The Reinvention of Rishi Kapoor
A shaft of broken sunlight plays across blue and yellow Mediterranean tiles that say ‘Krishna Raj’ as I enter a familiar Pali Hill landmark. This is actor Rishi Kapoor’s bungalow named for his parents – Krishna and legendary director actor Raj Kapoor. A gaggle of school-girls is cleverly positioned at a place where the wall dips into the curve of the road trying to get a peek at what goes on inside.
The high wooden doors open onto a handful of cars in the porch. One, a blazing red sports car probably belongs to star son Ranbir. I am led further down steep stone steps past a grass lawn into an adobe walled den with dark wood beams. The theme is masculine and tasteful. Across the lawn there are scenes of buzzing domesticity in the main house. A yoga instructor arrives and an enviously fit Neetu Kapoor, wife and co-actor in many ’70s films, can be seen in the foyer across, practicing her asanas. A collection of crucifixes on the wall catch my attention until I am distracted by Kapoor walking across in a bright orange T-shirt and jeans. His manners are impeccable as he asks me if I have been looked after. His face is still youthful and has much of the boyish charm that characterised his early films.
At 60, Rishi Kapoor has completed 40 years as an actor in the movies, 30 years as a romantic hero, dabbled in production and direction, and now walks the fine line that separates the character actor from the star.
In the world of Indian cinema there has been an unspoken glass ceiling between the character actor and star. The character actor, often an excellent actor, might be asked to descend into cringe-worthy caricature – the martyred mother, the Goan drunk, the ‘Madrassi’ with a thick accent, the good-hearted Pathan, the cruel ma-in-law, or then rise to memorable performances that might include stunning dances, powerfully villainous lines, laugh-a-minute comic capers. But the star remains the star – hypnotic, magnetic and with the ability to make the box-office cash registers ring. For a star, the move away from the hero’s spotlight to character roles is a brave one – even the specially marked chairs on shooting floors disappear when you are no longer the leading man. With about 150 films behind him as a romantic hero Kapoor seems to have crossed that hurdle with remarkable equanimity.
His performances now seem cherry-picked as if someone was curating a collection of roles to showcase his talent. There is the scatty producer Romi Rolly from Luck by Chance that won him a film magazine award, Bauji, the stern sardar patriarch of Patiala House, Santosh Duggal, the hapless but principled middle-class school teacher from Karol Bagh in Do Dooni Chaar and Rishi Kapoor playing the has-been actor Rishi Kapoor as a brilliant satire in Chintuji. This is a master class in reinvention from a romantic boy hero who stayed in the romantic mould for 30 years.
But it is the disturbing and effortless villainy of his role in 2012’s Agneepath that has shocked many into sitting up and noticing that the affable happy Romi Rolly has undergone a stunning transformation. This is an ageing, morally corrupt and cold Akbar from Amar Akbar Anthony, a cult film from the ’80s.
He says, “My initial reaction when I read the script was I’ve been romancing girls all my life (23 leading ladies were launched in films with him as the hero from the ’70s to the ’90s thanks to his youth and box-office saleability), now you want me to sell girls?” He is referring to the scene where Rauf Lala tries to auction hero Hrithik Roshan’s sister in an open market – a disturbing sequence that was redubbed at the censors’ behest because of its raw dialogues. “I didn’t think I had it in me to carry off the role. Remember this character was pivotal to the plot moving forward – he was the rudder steering the two main protagonists, so if I failed, the film would lack conviction.”
For director Karan Malhotra, Rauf Lala was his toughest casting call. “The penny finally dropped when I was on my own wedding stage and my wife Ekta saw something in Rishi uncle (his parents are friends of Rishi’s) who was standing looking very impatient in the queue – the way he was surveying the venue, his whole attitude was a bit bored. We knew he was right. But it took me three months to convince him.” His rendition of Rauf Lala is likely to garner awards but after Agneepath, his next role was in the madcap caper Housefull 2. He was part of a 12-actor ensemble cast. It was a 180-degree turn away from Rauf Lala. “I had to add it to my CV to prove I can do this kind of caper and I had a blast doing the film. In Student of the Year (yet to be released) I am playing a gay character but it is difficult to say he is gay – he is attracted to a handsome young man, yes, he is a mamma’s boy but it is an emotional role, not a sexually oriented or a stereotypical one. Karan (Johar) is responsible for giving me two very different roles, so I trust him.”
His new avatar excites him though staid father roles are not for him as he has demonstrated. He says he would love to work with his son in the future but will not play his father. Kapoor is known to be opinionated and often impatient but I find he has an admirable degree of self awareness and can talk about himself and his image as a romantic hero quite dispassionately. “I did my last romantic role in Karobar in 2000 but the reality was I was putting on weight, the young Khans were everywhere though we did work side by side for some time (Shah Rukh Khan played with him in 1992’s Deewana). I was tired of doing the same thing – especially going to Switzerland to sing songs. I was ready to retire and I returned the money for four films which I had signed with producers. For a large part of my career I was very limited as an actor. Now I can experiment since I am no longer answerable to the box office. I am as excited as a six-year-old with candy when I hear a good script. My wife and my kids will tell you that.”
