Born into the business as the son of Raj Kapoor and grandson of Prithviraj, Rishi Kapoor — who died April 30, aged 67 — had spent most of his life on film. And unlike many of the “star sons” and “star daughters” we’ve encountered these last few decades — lovingly propped up by their parents’ productions or at the very least their parents’ connections, it would have been a tragedy if Rishi Kapoor hadn’t decided to follow in his family’s footsteps.

He was an excellent actor and, though widely admired, he was still underrated for his craft. Indian cinema would have been so much poorer without him.

Kapoor had many avatars. His worst and least imaginative years were the ’90s, in which he grew increasingly implausible as a romantic lead, his weight ballooning, his trademark sprightliness growing laboured and stale. Even in that dark decade, there were joyful moments such as Deewana and the entertaining thriller Bol Radha Bol. Still, he’d been playing this part since 1973, it was time to let go.

Rishi Kapoor, who died aged 67 on April 30, had evolved into a very versatile character actor in his later years. But it would be remiss not to celebrate even his ‘formulaic’ lead characters that he essayed with so much élan and conviction

But just when everyone thought it was all over for Rishi Kapoor, plot twist. As they say, picture abhi baaqi hai. In the 2000s, he was back, freed from the obligations of being the lead. Luckily for him — and for us — cinema had also changed, there were roles now for interesting older (male) stars; they didn’t just have to play doting parents. And so there was Kapoor — playing mobsters and gangsters, playing a beleaguered lawyer from a persecuted community, playing a detective — fully inhabiting these characters, but still himself.

Henna (1991)
Henna (1991)

While I very much enjoyed Rishi Kapoor as a character actor, I’m wary of the way one is expected to heap praise on the unusual and the unconventional while overlooking the ordinary, as if it’s somehow beneath critical attention. That word ‘formulaic’ is thrown about as a pejorative. I’m at the other end of the spectrum from this way of thinking. Nothing is harder than taking something that’s been done a million times and making it come alive, making it your own.

Rishi Kapoor spent a great part of his career as a lead, professing his love while peering at heroines through flowery boughs and running towards them through fresh snowfalls. He did it with so much élan and conviction that this most formulaic of scenarios, winning over the girl, became — for the involved viewer — a matter of life or death.

When I started really paying attention to movies, Kapoor was already past his prime; sporting an extra chin and a beer gut that pushed against outrageously patterned knitwear. But oh how we swooned in Chandni. Admittedly, these things were more acceptable in the ’80s, those halcyon days when only women’s bodies were the subject of scrutiny, before the Salman Khan six-pack became de rigeur.

Chandni (1989)
Chandni (1989)

Looking back at Kapoor’s career, he feels not just like the best choice for his role in Chandni but also the only choice. He was always comfortable taking the back seat in woman-centric films, and Chandni was one which celebrated its impossibly radiant heroine with near-fetishistic devotion.

I have no wish to recast an actor who was — by his own account — ‘a difficult man to live with’ as some sort of feminist trailblazer but, while the industry oozed crass machismo, several Rishi Kapoor films, including Prem Rog, Sargam and Doosara Aadmi, centred around women with unconventional lives, women who wanted to live for their own desires. Even though cinema is changing to mirror the status of women in society, successful male leads still tend to be quite ungenerous about sharing screen time.

His supporting roles weren’t just in ‘women’s movies’. Some of Kapoor’s best-loved performances come as part of ensemble casts, most famously Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony. If you revisit Amar Akbar Anthony today, once you’re done wailing and rending your garments at how the desire for a secular, inclusive India now lies bloodied and broken at one’s feet, you may find, as I do, that the purported hero Anthony’s comedic antics feel coarse and dated whereas Rishi’s Akbar Allahabadi’s 40-year-old romance with Salma still blazes. Watch him also wring laughs from a script that sets up Amitabh Bachchan as the funny one.

Bobby (1973)
Bobby (1973)

The persona I most associate with Rishi Kapoor, though, was that of the urbane, privileged young scion, much like his character in Bobby. Suffocated by the rigid demands of his class, not sacrificing his wealth so much as escaping it to be with the object of his desire. Never mind that she was the wrong religion, the wrong class, and that her father was an overly-exuberant lush who’d most certainly raise eyebrows at the country club.

At a time when good Indian children were desperately seeking the approval of their parents, Rishi Kapoor — in his time as romantic hero — thumbed his nose at a gallery of status-conscious fathers and disapproving in-laws. He stood for shaking up the social order, out with the old, in with the new! Time and again, he threw down the gauntlet, urging young women to elopement. And you can see why anyone would follow him to the gates of hell, this handsome young man with the sunny disposition and the mega-watt smile.

You could say I’m biased; I admit I’ve spent most of my life in love with various on-screen Rishis — Rishi box-stepping by himself in the beginning of Tu, tu hai wohi, Rishi on that train in Hoga tumse pyara kaun, Rishi displaying the world’s worse sense of direction and ending up in Pakistan instead of his girlfriend’s house at the end of Der na hojaye.

Kapoor & Sons (2016)
Kapoor & Sons (2016)

He often said that was he was ‘born lucky and stayed lucky’. In spite of his obvious privilege, it’s a self-effacing comment of course. You can be born into an acting dynasty and still be an absolute dud. Need I remind anyone of Rajiv Kapoor?

Besides, in the case of Rishi Kapoor, we were the lucky ones.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 10th, 2020