On April 30, 2020, a day after the death of a shooting star Irrfan Khan -- the Hindi film industry bid goodbye to its initial chocolate-box hero who subsequently transformed into a seasoned craftsman -- Rishi Raj Kapoor.
While Irrfan still had a long way to go, Rishi (67) had led a full life -- five decades on the celluloid -- when he succumbed to cancer-related complications, after a two-year long battle. Over the last three decades as a journalist, one’s interactions with Rishi Kapoor have been myriad, revealing, rushed, brusque, brazen, exasperating even, but never without dramatic colour and heart. Rishi was a man who had an opinion about everything, voiced it out loud, and never clad his words in any garb other than they were meant to be seen in.
He didn’t suffer fools either. And it was this undisguised honesty that made up a large part of his disarming charm. He was argumentative but unafraid and unapologetic about his opinions. In fact, his real persona, in the first half of his career, was quite at odds with the soft spoken, gooey-eyed on-screen demeanour. The first crush of many young girls!
Born into the first family of the industry, the Kapoors, and surrounded by heavyweights since childhood, Rishi, by default, strolled into the family nursery -- the RK Studios. With many having tread that path -- father, grandfather and uncles -- Kapoor had big shoes to fill. Strictly speaking, he made his debut at age three in a song sequence in his father’s film Shri 420. His official debut, of course, was in his dads biggest film (both a flop and a hit) Mera Naam Joker in 1970, which won him a National Award for Best Child Artist. He followed that up with yet another award when he made a splash in Bobby in 1973, opposite Dimple Kapadia.
With that, he acquired the eternal ‘romantic hero’ tag that dogged him for quarter of a century, until Chandni. Rishi, fondly called Chintu by his family and the entire industry, resented till the end that he was not the recipient of any prestigious national award, despite having successful hits to his credit and winning accolades for the same.
The country and the government, he felt, had not acknowledged him. Nevertheless, Rishi never lost his passion for acting, ever. Despite growing up in the rarefied company of established stalwarts, Rishi created his own unique imprint and screen identity, and upped his game with each film he chose.
Bobby, according to Rishi, was made not so much to launch him, as much as to pay off the massive debts of Mera Naam Joker. The then reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna was unaffordable; so, Raj launched his son as the young star-crossed lover boy. Bobby went on to become a cult film, defining cinematic romance in Bollywood. In 1980, he married Neetu Singh, who had paired opposite him in the maximum number of films twelve -- a record that remains unbeaten.
The successful and vivacious actress let Rishi and the family they created take centre-stage after that, bidding goodbye to films for nearly four decades. Rishi played the romantic lead for three decades, long after, as he sarcastically jeered, he had stopped being a boy. He did a humungous number of films as solo hero, almost a 100, seeing success in a fair number of them. He also stood out in the multi-hero projects he took on. He straddled genres across action films, comedy, romance and drama, finding more success in the latter.
His noteworthy films were Khel Khel Mein, Karz (which took some time to warm up, before becoming another crazy cult offering), Amar Akbar Anthony, Raffoo Chakkar, Kabhi Kabhie, Damini, Chandni, Laila Majnu, Prem Rog, Saagar and a number of light-hearted romances with heroines who were his contemporaries, and younger.
His rare foray outside the commercial zone was Ek Chadar Maili Si, (with Hema Malini), about a man compelled by tradition to wed his sister-in-law after his brother dies, (personally, I loved it), based on Rajendra Singh Bedis novel of the same name.
For the family banner, Rishi acted in Henna, co- directed by father and his brother Randhir. He also did Prem Granth, produced jointly by the three brothers (Randhir, Rishi, and Rajiv), and directed by Rajiv. RK Studios own fortunes, after the death of the Grandmaster Raj Kapoor in 1988, were floundering.
Twenty-five years after Bobby, in 1999, Rishi made his debut as a director with Aa Ab Laut Chalein, ironically meant to be Rajesh Khanna’s co meback vehicle, also starring Akshaye Khanna and Aishwarya Rai. The film bombed badly. And 20 years after, the Kapoors even endured the sale of their prized studio, which had been gutted in a fire and had be come a white elephant. Not an easy battle even for the bravest of warriors.
Rishi gracefully graduated after a prolonged youthful run, to playing supporting characters in the new millennium. With the transition, he explored varied characters like the don in Agneepath and D-Day, the gay in Student of the Year and cameos like the ones in Love Aaj Kal and Mulk which earned him critical acclaim as well.
He reunited with his wife Neetu onscreen in 2010 with Do Dooni Char, which didn’t create waves, but won him kudos, for old time’s sake. When I told him I had liked him in Fanaa, he glared at me and loudly remarked that I had very bad taste. This was a man who, in this world of make-up and make believe, never deluded himself. In 2017, the outspoken Rishi Kapoor released his Autobiography, ‘Khullam Khulla - Rishi Kapoor Uncensored’, co-authored by Meena Iyer. The book was as honest as it could get. And despite his unapologetic approach to many industry home-truths, it was well received, and made for a refreshing read. In 2017, Rishi also won awards for his portrayal of an octogenarian with sparkling spirit, in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons. Director Umesh Shukla’s 2018 comic caper 102 Not Out had Rishi star as his long time co-actor Amitabh Bachchan’s son, after close to three decades.
Again, there was a tepid response. Rishi debuted digitally, with Netflix’s drama Rajma Chawal in 2018, before he was diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer and went to the US for treatment, where he stayed with Neetu for over a year. He returned at the end of the third quarter of 2019, which was his last active professional year. 2019 saw the release of two of Rishi’s films, a comic drama, Jhootha Kahin Ka, and a thriller titled The Body with Emraan Hashmi which released in December 2019, and remains his last release before his demise.
Another film of his under production, which saw hiccups twice with his illness - in 2018 when they started, and now with his passing -- is the Hitesh Bhartia directed Sharmaji Namkeen, co-starring Juhi Chawla, another actress he had romanced in her youth in multiple films. For Rishi the actor, it will be 102 films plus, not out and counting… The end came after he was admitted to the HN Reliance Foundation Hospital on April 29, 2020, with respiratory complications. He has fought his battle, recovered and returned home, and there was going to be no second war. He mercifully didn’t linger in pain, and breathed his last this morning (30th April). He was never big on goodbyes.
The author is the former editor of Stardust.