In the four decades that he has been around, Rishi Kapoor’s success has been his biggest failure. For someone who got a National Award for his first film appearance as a child artist in Mera Naam Joker (1970) and followed it up with a Filmfare Best Actor nod with his first adult role in Bobby (1973), Rishi Kapoor’s career has been a constant struggle. Had it not been for who he was, Kapoor would have been considered a greater artist and taken a little more seriously.
Some actors are doomed to be their own victims. From the time the camera revealed him as Raju, the cherubic loser, to the time he became Santosh Duggal in Do Dooni Chaar (2010), Kapoor has been the best second best. Although he played the same character as his more illustrious father, Raj Kapoor, in Mera Naam Joker, it’d not be totally incorrect to think that the showman modeled his performance on his son’s as opposed to the other way round. Such is the brilliance of Rishi Kapoor’s performance as the younger Raju that it leaves you thinking of him even when you see Kapoor Sr.
Mera Naam Joker introduced us to a talented young man and the anticipation of what’d he do next created a buzz for Bobby even before Raj Kapoor could have planned the film. In Bobby’s success Rishi Kapoor not only found his footing as an actor and promised to be more than just Raj Kapoor’s son. He might have been the fount of star-children launches but no other star offspring has justified a claim to fame as well as him.
In Mera Naam Joker the audience never sees the adult Rishi Kapoor but post-Bobby they somewhere never allowed him to grow beyond the sweet poor little rich boy. Ironically, it’s not with Mera Naam Joker but with Bobby that Rishi Kapoor came to be seen as Chintu, and maybe he was doomed to be forever young. He played the impish city slicker lover boy even in Shah Rukh Khan’s debut Deewana (1992) a good 20 years after Bobby. He offered the viewer a chance to see him in a different avatar right after Bobby with Zahreela Insaan (1974), a film that is all about a misunderstood young man, but the gritty realism of the 1970s and a mustachioed Rishi Kapoor weren’t enough to shake off the chocolate boy image. Even though he ended up played the same sweet rebel in many of the films of 1970s like Rafoo Chakar (1975), Kabhie-Kabhie (1976), Barood (1976) or Hum Kissi Se Kum Nahin (1976), Kapoor was as convincing in Laila Majnu (1976) or Sargam (1980). His Akbar Ilahabadi in Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977) with the pencil moustache, the netted vest and vivid silk shirts along with the paan chewing is nothing less than method acting within the realm of commercial Hindi cinema.
The greatness of Rishi Kapoor lies in the ease with which he managed to create a special place for himself in the 40 years that he has been an actor. Even though he was never as big a star as Dev Anand or Rajesh Khanna, Kapoor, nonetheless, has his own musical legacy of great songs.
But his greatest achievement is the munificence with which allowed his co-stars to go about their roles. He was forever the second fiddle to everyone from Amitabh Bachchan in Naseeb (1981), Coolie (1983) or Ajooba (1991) to Sridevi in Nagina (1986) and Chandni (1989) or Sunny Deol and Meenakshi Seshadari in Damini (1993) and yet these wouldn’t be half the films without him. One of the best tests for any actor is what they do when they don’t have anything to do. Rishi Kapoor is as mesmerising in the scenes where he does nothing as he is in the ones where he’s firing on all cylinders.
Rishi Kapoor did try to going against the grain in films like Duniya (1984), where he matches steps with Dilip Kumar, and Khoj (1989) where he’s not as good as he appears. He did a Laila Majnu, an Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986) or a handful of Muslim socials with as much ease as a Karz (1980) or Chandni but back then, this would be another day at the office and not experimenting.
Maybe Rishi Kapoor never took his career seriously enough. He hardly worried about his bulging frame as long as he could put on a sweater to look the part. He got infuriated and walked out of Lamhe (1991) when Yash Chopra suggested a screen test to see if his second favorite hero could pass off as an 18-year-old Viren. But then had Kapoor shown more interest than what he did who knows what would have become of him. The films loved Rishi Kapoor and he loved films back just enough so as to the relationship never became overbearing and that’s the reason even today at 60 he continues to charm us just as he did years ago as the heart-stealer of a joker.
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.
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