The Transformational Journey of Rishi Kapoor: From chocolaty lover-boy to underworld Don Rauf Lala

Shelley Vishwajeet : 1973 was a landmark year for Bollywood. The reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna gave his career’s last mega hit in that year with Yash Chopra directed Daag – an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. Amitabh Bachchan, gave his first big solo hit Zanjeer, after some 10-11 consecutive flops barring a modest hit Bombay to Goa. But the biggest splash was reserved for the debut film of Rishi Kapoor (In Mera Naam Joker, he was a child actor) with Raj Kapoor’s biggest hit as director / producer – Bobby.

Bobby – a cult film – not only became the biggest hit of the year but was also the second highest grossing film of 70s after Sholay. At the same time, Bobby catapulted its lead actors Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia to instant stardom. Rishi Kapoor went on to win the Filmfare best actor award while Dimple shared the best actress award with Jaya Bhaduri for Abhiman.

Film industry which was getting tired of Rajesh Khanna’s eccentricities and late comings, saw in Rishi Kapoor the next romantic superstar – fairer, more likeable and certainly with bigger acting potential than Rajesh Khanna. And of course, in Dimple they saw the biggest female icon till date. But it was not to be. It seems with Bobby, everyone associated with it reached their peak. It remains Rishi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia’s biggest hit till date and Rishi Kapoor was never able to recreate the magic of Bobby in any other film, despite many hits. And too apprehensive to get caught in lover boy’s image with the threat of new angry young man phenomenon in Amitabh Bachchan looming large and realizing that the days of soft goody goody lover boys were getting over, Rishi Kapoor became very choosey and opted for only one movie the next year – Zehreela Insaan – a film in which he played the role of an ill-tempered but soft hearted man, a character which was 180 degree opposite to the well-mannered and highly likeable Raja of Bobby. The film was a flop!

1974 didn’t turn out to be a remarkable year for either Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh Bachchan too. But they remained in bigger circulation. Amitabh had 5 releases while making his mark in films like Majboor and Manoj Kumar’s multi-starrer mega hit Roti Kapda Aur Makaan. Rajesh Khanna gave some memorable hits like Roti and Aap Ki Kasam amid eight releases.

But it was 1975 that overturned the entire status quo of Bollywood. Rajesh Khanna had one only one solo release Prem Kahani – a love triangle, which was a big hit but it was not to be his year. By this time, celebrated director Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who had given Rajesh Khanna some of his most memorable roles in films like Anand, Bawarchi and Namak Haram, had abandoned him for his unprofessional attitude.

By this year, Rishi Kapoor went back to portraying jolly likeable lover boy with four releases and hit films like Rafoo Chakkar and Khel Khel Mein. But they were nowhere a match to Bobby’s magic.

Times were changing. 1975 was the year when country was in turmoil. National emergency was also declared in June of that year by Indira Gandhi. This was the year of latent angst and frustration. Canvass was set for people to lap up the protagonist of angry young man. The Yash Chopra directed and Salim-Javed written iconic film Deewar was released amid this setting. And the phenomenon of Amitabh Bachchan truly arrived with this film, who portrayed supremely the character of a psychologically jilted but self-respecting and courageous boy who rises from ignominious background to become Bombay’s undisputed underworld don. Soon, Amitabh sealed his angry young action hero with a golden heart image with films like Sholay and Zameer. He also showed his versatility with soft roles in films like Chupke Chukpe and Mili. The era of soft lover boys had come to an end. Only with the arrival of Shah Rukh Khan in the 90s that the lover boy films again gained prominence. Rishi like most actors with the exception of Dharmendra were relegated to back-rows of Bollywood.

