SO MANY MEMORIES. Ranbir Kapoor talking of the time his parents would talk sit at extreme ends of the drawing room couch and talk to each other only through their beloved pet dog. Rishi Kapoor, at another interview, talking excitedly about face-timing his granddaughter on his new iPhone. Rishi Kapoor again texting back and asking me to call on the landline, because you know, “I’m an old-fashioned person!”
With an old-fashioned bungalow in Mumbai’s swish Pali Hill named after his mother, Krishna Raj, and now sadly pulled down. With an old-fashioned, all-knowing secretary who sat in an office outside and decided ‘dates’ for interviews, shoots and movies. With an old-fashioned love of nostalgia that made him an endless treasure trove of photographs, anniversary dates and memories.
If Amitabh Bachchan defined the 1970s as the ‘Angry Young Man’, the one man who kept love alive was Rishi Kapoor. Beginning with his first adult role in Bobby (1973) where he, all leather jacket, gloves and boots, took off on a Bullet with a gorgeous Dimple Kapadia, the actor who died on April 30th, kept women front and centre at the movies. He gave pre-liberalisation Indian youth a way of being modern. Whether it was having a drink with his onscreen father (played by his offscreen uncle Shashi Kapoor) in Kabhie Kabhie (1976) or whether it was strumming a guitar in the Khel Khel Mein (1975), he reinvented how young Indians related to each other. As Shah Rukh Khan once said, before Bobby and Rishi Kapoor, Indian cinema was about men and women, after him, it became about boys and girls. Unlike the wild stalker-like energy of his other celebrated uncle Shammi Kapoor, who defined cool for the ’60s India, Rishi was more egalitarian.
And how. Bobby’s Raj saw nothing in barriers of class and religion when it came to falling in love with Mrs Braganza’s daughter. He gave up his true love in Chandni (1989) because he was stricken with paralysis. He even fell in love with an older woman in Doosra Aadmi (1977), which Karan Johar paid obeisance to by casting Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016).
Rishi Kapoor was the king of cool, dancing, singing and dimpling his way through movies, with a swagger and style all his own, whether it was his multi-coloured jumpers ordered from abroad or his string of musical hit songs, from Main Shayar To Nahin in Bobby to Dafliwale in Sargam (1979). There was a joy to his acting, a passion that was all-consuming, and made everything he did so authentic, whether it was swinging his somewhat ample but extremely flexible hips to Om Shanti Om in Karz (1980) or singing a qawwali in Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin (1977), dressed in a frilly shirt and orange waistcoat. Many years later, pop culture goddess and Hindi movie connoisseur, director Farah Khan, would pay tribute to both songs in Om Shanti Om (2007) and Main Hoon Na (2004), with her lead actor Shah Rukh Khan, who in his roles as a romantic hero came closest to replacing him.
If Amitabh Bachchan was the man every ’70s boy wanted to be—tough, gritty and brooding—Rishi Kapoor was the man every ’70s girl wanted to date. It didn’t hurt that he came from a family with pedigree and was both fair and lovely. But it was his return to cinema in the 2010s that brought him a whole legion of new fans as much as it was his Twitter comments which revealed the sharp mind within. On social media, he was himself—frank, affectionate, sometimes angry, and often, plain irritated. Whether it was his penchant for eating beef or his love of Black Label whisky, he was unapologetic about who he was. Often, it got him into socially awkward situations whether it was with Sonam Kapoor (who famously said Ranbir Kapoor needed a condom) or whether it was berating Salman Khan’s sister-in-law for the star’s arrogance which led to a nasty family standoff.
Twitter was his new clubhouse, replacing the old one he had, of those who had worked together at some point and become drinking buddies since—permutations and combinations of actors such as Rakesh Roshan, Jeetendra and Sujit Kumar. As he grew older and somewhat paunchy, there was still a lot of latent love left in him, but by then new stars were emerging and the rise of the three Khans at the end of the ’80s meant the end of an era. But that wasn’t before he was cast opposite at least 30 new heroines (by his own estimation, which extended from Dimple Kapadia to Divya Bharati). In the 2010s, a new generation of directors cast him in a swathe of roles that tested his enormous talent.
If Amitabh Bachchan was the man every ’70s boy wanted to be—tough, gritty and brooding—Rishi Kapoor was the man every ’70s girl wanted to date. It didn’t hurt that he came from a family with pedigree and was both fair and lovely
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He thrived. As the middle class, perennially-short-of-money teacher in Do Dooni Char (2011), he made his Everyman believable, especially when his scooter wouldn’t start. As the villain in Agneepath (2012) who thinks nothing of picking up a little girl to do his worst with, he is believably evil. As the pot-smoking grandfather who is obsessed with Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, he is charming in Kapoor and Sons (2016). As the ageing Muslim made to feel out of place in his own nation, he is mesmerising in Mulk (2017). These movies showed the range he had and the empathy he could tap into, and yet keep everything so light and effortless.
More than that, it was his candour that was so refreshing in an industry that thrives on short memories. He would not forget, even if he did forgive. He would not allow Vyjanthimala to forget her affair with his father, something that caused his mother (after whom he named his erstwhile Pali Hill home) to move out with the children. He would not allow Amitabh Bachchan to walk away by crediting his success merely to his writer and directors, forgetting critical co-stars. He would not spare himself either, acknowledging his alcoholism and his often brutish behaviour towards his long-suffering wife Neetu Singh.
Whether it was his depression at the height of fame, or his initially formal relationship with his son, he shared much of his life with the public. That is what makes his departure particularly acute. In the culture of hyper-hypocrisy that rules Bollywood, very few people tell it like it is. Rishi Kapoor was a chronic truth teller, even admitting to male menopause in the 1990s when movie magazines would carry stories on his marriage, his temper and his love for the bottle. He called it, as always inventive, male menopause.
But to his last, he remained a proud member of an acting dynasty that is now in its fourth iteration. Films, food, friends and family were his life, as for most members of his family. And since the age of two, when he made a special appearance with brother Randhir and his late sister Ritu, in the iconic song, ‘Pyar hua ikrar hua’, from Shree 420 (1955), he had been attached to the movies. Rishi Kapoor once described his father, Raj, to me as a man who ate, drank and slept his films.