A finger rises like an orchestra conductor’s and draws three quick imaginary lines in the air. “Oblique, oblique, oblique,” the owner of the finger says. “That’s how it is with me nowadays. Everything has to be many things—interesting, oblique, challenging, oblique… too many obliques in my life right now.” Behind the finger and those words, Rishi Kapoor the actor sits deep in the couch, more corpulent than he was as a leading man, one leg under another, balancing a cup of lukewarm tea with one hand.
RK Films & Studios, the landmark film studio in Mumbai’s Chembur suburb which was established by his illustrious father Raj Kapoor, has an old world charm. A bespectacled middle-aged woman in a salwar kameez sits with a register behind a wooden counter under two large portraits of Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj Kapoor. Three men who have just stepped out of a tempo transporting a television set are seated in the lobby and offered tea. All around are small chairs, the types used on old film sets, with strips of cloth stretched across red metal frames to create seats. There is a blackboard somewhere. A dustbin is converted into a stand for wet umbrellas. Rishi Kapoor had once said he uses awards as doorstops in his house. But today there are at least a hundred or more of them in a variety of shapes and colours, probably more than half a century’s worth of achievements in the Hindi film industry, locked up in an old, plain, unvarnished brown showcase. An old man, no doubt a Man-Friday, rushes about from one room to another, carrying tea and messages.
Outside, the Mumbai sky, now adrizzle, is threatening to break into a torrential downpour. A large white car stops at the entrance of this old grey building. Out steps a large fair man in a blue checked shirt, and despite the rain, stands with closed eyes and clasped hands in front of a marble statue of Shiva and a portrait of Raj Kapoor. As you focus, you realise it is Rishi Kapoor.
Kapoor’s office is at the end of a corridor. But unlike the rest of the building, its interior is plush. There are dark heavy curtains everywhere, big comfortable couches and large shelves, some of them empty and some half-filled with books and DVDs. At the end of the room, Kapoor sits in front of an empty table like a school principal, sipping tea. On one wall, there is a stylish yet gloomy painting of a cheerful circus clown.
In a career that has spanned over 46 years, mostly as a leading man, Rishi Kapoor claims that it is only now in the last few years that he has begun to experience true artistic freedom. “I have been a romantic hero all my life.” The tone of his voice is palpably weary. “But now I feel like I am really testing my acting abilities. And I’m beginning to really enjoy this phase.”
His second innings, as he sometimes calls it, also marks a hitherto unseen political persona. Last year, he had effusive praise for Narendra Modi’s British parliament speech. Some months ago, similar affection was bestowed upon the former actor and now Union Minister Smriti Irani. And about a month ago, taking everyone somewhat by surprise, in a series of posts on Twitter, he had a go at the practice of having national assets and institutions named after members of the Gandhi family. ‘Baap ka maal samajh rakha tha? (Do they consider it their father’s property?), Socho why?’ (Think why?) he had asked. These tweets came at a time when the Hindi film industry was jumping out of cinema magazines and supplements to hold forth on front-page political issues of the day. Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan had spoken up against what they believed was growing intolerance in the country, although they have avoided further comment after the backlash it provoked. And before the duo, several other filmmakers, including Dibakar Banerjee, Anand Patwardhan and Kundan Shah, joined scientists and writers to return their awards as a mark of protest. Many other senior artistes like Anupam Kher, Paresh Rawal, Madhur Bhandarkar, and the politician- actor Hema Malini retaliated, calling those in the opposite camp hypocrites. A day after Kapoor’s comments, unsurprisingly, his house was besieged with a dharna and greeted with stones.