All through his first inning, Rishi Kapoor had to live in the shadow of Amitabh Bachchan, so much so that in multi-starrer films with Amitabh, he was often given insignificant, highly forgettable roles. Yes, he did give occasional big solo hits like Laila Majnu, Hum Kise Se Kam Nahin, Sargam, Karz but his time never really came. And as an actor, he was trapped in soft roles – mostly upper-class gentleman type. One also got the impression that he had lost the confidence to venture out of his comfort zone. Things came to such as halt that he not only played extremely insignificant second fiddle to Amitabh Bachchan but later also to Sunny Deol (Damini), Sri Devi (Chandini and Nagina) and Shahrookh Khan too (Deewana).

Late 80s and early 90s were also the time when Hindi movies had become very stereotyped. And this was the time when Rishi became very dejected with himself. Unhappy with the kind of roles he was getting and losing self-esteem as an actor, Rishi seriously contemplated quitting films for good. It was during this time that he met his good friend Jitendra and bared his heart to him. And it was Jitendra’s advice that led to the second and memorable significant phase of Rishi Kapoor as an actor. Jitendra told him two things (i) Never quit as people and directors will forget him and he will never be able to make a comeback – Remaining in circulation was very important for an actor (ii) To focus on strong and different kinds of roles, however small. He should look for impact rather than duration of roles, even if he had to act for free. A new determined Rishi was born that day.

And when the phase of films with diverse, hitherto unexplored, and strong story lines with solid scripts arrived from the beginning of new millennium, actors too started getting meaningful roles. It was in this phase that Rishi Kapoor first started getting roles which allowed him explore his own hidden talent. And he did prove his mettle in films after films such as Hum Tum, Pyar Mein Twist, Namaste London, Fanaa, Love Aaj Kal. First surprised by his cool versatility, audience and directors were now beginning to be awed by his performances. And Rishi kept surprising everyone including himself.

Zoya Akhtar’s film ‘Luck by Chance’ actually proved to be lucky for him as an actor – he was nominated for the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor. And after that, one often wondered why such a fine actor never explored himself earlier – was it cruel destiny or simply lack of confidence, wrong strategy. Anyway, the crowning glory came with ‘Do Dooni Char’, in which he portrayed the role of a low paid, principled school teacher whose family dreams of some simple luxuries of life. Rishi Kapoor received the Filmfare Critics award for the best actor.

There was no looking back. In his second inning, Rishi kept portraying one memorable role after another in a long list of films while offers kept pouring. And just when the world had accepted Rishi as an extremely capable and versatile actor, a recognition he never received as a lovable lover boy in his first inning, he was ready to surprise us with more. So, who could have imagined Rishi as an outrightly abominable rogue goon – didn’t he have too soft and too upper crest features of a thoroughbred gentleman to don the role of an outrightly despicable earthy goon? When news first came out that Rishi had been cast in a villain’s role for Agneepath 2, the general first reaction was that he will be a big misfit. But then, he turned out to be the biggest surprise package of this film as the slimy, thick-skinned, debauched Rauf Lala, who controlled drugs and prostitution. Rishi was super impressive, exceeding the expectations of audience and critics alike. He earned nomination for the Filmfare Award for the Best Supporting Actor for this portrayal despite a much shorter and less menacing role than Sanjay Dutt.

2008 to 2018 were Rishi Kapoor’s golden years as an actor. He finally earned his second Filmfare award for his role in Kapoor and Sons. He acted in long list of very fine films in this phase with memorable characters. But all was not to be well! Just when we wanted more of him, he was diagnosed with leukemia (the cancer of bone marrow). He battled cheerfully and courageously for two years and was ecstatic to come back to his Mumbai home from USA after a long treatment. But destiny had other plans!

A remarkable thing that happened for Rishi Kapoor in the second inning was that he regained his self-esteem, became social and highly vocal. As people started taking his work and him more seriously, he proved to the world that he was a thinking gutsy man with strong and blunt opinion on various issues. He was among few very actors who had the guts to bare hearts on any controversial issue while caring a damn about people or the government’s endorsement. And we started liking and respecting him even more for that.

RIP Rishi Baba – you were a great lovable actor, a gutsy fighter and you will always remain an icon!

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