It was inevitable that Rishi Kapoor should become an actor, almost a given for the son of actor-director Raj Kapoor and grandson of thespian Prithviraj Kapoor. His second film as a child actor, Mera Naam Joker (1970), as a chubby, young Raj Kapoor infatuated by the older Simi Grewal’s character, set the tone for an actor not bound by the conventional. It also won him a National Award for best child actor.
His father gave him the launch few could dream of. The teenage love story Bobby (1973) catapulted Rishi to immediate stardom, as the chocolate-faced hero who could sing, dance and romance without inhibition. He was a natural on screen —a spontaneous, untrained actor who could light up a scene with his energy.
Bobby changed how many of us saw the Bollywood hero. A whole new generation of women swooned over Raja with his pink-and-black scarf dandily draped across his neck as he wooed Dimple Kapadia while singing ‘Hum tum ek kamre mein bandh ho’.
Bobby, though, set him on a well-trodden path. That romantic image built the tone for his subsequent films and a large part of his career. He was fortunate to have some of the most hummable songs of the time, as he lip-synced and grooved to music with the kind of conviction no other actor has been able to in Hindi films. His co-star Amitabh Bachchan once said, "I am yet to come across an artist who can lip-sync as perfectly as Rishi ji. He doesn't just lip sync, but syncs the expressions on his face. I noticed the same temperament in his son Ranbir Kapoor.”
Whether it was dancing on a rotating turntable for the song 'Om Shanti Om' (Karz) or chasing Padmini Kolhapure on top of a train for ‘Hoga tumse pyaara kaun’ (Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai), when Kapoor sang in a film, you sang along. Among his best songs, to name a few, were ‘Mein shayar to nahin’ (Bobby), 'Parda hai parda’ (Amar Akbar Anthony), the title song from Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, ‘Chal kahin door nikal jaayein’ (Doosra Aadmi), ‘Saagar jaisi aankhon wali’ (Saagar) and ‘Tu tu hai wahi’(Yeh Vaada Raha).
Unlike several other actors known for their songs, a number of singers successfully lent their voice to Kapoor, including Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Shailendra Singh.
Often, the songs would be set in snow-capped hills, as Kapoor would change from one gorgeous woollen sweater to another while wooing his woman. His celluloid partnership with Neetu Singh, who later became his wife, is one of the most beloved romantic pairings on screen. When the reel romance spilled on to real life, fans were not surprised, because it all seemed so convincing on screen anyway.
Kapoor often played second lead to the biggest star of the generation, Amitabh Bachchan, and he did so with ease and a lack of insecurity. They partnered in memorable films such as Amar Akbar Anthony, Kabhie Kabhie and, most recently, 102 Not Out, in which Kapoor played the 75-year-old son of a 102-year-old father (Bachchan).
He also gamely stepped aside to let actresses Sridevi (Nagina and Chandni) and Meenakshi Sheshadri take the limelight (Damini).
But in the frenzy around this lover-boy image, Kapoor’s acting skills, the ability to evoke empathy and his immense likability on screen were overshadowed. When he smiled, you felt joy; when he cried, your heart ached. If his uncles, Shammi and Shashi Kapoor, were known for their high-octane musicals and charming good looks and cross-over cinema, respectively, Rishi took a while to find his groove. He attempted to break the romantic stereotype with films such as Anjane Mein, Sargam and Ek Chadar Maili Si, but repeatedly gravitated back to his niche.
After Raj Kapoor passed away, his sons Randhir, Rishi and Rajiv tried to keep the family banner RK Films alive, with Rishi producing and directing Aa Ab Laut Chalein and producing Prem Granth in the 1990s. But the films didn’t work, burdening the already-struggling banner further. After a fire gutted the historic RK Studios in Chembur, Mumbai, a few years ago, the family decided to sell it, ending that chapter of the family legacy.
In the second phase of his career in the 2000s, Kapoor evolved into a much more assured actor, accepting his growing girth and age with grace. He brought to the screen the same affability, comic timing and ability to roll with the cast as before, but his professional choices became more varied.
Filmmaker Kunal Kohli, who directed Kapoor in Hum Tum (2004) and Fanaa (2006), said, “With Chintu ji, you had to have 100 percent clarity. You needed to have an answer to his every question and as long as you did, you were fine.” He recounts a scene in Fanaa where the direction was for all the cast on set to look towards the door when the doorbell rings. “Aamir and Kajol looked towards the door, but Chintu ji did not. He looked at the clock and said, ‘I know where the door is in my house. Why do I need to look towards it? I will look to see the time to check why someone is ringing my doorbell at this time of the night.’ These were the kind of small things he would bring on to set.”
His turn as a father of two children attempting to buy a car in Do Dooni Chaar (2010), a gangster in D-Day (2013) and an eccentric grandfather in a dysfunctional family in Kapoor & Sons (2016) set the tone for what would have been an exciting phase of his career, sadly cut short by his ailment.
Rishi Kapoor was also prolific on Twitter in recent times, mixing his social commentary with humour and provocation. Filmmaker Nikkhil Advani, still reeling from the loss of his other D-Day actor Irrfan, said Kapoor did not believe his online persona needed to be distinct from his image. “He believed that the mystery and aura of a celebrity should not be taken away from fans, so he was the same person even on social media, even if it got him into trouble.”Till the end, the family said in a statement, he remained jovial and optimistic, just like his characters. Almost as if he was destined to entertain and shine,whether he has was on screen, or off it.