Sometimes you think you know all about the stars. Simply because you have seen them larger than life onscreen while growing up. Simply because you have read so much about them. In the end, you have formed a picture of them in your minds, just like the cinema projector, and have convinced yourself that is as good as it gets. Till you meet them in person. And they leave you with a stray memory of their inner selves. Rishi Kapoor was one such and more. He would lay his heart bare.
Many years ago, when he was on the cusp of his second coming as an actor rather than the star by playing the brutally cold villain Rauf Lala in Agneepath, I had met him at home. He was old world that way, relying on his secretary to find a time slot that would allow him to talk at length on his craft without the noise of film promotions. I was early for my appointment at Krishna Raj on 56 Pali Hill, fearing Mumbai traffic. Twenty minutes too early for Rishi Kapoor who was to meet me at 11 am. His office staff was readying for the day, shining up the awards shields and trophies, the cars had been lined up, indicating the denizens were in. I went down a flight of steps and was shown into a reception lounge which opened into a lawn encircled by azulejo panels. The lounge itself was a tribute to European tile art, with holy crosses of various colours and sizes adorning the walls and pillars and a blithe Mary and Jesus alcove spreading benediction all around.
“I just love Portuguese ceramic tiles and have been collecting them whenever I travel. It’s not religious though my going to a missionary school may have had something to do with my love for the holy cross,” said the man who showed up early because a guest was waiting.
And the re-energised Rishi Kapoor, beginning the day with an earthy chaach, was not done with the artiste inside, be it decorating his little comfort zone or experimenting with his versatility in the second innings of his life. But that day he wanted a great conversation with a journalist guest and to play some word games on Literati. That year was 2012. So he was most curious about what the UP Assembly elections were going to throw up and whether governance would be an issue. He was clued in about politics and corruption, saying he never missed the 9 pm news, a far stronger addiction than the food or drink he loved. Apart from discovering a news junkie, he also appeared a practicalist, saying though the Kapoor eco-system was such that all members knew how to make films by the time they were 10, the sons of Raj Kapoor didn’t know the niceties of business too well and would have to ultimately sell RK studios, which they did.
He said he had a soft spot for the new school of Bengali filmmakers for their revolutionary thinking as one of them had approached him to play Polonius in the Hindi version of Hamlet. And he was ever eager to understand the new ways of the world, though he might not have agreed with them. He said how the brothers lived in their own den but would assemble in this sitout in the evenings, ruminating over life and good times. And how he loved the simple things in life and never had regrets, even if he had to run around trees with beautiful girls in the heartthrob roles that he played in the early part of his career. “People are paying entertainment tax to be entertained and I cannot disrespect that even if there were not much acting chops involved. Kapoors are for the aam aadmi and we don’t build an image of ourselves to stay relevant,” he had said.
Indeed, Rishi had played to the gallery all his life. He first emerged as the chocolate boy hero with a twinkle in his eye. His colourful jerseys, his swag, a heart-warming smile and a winsome tilt of the head made the nation’s girls go weak in the knees. In fact, it was his lover boy charm that stereotyped him at a time when formula was trusted and out-of-the-box thinking was risky business. In that sense, Rishi had a far tougher job at hand to prove his versatility within the range of a romantic hero, lover, challenger and continue to be every woman’s dream through decades. True, he made brand coupling a reality in Bollywood much ahead of its time, starring with wife Neetu Singh in over 12 films and setting what in today’s parlance would be couple goals. But while he protected that duet as special, he was able to strike up a different kind of chemistry with each of his heroines who were to come later, some of them years younger to him, be it Jaya Prada, Sridevi, Juhi Chawla or even Divya Bharti. Who would forget the passionate clamour of Raju in Sargam, the encouraging lover of Prem Rog, the supportive husband in Damini or the bedazzled scion who would not give up his girl in Saagar? In fact, such was his self-control and confidence that he never attempted to overshadow actresses like Padmini Kolhapure, Dimple Kapadia, Meenakshi Seshadri or Sridevi. He was the feminist hero, not dominating them but winning them over ever so gently, never possessing them. Then there were the music and dance extravaganzas from Nasir Husain, Karz and Hum Kisisse Kam Nahin, where Rishi became the dancing star when dance films as a genre didn’t even exist in mainstream Hindi cinema.
Of course, his challenge was tougher post the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan as the angry young man and the anti-establishment rebel, which resonated with the socio-political chasm of the times. Who would want love when everybody was waging a war of survival as the nation was going through a trough? Yet Rishi managed to leave a mark in many multi-starring films with Amitabh — Amar, Akbar, Anthony being the most celebrated — not only holding his own but calibrating his good humour as an antithesis to the anger and fury of other muscular heroes and balancing the film out in the end. This egolessness took Rishi far, even during the bad lump of meaningless films in the 80s and early 90s, and helped him form an enduring partnership with Bachchan. Call it fate but one of his last films with him was 102 Not Out where the senior Bachchan teaches his 60 something son that hope is a decision and old age was not about being morose. Rishi excelled in portraying the hopelessness and lack of self-worth in his sunset years, though he was more than spirited in real life. That’s how we would like to remember Rishi, as the loveable, carnivorous Daddu in Kapoor $ Sons, chewing on to every pleasurable pursuit that life has to offer. Or the proud Muslim father in Mulk, who much like Rishi, was a proud Indian before a religious stereotype.
But then the actor always surprised us and himself with his rare ability to push himself under the limelight. “People never expected Rishi Kapoor to turn a visceral villain onscreen as Rauf Lala. I had done very little externally except the net vest, my hair, beard and the kohl-rimmed eyes. The rest was my interpretation, my spontaneous emoting of what this character would do in real life. I never research, just rely on my instincts and my experiences. I do accept the fact that I am a reasonably good actor but this role has really worked wonders. If you ask me objectively, this has been a stand-out performance,” he told us back then. But then he upgraded his benchmarks since. There was the patriotic sardar in Patiala House, the harried producer Romi Rolly in Luck By Chance, the Everyman in Do Dooni Char and the gay principal in Student of The Year. He sampled an unimaginable variety of roles, all the while consciously stripping himself of the stardom of his past years and letting himself go with full abandon. And he became the choicest talent for debutante directors waiting to leave their mark. He was appreciative of son Ranbir’s pushing the envelope like him but then he was a tough father, always wanting his son to score commercially too and tame the formula. So he was happy when Ranbir’s Sanju became a huge hit.
“If you are an actor true to your craft, you can adjust with anybody. It is an art to sing, dance, fight or become a character. I am an artiste, a genius of these virtues,” he had said, escorting me to the car instead of letting his staff do the job. “I am a conventional man and must show courtesy to a woman,” he had said. We wish his happy spirit could have propagated some of the goodness of that old order longer.
Friday, 01 May 2020 | Rinku Ghosh | New Delhi
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