Rishi Kapoor: ‘I Don’t Need to Wear Masks’

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Rishi Kapoor reveals the glories and follies of Bollywood’s first family in a tell-all autobiography

Khullam Khulla | Rishi Kapoor | HarperCollins | 284 pages | Rs 599

ON MY WAY to a shoot a week ago, I had two choices. To re-read the script of the film I was shooting for or to read a book called Khullam Khulla. That’s the title of Rishi Kapoor’s autobiography (HarperCollins, 284 pages, Rs 599), fresh off the rack, peeping out of my leather bag. Reluctantly, I keep the script away and open the book, so I can be prepared for our appointment scheduled for the coming week. Why would an actor like him want to write a book? I ask myself, looking at his name written in gold and embedded above his profile picture lit by the blazing bulbs of a make-up room mirror.

The next thing I remember is keeping the book down six hours later when I was called in for my first shot that night. Incidentally, I had just reached the part where Kapoor was describing his very first shot in front of the camera as a two-year-old for the song Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua in his father’s film Barsaat (1949). “It was that famous scene with myself and my two older brothers as kids in pouring rain with our raincoats and boots. I kept crying because the rainwater would hurt my eyes. Eventually, it was Nargisji who convinced me to do the shot by bribing me with a chocolate,” he says rocking back and forth on a plush black easy chair in the corner of his study. We are now inside his quaint yet flamboyant Bandra apartment, where even his puppy pug has its own chair to sit on.

Anyone who has met Rishi Kapoor will vouch that he is amiable rather than daunting, even if it might seem otherwise. His demeanour is relaxed, and his words, impenitent. He not only calls a spade a spade, but will also show you how to bloody well use it. If he thinks you’re wrong, he will reprimand you just like your 60-year-old dad does, and that kind of honesty is refreshing. Do not try to interrupt him in the middle of a sentence, unless you want to be reminded of old-school manners.

“Shall I sign this for you?” he asks graciously, picking up my copy of his book and writing ‘Cheers’ for my father who has always been a fan. “I wrote this book because no Kapoor has ever really written a first-hand account of their lives in their words. Perhaps it was not in vogue those days. This one is all about how one’s life can be when you are part of a legacy of filmmaking. There’s nothing fabricated in it. People lie, people make a facade of themselves and the truth. They wear a mask. I don’t think I need to wear masks, and this book helped me shed any even if I did,” he says.

True to his word, his autobiography is a straightforward account of the life of an actor who saw and indulged in fame too early in life. Contrary to what the world thinks, being a Kapoor child was no easy feat, and Rishi Kapoor wants to underline this fact in ink. He acknowledges the aristocracy he was born to, but doesn’t mince words in revealing that nothing came easy to him despite that. “I may not have slept on the pavement or gone hungry for days, but my struggle was even more than what my contemporaries went through. When I entered, the whole scenario changed to the angry man’s image, the reaction era. It was impossible for me to keep my neck above the choppy waters I was swimming in,” he says. Between Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man and Rajesh Khanna’s free-wheeling lover boy image, Kapoor believes nobody wanted to see a lanky young fellow wooing girls or singing songs. “But I was the only one who pursued it and kept going and kept at it with some success and some dignity. I always say that I was the right person at the wrong time. When my innings as a romantic hero was finishing, the whole action era changed into romance and that’s when all these Khans came in. I would have had it much easier in this period,” he adds.

Through this book, he has an open conversation with his fans, friends, family members and even with himself. He unabashedly writes about his weaknesses, undoings and mistakes. “Why should I lie about anything? Whatever I am today is because of the journey I have undertaken and I know it hasn’t been perfect.”

He writes in his book, ‘Mera Naam Joker failed but my debut was applauded. I didn’t understand the importance of a national award in those times but I was excited. When I came to Dadaji (Prithviraj Kapoor) with the award he was visibly moved. He had tears in his eyes as he took the medal in his hand and kissed it. He said, ‘Raj ne mera karza utar diya’ (Raj has repaid my debt today).’ Now that’s an untainted tale from the Kapoor household that we would have never known otherwise. “The award was a very poignant moment in my life. Of course, it took me a while to realise the gravity of it, but I was happy that before my grandfather passed away I could make him this proud,” he adds.

My father was not Raj Kapoor because of Prithviraj Kapoor. I am not Rishi Kapoor because of Raj Kapoor. We all have our merits

But the book is about more than ansoos and ashirwaads (tears and blessings), detailing all that went on behind the camera to make, or at times threaten, the first family of Hindi cinema. From dealing with depression after his film Karz (1980) bombed at the box office, to buying an award for Bobby (1973) against Amitabh Bachchan’s Zanjeer the same year, Rishi Kapoor’s life has been an eclectic mix of adventures, to say the least. Khullam Khulla, as the name suggests, exposes everything about the Kapoor Khandan—from Raj Kapoor’s idiosyncrasies to Ranbir Kapoor’s adamancies, from why Rishi and Rajiv don’t see eye to eye, to why Nargis Dutt stepped into RK Studios years after leaving the banner.

