little birdie told me his role was inspired by his Karz director Subhash Ghai. The remake of that film, Himesh Reshammiya's Karzzzz, had released a year before. Naturally, my next pick from Rishi's vast body of work was the 1980 revenge drama. All the masala aside, what I found extremely magnetic was Rishi's ability to woo the audience with his irresistible charm and unparalleled energy in songs like 'Om Shanti Om' and 'Paisa O Paisa.'
Ten years later, when I re-watched Luck By Chance, I could not help but marvel at how Rishi masked the ache of a forgotten mentor with his antics. A couple of months later, when I re-watched Imtiaz Ali's Love Aaj Kal, the same Rishi Kapoor fondly remembered the 'golden days' with moist eyes and his signature half-smile.
That is what Rishi Kapoor was — a man who straddled the present and past with tremendous skill and tenacity. He milked the same versatility to strike a balance between parts as hilarious as Do Dooni Chaar, Student of the Year, Shuddh Desi Romance, Kapoor & Sons, and 102 Not Out, and performances as evocative as Agneepath, Aurangzeb, D-Day, and Mulk.
He lent flamboyance to characters where he was supposed to be a bad guy. And he ensured to not rob the funny ones of their vulnerability. This duality was also abundant in my interactions with him. His face would turn angry and annoyed seconds after he was all smiles.
The first time I interviewed him was for Patel Ki Punjabi Shaadi, months after I loved his performance in Kapoor & Sons. As much as I wanted to discuss the 90-year-old grandfather with him, he was very particular about sticking to the context of the interview. He would give a disclaimer unfailingly before every interaction, "No questions on past films, politics and my son. If you want to know my thoughts on anything else, check my Twitter or read my memoir," he would say, without a trace of leniency.
But during his last interview in December, after he returned from his cancer treatment in the US, he was uncharacteristically calmer. He schooled us for probing him on the release ahead, Jeetu Joseph's whodunit The Body. "It's a suspense film yaar! Don't ask any more questions about it. We can discuss something else...," he said, before narrating yet another filmy anecdote.
He probably knew why he chose to bend his own rules: to give us stories to cherish for a lifetime. That was Rishi Kapoor for you.
All images from Twitter.
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