His output was unwaveringly steady and dependable, the shield of trust that came free with a movie ticket.
Rishi Kapoor, third-generation movie star, unofficial record keeper of Hindi film history, and widely acknowledged bon vivant, died on Thursday in Mumbai. He was 67. He is survived by his wife Neetu, his son Ranbir, and his daughter Ridhima and her family.
Kapoor was battling cancer, and had spent close to a year in New York City in treatment. He returned to Mumbai in September. He had been admitted to a hospital in Mumbai with breathing problems a few days ago.
Rishi Kapoor in Bobby (1973). | RK Films.
According to a statement issued by the family, “Our dear Rishi Kapoor passed away peacefully at 8:45am IST in hospital today after a two-year battle with leukemia. The doctors and medical staff at the hospital said he kept them entertained to the last. He remained jovial and determined to live to the fullest right through two years of treatment across two continents. Family, friends, food and films remained his focus and everyone who met him during this time was amazed at how he did not let his illness get the better of him.”
Kapoor had shot some portions of his comeback film, the comedy Sharmaji Namkeen, in Delhi in February. He was also on track to star in the Hindi remake of the Hollywood comedy The Intern.
His death has robbed show business of a seasoned entertainer. A member of the Hindi film industry’s most storied clan, Kapoor first appeared before the camera as a child in the 1950s. After he started his career in earnest as an adult in the 1970s, his choice of roles spanned romances, comedies, socially themed dramas, thrillers, historicals and melodramas. His films often had impassioned declarations of love, innocence, humour, chart-topping songs, trendy dancing and colourful costumes (most notably a series of bright jerseys).
Whatever the quality or outcome of the project, Kapoor’s output was unwaveringly steady and dependable, the shield of trust that came free with a movie ticket.
Given his spontaneity and ease before the camera, could he have stretched himself further, experimented a bit more? This true believer in mainstream Hindi cinema’s biggest pursuit – a positive commercial outcome – might have punched below his weight, but even in his most trite movies, he was a twinkly-eyed charmer, doing what was required without betraying too much effort.
Rishi Kapoor in Kabhi Kabhie (1976). Courtesy Yash Raj Films.
Some of this professionalism was learnt on the job and some of it was inherited. Like the doctor’s child who is familiar with medical jargon and the policeman’s kids who can distinguish between “handcuff” and “handkerchief”, Rishi Kapoor understood the pleasures, peculiarities and pitfalls of show business very early.
He was born on September 4, 1952, in Mumbai, the third of the five children of Raj and Krishna Kapoor. The family was already heaving with legends. Rishi Kapoor’s grandfather, Prithviraj Kapoor, had been a renowned stage and film performer since the late 1920s. His father Raj Kapoor directed, produced and starred in his own films, and had already rolled out one of his finest works, Awara , the year before Rishi Kapoor was born.
Raj Kapoor’s brothers, Shashi and Shammi, were leading men, and their wives were actresses (Shashi was married to Jennifer Kendal and Shammi to Geeta Bali). Rishi Kapoor’s uncles – Prem Nath, Rajendra Nath and Narendra Nath – were all actors. Rishi Kapoor’s mother, Krishna, was Prem Nath’s sister. Another of their sisters was the wife of screen villain Prem Chopra.
Rishi Kapoor’s brothers Randhir and Rajiv became actors too. Rishi would marry his co-star, Neetu Singh, and his son Ranbir would follow in his parents’ footsteps. So would some of his nieces and nephews, with Kareena Kapoor continuing to rule the roost.
“Acting was in my blood and there was simply no escaping it,” Kapoor wrote in his autobiography Khullam Khulla. The memoir, co-written with Meena Iyer, benefits from Kapoor’s refreshing honesty and prodigious memory. “My childhood was a dream, like an unending mela,” he wrote. “People from the film fraternity constantly streamed in and out of our home… The Kapoors have always been proud of our profession; nobody has ever been apologetic about belonging to the entertainment industry.”
As a child, he was frequently taken to the sets. Along with his siblings Randhir and Ritu, he was featured in the song Pyar Hua Ikraar from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 in 1955. Rishi Kapoor also appeared in a couple of plays as a child.
His first full-scale role was in his father’s Mera Naam Joker in 1970. When filming began in 1968, Rishi Kapoor was 16, and was recruited to play the younger version of Raj Kapoor’s character Raju, a circus clown. As a schoolboy, the tubby Raju has a crush on his svelte teacher Mary (Simi Garewal). Rishi Kapoor’s performance won him the National Film Award for Best Child Artist.
Rishi Kapoor in Mera Nama Joker (1970). Courtesy RK Films.
The sparkling eyes, robust complexion, ready smile and selfless romantic disposition were already on display in Mera Naam Joker. In the coming years, Kapoor sealed his reputation as the ideal lover boy, resulting in such popular romances as Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), Laila Majnu (1976), Sargam (1979) and Prem Rog (1982).
“Rishi Kapoor comes across as the nice boy who wasn’t just led by his raging hormones but loved with his soul as well,” Madhu Jain wrote in the biography The Kapoors. “He danced like a dream, effortlessly. The star-crossed or tragic lover label fit him well, especially in films like Laila Majnu. He also came at a time when screen romance was about love, not obsession… He symbolised a sense of masti and youthful energy, not to forget those magic dancing feet.”
Rishi Kapoor hit the ground running with his debut as a leading man in 1973. Raj Kapoor made Bobby, a story of star-crossed lovers, as a way to recoup from the financial debacle of Mera Naam Joker. Rishi Kapoor, now slimmer but still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, played Raj Nath, who falls in love with the Goan Catholic Bobby Braganza (Dimple Kapadia in her screen debut).
Rishi Kapoor in Bobby (1973). Courtesy RK Films.
Although Bobby was a box-office scorcher, Rishi Kapoor was soon exposed to one of the axioms of showbiz – you win some and then you lose some.
“I didn’t have to struggle for fame and fortune,” he said in Khullam Khulla. “But not even my extraordinary family legacy could prevent me from the realities of life.”
Bobby was immediately followed by the flop Zehreela Insan (1975). Rafoo Chakkar (1975), which was based on the Hollywood cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot, fared better although, as Kapoor wryly remarked, “…since I was made up like a girl for the major part of the film, I could not be endorsed as a bona fide heart-throb”.
The success of Khel Khel Mein in 1975 wasn’t just a much-needed breather. The romantic thriller cemented the pairing between Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. She was a former child actor who was among the early candidates for the lead role in Bobby. Their shared delayed-1960s sartorial style – bell-bottoms, floral-patterned shirts, mini-skirts, floppy hair, oversized sunglasses – made them “fashion templates for teenagers before the MTV era”, Madhu Jain observed.