Rishi Kapoor candidly mentions the infamous affair between his father and the then-reigning queen of Hindi cinema Nargis, which has so far been more folklore than fact. He writes, ‘I was very young when my father had an affair with Nargisji. I don’t remember much. All I remember is moving out of home into a hotel and then to another home in Chitrakoot when he was having an affair with Vyjyantimala. My mother put her foot down and wouldn’t give in until he ended that chapter of his life. In an interview published a few years ago, Vyjantimala denied ever having an affair with my father and claimed he had manufactured the romance for publicity. I was livid!’

He isn’t sure if his family has read the book, and from his expression it seems like he cares little. However, it has taken Rishi Kapoor over 45 years to become the person he is today. After his first major film Bobby turned him into a superstar overnight, he became a ‘brat’ in his own words. “After that kind of fame I couldn’t care a shit about anybody. I was a total brat. During the shoot of Bobby, I would be Papa’s scapegoat every time a scene went wrong and now I know why. I was nonsensical and very, very stupid, which I realised eventually. When a kid of 21 gets so much attention, anybody would get swayed. I soon realised that was not the way to live life,” he says.

He fondly mentions his first love Yasmein whom he lost to this fame, fortune and the gossip around his affair with Dimple Kapadia during Bobby. “There was a ring Yasmein had given me which Dimple threw into the sea. Sometimes I go looking for that ring at Juhu beach,” he says, with a laugh.

For a generation of youngsters in the 70s, Rishi Kapoor was the actor who could carry off bellbottoms with the kind of flair that no one else could. His onscreen romances were patented by a classic Rishi Kapoor charm. Be it multi- starrers like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) or hardcore romantic stories like Laila Majnu (1979), Rishi Kapoor was not just a fine actor, but had an allure which distinguished him from others. When his song Khullam khulla with Neetu Singh (from the movie Khel Khel Mein, 1975) released, word is that young couples across India would walk around arm in arm, unabashed about showing their affection. In the book, he writes, ‘It was in 1975, during the shooting of Kabhi Kabhie in Kashmir that our love affair blossomed. I went to Paris soon after and sent [Neetu Singh] a telegram; ‘Sikhni bahut yaad aati hai (I really miss the Sikhni).’ She was overjoyed when she received it and showed it off to everyone on the set saying, ‘See? He’s missing me’.’

His silence on Neetu Singh having to leave the industry at the age of 21 is proof enough that he wishes she hadn’t. “When we were marrying, we knew one was going to be a bread winner, one was a homemaker. We wanted to start a family and by the grace of God, we have two lovely kids. I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect marriage, but then which marriage is? Neetu and I would fight often even before marriage. She would sit in her makeup room and sulk. She says I am immature, which I don’t agree with,” he says. It is little surprise that Neetu Singh’s lovely afterword in the book starts like this; ‘Is Rishi Kapoor a grouch? Guilty as charged. Is he loud, gregarious, and prone to wound with words? Check all three please. Is he possessive and difficult to live with? You seem to know my husband well. So why am I still Mrs Rishi Kapoor 37 years after saying I do? Because 37 years is a long time and I cannot and would not live with any other.’

The book carries a picture of him as a small boy—chubby cheeked and blue eyed—sitting on Raj Kapoor’s lap. It’s also how he describes his relationship with his ingenious father who gave Indian cinema some of its best gems. “What he always told me was that ‘You will be an actor in your own right and not because of me.’ I’m happy that has come true. My father was not Raj Kapoor because of Prithviraj Kapoor. I am not Rishi Kapoor because of Raj Kapoor. And Ranbir is not Ranbir because of Rishi Kapoor. We all have our merits. We all worked hard. We all worked very sincerely, passionately towards our work. Being the senior-most star son today, I want to reiterate that please do not ever think a star son has it easy. I have had to go through a lot of trauma in my career.”

Rishi Kapoor’s versatility is well documented. He has played a variety of roles from the baddie in Agneepath (2012) to the naïve middle-class man in Do Dooni Chaar (2010) to the 90-year-old Casanova in Kapoor and Sons (2016). We are lucky we are still able to watch him perform. “I have been working for 45 years. I have seen two generations come and go. How many actors today will be able to sustain the way I have or Bachchan saab has? We never had scripts being given to us or producers flocking to us on sets those days. Hum toh Ram bharose chalte thhe (we’d be at the mercy of God). But we lasted because of the love of the people and the heart they put into a film.”

He wants to work till his last day and with his boots on. He may never have worked at Prithvi Theatre, which his grandfather started, but today, at 65, he’s ready to do something new—namely, live shows inspired by his own book. “Many of these stories are better enacted than read. I’m excited to perform,” he says, with the charm of that same 70s heartthrob. “Somehow I feel there is some redemption in my life after this book. I feel like I have stood in the confession box. I have said whatever I have to. There’s nothing to lie about. There is nothing that is hidden. There’s no agenda,” he says.

“It’s like a conversation with the person who is hearing it,” says Rishi Kapoor, “And I am now sin free.”