Mayank Shekhar: Why is Rishi Kapoor so underrated?

When you’re blessed with drop-dead gorgeous looks, and appear so effortless on screen, one might ignore how great an actor you are

Rishi Kapoor’s greatest feat by far is rising above the overwhelming family Banyan tree of actors and making a distinct mark for himself. File pic
Rishi Kapoor’s greatest feat by far is rising above the overwhelming family Banyan tree of actors and making a distinct mark for himself. File pic

Not that you’d ever ignore Rishi Kapoor’s calls, even if it’s rather late in the night. But I was at a loud bar, and rushed out to speak to him, only when I’d missed his calls a couple of times already.

“I’m in Mussoorie,” Mr Kapoor said. “Just read your review of Rockstar (2011). You’ve called Ranbir the most competent star-actor to hit the screen since Hrithik Roshan, and before that, Amitabh Bachchan, and Aamir Khan.” Very long pause. And then he mildly screamed, “Abey, beta toh mera hai!” I laughed. But realised he was only partially kidding about the oversight, having just finished reading his recently released, wonderfully candid memoir, Khullam Khulla.

The portrait that emerges from Mr Kapoor’s autobiography is of an artiste who’s slightly ziddi, whimsical even, but a thoroughly frank and lovable Punjabi family man, who’d given his all to acting: his primary calling in life. Yet, despite a 47-year career so far, with hardly any interruptions, he comes across as someone who could’ve achieved even more, if it wasn’t for the quirk of circumstances.

With the release of his romantic super-hit debut, as lead actor in Bobby, he had female fans swooning all over him, women taking their shirt off for an autograph on their bra. This was 1973. Exactly the year Zanjeer released, and established the ‘angry young man’ Amitabh Bachchan as practically number one, in the field of one — making intense action films the preferred genre of the masses for much over a decade.

I’m not surprised Mr Kapoor considers himself as the right man in the wrong place. One could argue that the director he paired best with was Nasir Hussain (Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, whose music we can’t stop humming still). It was in fact Nasir Hussain, as producer, who pretty much brought melody, music, and young romance, fully back to the Hindi cinema screen, introducing Aamir Khan in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). By which time, Mr Kapoor was inching towards the fag end of his career as main lead.

Even Karz (1980), whose guitar riffs in the song ‘Ek Haseena Thi’ continue to haunt us, I learnt only from Mr Kapoor’s book, was a commercial failure. As a result of which he went into clinical depression. The film, Zehreela Insaan (1974), with ‘O Hansini’ my first go-to track when drunk, I realised, hadn’t done well in theatres either.

Yet, as you can tell, the songs he especially collaborated with RD Burman on, sound so frickin’ fresh, as if the album dropped yesterday. An ear for music, I’m sure, he would have naturally inherited from his father, filmmaker-actor Raj Kapoor. And his looks too, of course. There is a whole (post Rajesh Khanna) generation of women I know, who have that special place in their heart for Rishi Kapoor, the sort of fondness I’ve seen only reserved for Shah Rukh Khan since he took over as the ‘king of romance’ in the mid ’90s.

But beyond all of that, I think, Mr Kapoor’s greatest feat by far is rising above the overwhelming family Banyan tree of actors — Prithviraj Kapoor onwards — and making a distinct mark for himself. This is possibly true for the Kapoor lineage in general. Kids of successful stars rarely do as well. But, the Kapoors have— chiefly because each one has been different, and original in their own right. Shammi Kapoor was a genuine rock-star, singing-dancing sensation, with a devil-may-care attitude to boot. Shashi, on the other hand, is also best remembered as Bombay’s first proper torchbearer of art-house and crossover cinema.

They were all handsome men, of course. But only someone so secure about his masculinity as Rishi (given the age of cinema we’re talking about) would be as comfortable doing drag in Rafoo Chakkar (1975). Why is he an under-rated star still?

Let me quote an example from his book. Mr Kapoor rightly calls his conflicted character of the husband in Damini (1993) the most complex part he’s ever played.

There were supposed to be two other male characters— of a drunken man, and a lawyer— in the film. Both of which got merged into Sunny Deol’s ‘dhai kilo ka haath’ dude. Damini is a widely referenced film in the popular press even now. And yet you hardly recall Rishi Kapoor from it. That, I suspect, is because when an actor appears so effortless on screen, one tends to ignore how great he is in the first place. Younger filmmakers have clearly understood this about him, you realise, as you watch him crack it at old age with absolutely stellar performances in Do Dooni Chaar (2010), Agneepath (2012), Aurangzeb (2013), D-Day (2013) or Kapoor And Sons (2016).

So yeah, going back to that Rockstar review, to rephrase it slightly, Rishi Kapoor is undoubtedly the most competent star-actor since Amitabh Bachchan to enthral us at every point in his career—even at what’s supposed to be a post-retirement, “character-actor” phase.

Present is judging him rather well. History will judge him even better.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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