According to Kapoor, his comments came from a neutral space. And he neither has any political aspirations nor is he currying favour with the current dispensation at the Centre. “You can’t shut us up, can you? You can’t bring the Emergency back,” he says. “I’m glad that I said it. Even the die-hard Congressman, even the worst Congresswadi knows in his heart that I’m speaking the truth. Party workers don’t have to lick boots and become such sycophants. These Congress leaders show they are such sycophants. They did a dharna outside my house, threw stones... One day they came outside [my house]. The next day they became like pussy cats. Some [Congress supporters] say airports have been named after other people [as well]. But what about the damn national assets? They are spokespersons of the Congress. They have to bark. They are paid people. Doesn’t make a difference to me.”
I am not grinding any axe. And as far as I am concerned, I am happy with the present situation. I am happy with what the Prime Minister is doing in the country. And I hope he will live up to his promises
Kapoor claims that he has nothing against the Gandhi-Nehru family, but has every right to express his views as a citizen. “I am not grinding any axe. And as far as I am concerned, I am happy with the present situation. I am happy with what the Prime Minister is doing in the country. And I hope he will live up to his promises.”
The actor turned active on Twitter when Abhishek Bachchan reintroduced him to it sometime in 2015 during the shoot of a film. Since then, in an industry where its professionals mostly use the online medium as a promotional tool, almost always staying away from anything remotely controversial, the 63-year-old Kapoor has emerged as a digital revelation. He has explained in other interviews that Twitter to him has become a replacement for his dependence on cigarettes, which he has quit. He shares moments from his and his family’s life, amusing anecdotes and jokes (‘I am Not and repeat NOT Ranbirs Post Box that you can drop messages or post them’; ‘How can someone ask you for a selfie when u at the airport public lavatory doing your job?’), and has an opinion on a diverse range of subjects—from why actors need to wear sunglasses in the dark to the Land Acquisition bill. Last year, he took on the subject of Maharashtra’s beef ban. ‘I am angry,’ he tweeted. ‘Why do you equate food with religion?? I am a beef eating Hindu. Does that mean I am less God fearing than a non eater? Think!!’ He also spoke against the alcohol ban in Bihar and the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.
IN 1970, WHEN Rishi Kapoor was still a school student, his father Raj Kapoor, during a dinner conversation, informed his wife Krishna that he would have his son enact a role in his film Mera Naam Joker. Rishi, as he often fondly recalls, walked to his room quietly after dinner, without sharing a word with his parents or displaying any emotion, pulled out a pen from a drawer, and began practising his autograph.
Today, he stretches out his hand as a way of explaining why he was drawn towards a profession in cinema. “This,” he says referring to RK Films & Studios, “I’ve been coming here from my childhood. I used to see actors act, directors make films. I used to play here. The environment, its periphery, it was all about films. I was bound to get involved.”
When Mera Naam Joker flopped, Raj Kapoor was in severe debt. His ego was also bruised, it is said. So, inspired by the opening sequences of Mera Naam Joker about a youth falling in love, and the need to prove himself yet again, Raj Kapoor decided to make a teenage love drama with newcomers. Rishi Kapoor, his 21-year- old son who looked every bit like a teenager, and the 15-year-old Dimple Kapadia were selected for the 1973 film Bobby. Up till that point, love stories in films usually revolved around older characters, but this film set the new template of teenage romance. It captured the imagination of the youth of that era and turned Rishi Kapoor into a romantic icon.
Over the next few years, since older actresses could not be featured with him, Rishi Kapoor was paired with a bevy of new, young actresses—a total of 23, according to estimates. From Dimple Kapadia (Bobby) and Jaya Prada (Sargam) in the 1970s to Sangeeta Bijlani (Hathyar) and Divya Bharti (Deewana) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many actresses made their debut appearances with him. Even when Amitabh Bachchan and his ‘angry young man’ persona came along, felling several other romantic heroes, Rishi Kapoor’s career continued to hold up. In those years, he was the youngest and the most able upholder of the legacy of Bollywood’s original first family.