His best films as a romantic hero have actually been powerful heroine-oriented scripts and he lists Prem Rog, (Padmini Kolhapure) Damini, (Meenakshi Seshadri), Tawaif, Chandni (Sridevi) and Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) as his favourites. “I had to underplay my performance to match the roles. You can’t be a selfish actor; you have to see the film as a whole. You can’t be narcissistic and start cutting other people’s roles.” These films were all hits. It is his ability to underplay performances that has attracted a new generation of young directors like Zoya Akhtar (Luck by Chance) Nikhil Advani (Patiala House), Habib Faisal (Do Dooni Chaar) and experimental producers like Saif Ali Khan (Love Aaj Kal) and Karan Johar (Agneepath, Student of the Year ).
I ask how he would define his school of acting and who his icons are. This is a subject he feels strongly about as he launches forth. “I did not look to Hollywood or Bollywood for inspiration because I felt that at some point I might start aping actors I admired. I went to the best school of acting – the Kapoor School. It was a golden university. We were surrounded by films even though no one brought work home. We were Kapoors and we were actors. That was our passion and our calling. I am not a method actor. I am not a stylised actor. My re-takes are different. I feel the moment, I feel the situation and then I leave it to my director. If you are caught in a school or style then your acting gets conscious.”
Agrees Karan Malhotra. “I think Rishiji is one of the most spontaneous actors around. He is best in his first three takes. After that he loses interest and becomes mechanical.”
As we chat, it is obvious he wants to talk about his new stuff not dwell on the past but I have to ask about his iconic never-to-be-forgotten launch film Bobby (1972). He is expecting it as he grins and says disarmingly, “I got all the credit for Bobby because Dimple got married and stayed out of the media.” He qualifies, “Being RK’s sons we knew we had a very important father but we were not pampered. In our time no one launched star sons, I became a hero by default. Raj Kapoor was doing a film about a girl called Bobby – she was the main character and I was called in because there was no hero young enough at that time to match her.” It is true that he was the youngest hero for the longest time – Sanjay Dutt, another star son, was launched ten years after and Shah Rukh Khan, the quintessential romantic got his break 15 years later.
He says, “In those days the heroes were men. With my coming the heroes became boys and that started a new generation of romantic heroes – the whole paradigm shifted.” I look for arrogance but he is matter of fact about it. He is honest enough to admit the early success and money went to his head. Concurs Neetu who acted with him in 11 films in a very short span of time, “When I first met him he was a bully and I hated him. He threw his weight around and was a real brat. Then we became friends and then he convinced me he was the right person for me!”
He chose not to launch his son. In fact he is known not to lavish praise on his performances even though Ranbir has shown an experimental streak and a range in his choice of roles. “When it came to Ranbir I had no problem sending him to Lee Strasbourg’s school of method acting even though I don’t believe in it because that’s what he wanted to do. I think he is a natural actor and should work with his natural talent. I don’t tell him what to do. It’s too early for praise. He needs more films in his kitty. For me, he still has to score though Rajneeti and Rockstar were very good.”
He may be a tough dad but family is the most important thing in Kapoor’s life. Daughter Riddhima Kapoor Sahni who lives in Delhi says, “Growing up he was a big hero and really busy and we were busy with our lives. But he made it a point to be home when we were home which meant we could not go out after six! He would play games – he loved quizzing Ranbir and me to check our general knowledge. He was a very strict parent and we were scared of him but now I am glad he was. He was a superstar but we were very grounded.” Granddaughter Samara is now the focus of her grandfather’s attention – he wants to skype with her every day.
Kapoor is very close to his siblings Reema, Ritu, brothers Randhir and Rajeev and mother Krishna. Laughs Neetu, “Bob (that’s her private name for him) and his family are very passionate and argumentative. They fight and make up all the time, but they can’t live without each other. He talks to his mum every day wherever he is but he fights with her constantly, then one of them calls me to be peacemaker.”
Traditionally, the extended Kapoor clan has always stayed out of industry politics. “I don’t believe in cliques, coteries and Bollywood gangs because I believe in my own talent.” His own life is quite private, very much with his family especially wife Neetu and away from Bollywood parties and friends. Yes, he would like to write a book on his life someday because he has so much to say about the industry but not until he finds the right writer. He spends time at RK studios, the family business. He is a self confessed Literati addict – the on-line version of Scrabble. He has notched up 12000 games and is thrilled with his record. His issues with weight and alcohol have dogged him for a long time. In a life relatively untouched by link ups and scandals, alcohol has been his one major source of media scrutiny. He says unapologetically, “I love my drink and am a compulsive drinker but I am in a happy place right now. I spend time with my wife, we love to eat out (Japanese is a favourite), we love to travel.” Daughter Riddhima says her parents are the busiest travellers she knows.
As he walks me out, Kapoor says reflectively, “I enjoy acting most of all. I can’t accept any actor saying he or she is bored of acting. Even if it’s a cliché you can bring something to the role. I met two ladies at Heathrow who said we hated you in Agneepath because you were so evil. I take it as a compliment. You can’t look back or be encapsulated in an image or time warp. Ultimately you have to move on.”
He is right. You have to move on. For an actor of his calibre, taking that risk and moving on has given his script a much better Bollywood ending.