www.thehindu.com | May 05, 2020
The star and the actor are seldom synonymous in Bollywood, but he was a rare synthesis of both
Writing an obituary is the most excruciating thing. While it attempts to memorialise the life and work of an individual, it leaves a residue of sorrow that forever gnaws at your heart. Rishi Kapoor was a consummate actor. Another word that could best describe him is ‘versatile’. Mera Naam Joker, Rafoo Chakkar, Kabhie Kabhie, Amar Akbar Anthony, Sargam, Karz, Prem Rog, Saagar... the list is endless. He was also referred to as the ‘chocolate boy’ for his impish good looks and the instant heartthrob status that was conferred upon him after the success of Bobby.
The importance of pedigree
While some will grudge him his pedigree which was Bollywood royalty to say the least, I would like to aver that pedigree alone doesn’t make an actor. It could certainly get you a break or toehold in filmdom. No denying that being Raj Kapoor’s son had its own advantages but by that logic, Rishi’s brothers, Randhir and Rajiv, should have also found mainstream success like he did. Stardom operates in strange ways. Pedigree can make you a star but not an actor. In Bollywood, the star and the actor are seldom synonymous. Rishi was that rare synthesis of both.
If you look at his earlier films, they were a series of love stories, romantic comedies, some tragedies — atypical Bollywood genre films. What does an actor have to do in these films? The plot is predictable with some song and dance thrown in, and the end is everyone’s guess. Rishi was not the darling of art house filmmakers or perhaps he never cared about those films which is the route many mainstream actors often take to prove their acting mettle. It is like an unwritten binary – go to art house for recognition of acting talent and do as you please in the usual commercial flare. Rishi Kapoor proved his versatility in the most mainstream of commercial Hindi cinema.
However, the actor in him perhaps got a new lease of life in the second phase of his career starting with a film like Luck by Chance where he played an over-the-top Bollywood film producer. That was a significant revelation for many of us who grew up watching his films. He could no longer play the chocolate boy or the quintessential Bollywood hero. Age was not on his side. Rishi began to experiment with roles and that too in the format of mainstream Hindi cinema. Then came Love Aaj Kal, Aurangzeb, Kapoor & Sons, Mulk, Rajma Chawal and I wondered, where was this Rishi Kapoor hiding so far?
Does this also indicate that mainstream Hindi film actors at the peak of their careers are risk-averse or prefer to wait their turn till they can no longer play lead roles in films? In retrospect, when Rishi was the leading star of Hindi films, the actors playing roles of his father or uncle had barely anything substantial to do in those films. They weren’t incompetent actors either, but Hindi film scripts barely thought about those characters. This isn’t the case when Rishi had to essay similar roles in his second phase. Think about the grandfather he played in Kapoor & Sons. It is a character written with special attention. Much of the credit goes to his performance for making the character entirely believable but that character wouldn’t exist without the script.
Rishi Kapoor also featured in Habib Faisal’s Do Dooni Chaar which is a little gem of a film. He played a middle-class school teacher in Delhi struggling to buy a new car for his family. Not only did he enliven the dilemmas of his character, he made you feel for the daily struggles of a common man in the big metropolis. If Rishi Kapoor were his son Ranbir Kapoor’s age now, would he do films differently than what he did during his heyday? Perhaps that would give us a very different filmography and with it, an actor beyond our imagination.
- Prof. Kunal Ray, Assistant Professor – English Literature
*Views expressed are personal.