For about 25 years, possibly one of the longest periods in the Hindi film industry, from one younger actress to another, Rishi Kapoor continued to star as a romantic hero, until he became the very image of the hero that Bobby had helped shatter. Kapoor was old, overweight and bored, and he was still romancing actresses half his age and size. His passion for films— which he often speaks about and which had no doubt pushed several members of the Kapoor family to make and act in them—had begun to disappear. Age and weight had caught up with him, he says. “I was nearing 50 and several younger heroes had come. I had been working for 25 years without stop—in more than 125 films.” Kapoor moved towards directing movies, but his Aa Ab Laut Chalen failed.
In over 85 years of the Kapoor family legacy in cinema, Rishi Kapoor’s career is amongst the most interesting
During this period, however, as the industry and the audience began to broaden their palette, he discovered the liberation of what he calls ‘character-actor’ roles. He began to revel in a wide variety of side roles, from villainous ones like the Dawood Ibrahim-inspired don (D-Day) and a pimp (Agneepath, 2012) to a cantankerous bawdy grandfather (Kapoor & Sons) and a caterer (Shuddh Desi Romance).
The transition was easy, according to him. “I had no ego or hang ups,” he says. But his first instinct when approached for unconventional roles was always to turn them down. The producers of Agneepath had to pursue him for over a month to convince him to take a ‘look’ test for the role of the pimp Rauf Lala in the film. Upon seeing himself dressed as the character, he reluctantly agreed to give the film a shot. “I was saying, ‘It won’t work out’,” he says. “But deep down I was very insecure, I have to admit. I was afraid people would reject me and the film would fail because of me.”
With acclaim for that performance, Kapoor began to relish unusual roles. Earlier this year, he played a 90-year-old grandfather in the film Kapoor & Sons, a relatively small-budget Dharma Productions film, and insisted that its producers hire Greg Cannom, a special effects makeup artist who has won several awards for his work on films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, whose fees reportedly bloated the film’s budget by Rs 2 crore. Despite drinking late into the night, the actor would be up at the crack of dawn, spending close to almost six hours simply for makeup. “I would be up by five in the morning and on my makeup chair by 6 am. Then makeup for about five-and-a-half hours. And then shooting from 12 pm till seven or eight in the night,” he says. When the shooting began, the set turned into a battleground. He would squabble with the much younger director of the film.
The director, Shakun Batra, would ask him to act out the part in several takes, while the cameraperson would shoot him—as is the norm these days—from several angles. “I would ask him, ‘Where should I look?’, ‘Where should I face?’ and he would say he doesn’t know and that he would bring all of it together later in the editing room,” Kapoor says. “But I am a spontaneous actor and I can’t keep recreating an emotion all the time.” The oldest actor on the set—made older under all the prosthetics and makeup—and the director would have a go at each other through the course of the shoot, as the rest of the cast would look on. Kapoor even offered to step down from the film.
“With our industry turning digital, directors don’t have to worry spending money on film. There is no film, no processing. Everything is dumped into a computer and edited there. And the way editing now works, directors want a lot more material in hand to see what works where. So we actors now have to bear the brunt,” Kapoor says. But when he saw the film, once complete, he began to agree with what Batra had done. “Maybe I am old fashioned. Maybe I need to learn to hone my skills for this new generation.”
In over 85 years of the Kapoor family legacy in cinema—if one begins counting from the time Rishi Kapoor’s grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor played a supporting role in India’s first talkie Alam Ara (1931), encompassing the illustrious careers of his father Raj Kapoor and brothers Shammi and Shashi Kapoor, right up to the time of his nieces Karisma and Kareena and son Ranbir—Rishi Kapoor’s career is amongst the most interesting. It covers a wide arc from the time of auteurs like his father to the films of the new century where the content and process of filmmaking has remarkably metamorphosed.
“If there is one thing I have learnt in all these years, it is that everything changes. Generations, their values, the youth, films and its music, technology—everything changes. You have to keep abreast with what is happening. Otherwise you can’t survive,” he says. “More so in show business.”