How Rishi Kapoor broke the stereotype

Rishi Kapoor | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

His swan song Sharmaji Namkeen recently released on OTT, almost two years after he passed away, and Rishi Kapoor’s fans got to see him in a new role one last time. Everyone knows he did not live to complete the film, and that Paresh Rawal stepped into the role, without going into mimicry mode.

And that, frankly, would have been impossible: for Rishi Kapoor was inimitable. Rishi was, arguably, the finest actor from the Kapoor clan, the First Family of Hindi Cinema. Make no mistake: Rishi, who was first seen in a shot, along with his siblings, as a tot in a walk-on role in Shree 420, was always a world-class actor. He made his lead debut as hero with Bobby (1973), which was a super hit, but it also typecast him as both a romantic hero and a musical star. The film won him the Filmfare Best Actor award, while he won the National award for Best Child Actor for his first on-screen appearance in father Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker.

Range of emotions

It was to take too long before he received more awards — only when he began to play the role of an old man. Right from his early films, such as Rafoo Chakkar and Khel Khel Mein, Rishi exhibited rare calibre. Writers and directors, even those who never worked with him, agree with my observation that Rishi’s face was like a canvas of emotions. What he could convey with a raised eyebrow or a glance would need entire sequences for others. His intonations, body language and dance moves were all incredibly fluid. He was more a natural performer. For Rishi was always about natural, cinematic performances.

From Mulk.

From Mulk. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

His loverboy image did have its advantages, mainly being that he was the only top star of his times to survive the Amitabh Bachchan wave and continue to play solo lead roles (even co-starring with him in blockbusters like Amar Akbar Anthony, Naseeb and Coolie). His solo hits, between 1977 and 1992, included Hum Kisise Kum Naheen, Sargam, Karz, Prem Rog, Tawaif, Nagina, Henna and Bol Radha Bol.

Composers as far apart as Laxmikant-Pyarelal (who scored for music for many of his films from Bobby to Rishi’s co-production Prem Granth), Shiv-Hari and Nadeem-Shravan spoke about how Rishi’s mere persona inspired to come with songs that matched his persona.

Sadly, Rishi got his due quite late in his career. After all, images were omnipotent then in Hindi cinema! He once told me, “There should be junoon in an actor. How many people have that? I remember being in Moscow to receive an honour given to me when Yashji (the late Yash Chopra) called. He could not stop raving about how I had transformed into Mr. Duggal, a middle-class school teacher from Delhi, in Do Dooni Chaar (2010). And he said, ‘I never thought you could do this.’”

Wryly, he added, “Nobody gave me a chance earlier to do meaty characters. I think that I must have seen a Mr. Duggal somewhere in my life. Acting is about experiences and encounters. You store them in the mind and reprocess when you are before the camera. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.”

Indeed, few recognised Rishi’s vast range — the prime requisite in any popular art. In Khoj (1989), he was seen in a negative role, and effortlessly outclassed Naseeruddin Shah, but the film didn’t do well at the box-office. Rishi spanned the entire spectrum from a lover-boy to playing a villain, but until he became the vicious Rauf Lala in the 2012 hit Agneepath, his potential remained lamentably untapped.

Rishi told me then, “Rauf had been a butcher in real life and had now become a pimp. These attributes had to percolate into my mind. After all, a soft romantic hero was now becoming a murderer and drug-runner!”

After this, in rapid succession came his pompous, Wodehouse-inspired character in like tycoon of Housefull 2, the gay dean of Student Of The Year, the underworld don in D-Day, the corrupt DCP of Aurangzeb, the portly bar-owner in Chashme Baddoor, and one of Rishi’s personal favourites, the 90 year-old grandpa of Kapoor & Sons. As a 75-year-old grumpy old man in 102 - Not Out and a secular Muslim lawyer in Mulk, he further proved his versatility and dug deep into this bottomless well of extraordinary genius. Even the last film released in his lifetime, The Body, saw him as a dogged cop.

But don’t they say that justice delayed is justice denied? Why should true recognition always come only when someone is no more?

Though known to be extremely moody, Rishi was a generous and humble soul. During my first meeting with him, he offered me a huge piece of cake. When I asked him what the occasion was, he beamed his trademark smile and said, “You! You are the occasion!”

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Printable version | May 6, 2022 5:18:28 pm |