By Sanjay Pandey

Tragedy King, Showman, Phenomenon,  Evergreen Star, Jubilee Star, Angry Young Man, He-man, Jumping Jack, Shotgun…….are phrases coined by the media to describe some of the actors of mainstream Hindi cinema. However, the notable omission is that of Rishi Kapoor, for whom the media was unable to come out with an apt phrase despite his popularity and career spanning half a century. This was not for no reason, because the fact is that there can’t be a single phrase to describe and justify the colossal talent of Rishi Kapoor.  He could fit into all of them!

The acting skills and abilities of Rishi Kapoor can be understood by watching his style of acting, which was spontaneous and natural, bringing about a sense of genuineness in what he did and made the character look so real. The effortless ease with which he could switch from one emotion to the other was a treat to watch, and it didn’t seem he was acting, but simply living the character. Making use of his eyes and subtle body language and mannerisms to express were his trademark. As also his dialogue delivery and movements on screen. He could act, sing, dance, emote, make you laugh and cry with equal brilliance. Some of his craft must have been learnt under the tutelage of his great father, but most of what he did was natural and God gifted.

Introduced as a child artist to play the role of the younger version of his father, he was unlike the traditional hero but impressive in his debut. And when his first film as a hero, Bobby was released, everyone was swept off their feet. He was the “boy next door” with his own brand of acting which didn’t follow any of his illustrious family members, nor any of his established seniors who were ruling the Hindi film industry as the leading men. Thus began a glorious career.

The hiccups of initial few films notwithstanding, he continued to excel in a variety of roles, most of which were portrayals of the young, romantic hero who romanced, sang, danced, laughed and cried and also fought for his lady love, giving the audience numerous hit songs and dance moves in the process. However, the greatness of this man was his willingness to experiment and adapt, and accept challenges even at a young age. Thus came a different love story, Laila Majnu, where he had to shed his traditional romantic image and roam about in a desert wearing tattered clothes singing an ode to his lady love. One could empathise with Qais when he was stoned and yet didn’t retaliate, dying in the end; the role in this film established him as a giant of character portrayal.      

Variety was what Rishi Kapoor offered, and thus came a series of hits in the 70s with a whole lot of co-stars and directors, many of whom were new. However, he was much sought after even by the legendary ones like Yash Chopra, Nasir Hussain and Manmohan Desai, with whom he went on to collaborate in numerous memorable and hit films.  

Rishi never bothered about any competition, for he was his own competitor and had his own benchmarks and hence was never treated as a 2nd lead in the several multi-starrers he did with the co-stars of that era, prominent among them being Amitabh Bachchan. Even in these multi-starrers like Kabhi Kabhie, Amar Akbar Anthony, Naseeb and Coolie, he had his own scenes which were written for him which he excelled in and held his own, always re-inventing himself with innovative sequences and characters, needless to mention his song and dance sequences. Thus, Rishi Kapoor was among the most bankable stars in the 70s and 80s, who could carry a film on his shoulders on his own strength, delivering hit performances like Hum Kisisse Kum Nahin, Doosra Aadmi, Jhootha Kahin Ka, Badaltey Rishtey, Aap Ke Deewane, Duniya Meri Jeb Mein,  Anjaane Mein, Dhan Daulat, Yeh Vaada Raha, Sargam and many others, several of which were with his lady love in real life, Neetu Singh, who he went on to marry. One of the parameters of success of the song sequences in those times was coins being thrown towards the screen in theatres during song sequences, and Rishi Kapoor had undoubtedly the maximum songs falling in that category.  

His standards of expectation from himself can be gauged from the fact that he was disappointed with the overall performance of Karz, which he considered a “failure” despite the film being a jubilee hit at many centres and the music becoming a household feature. Today, this is one of the cult films in Hindi cinema. Not to be undone by this outcome, he accepted another challenge by doing the lead role in a heroine oriented script, Prem Rog, with his father at the helm. This was a completely different character he was supposed to portray, and he did with aplomb. Underplaying was his strength in this role and he looked every bit of the character, Dev. This time, he had a singer different from Shailendra Singh, Kishore Kumar and Mohd. Rafi who had sung most of his songs. This was also a big risk but Dev brought Suresh Wadkar’s voice alive on screen and the audience was in awe of this great actor once again.

The 80s and the 90s saw the advent of many new actors, some of whom were launched with great fanfare and were touted to be a challenge to the reigning leading stars. But none of them with chiselled bodies and good looks were a threat to Rishi Kapoor, who continued to dominate by being the hero of choice in films like Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai, Kaatilon Ke Kaatil, Duniya, Tawaif, Sitamgar, Saagar, Nagina, Vijay, Hathyar, Bol Radha Bol and many more. Here was someone who lasted only on the basis of his acting talent. And this was the reason why he was preferred over others to do sensitive roles like Naseeb Apna Apna, Chandni, Henna, Deewana, Damini, Saajan Ka Ghar, Chandni, all of which went on to become big hits.

As entered his 50s, he realised the need to switch to older characters and thus began his process of re-invention when he accepted a variety of roles with the new lot of younger co-stars and the new breed of film-makers, and made his mark in mature roles in Hum Tum, Fanaa, Namastey London, Love Aajkal, Luck By Chance and a few more.

Once this was done, he went a step ahead, wanting to do roles and play characters he had never done before. And thus the menacing and wicked Rauf Lala was born in Agneepath, the role being specially written for him which added a new dimension to  this remake.  It was the greatness of this actor’s performance that the audience accepted and appreciated him in a negative role, once again because he positioned himself not as Rishi Kapoor but as the character Rauf Lala. The variety continued with D Day, Aurangzeb, Student of the Year, Kapoor and Sons, where the nuances of his character came to the fore in the performances.

102 Not Out and Mulk were probably the icing on the cake where he played two diametrically opposite but sensitive characters, delivering knock-out performances, a fitting finale bringing an unexpected and sudden end to his magnificent career.  

It’s much talked about that Rishi Kapoor was paired with the maximum number of new actresses in his career, however, what is somehow forgotten is that he has also worked with the most number of first time directors, prominent among them being Ramesh Talwar (Doosra Aadmi), Tinnu Anand (Duniya Meri Jeb Mein), Harish Shah (Dhan Daulat), Kapil Kapoor (Yeh Vaada Raha), Rakesh Roshan (Khudgarz – Special Appearance), K. Ravi Shankar (Sindoor), Deepak Sareen (Ranbhoomi), Raj Kanwar (Deewana), Vinod Mehra (Gurudev), Anurag Basu (Kuch Toh Hai), Zoya Akhtar (Luck by Chance), Habib Faisal (Do Dooni Chaar), Karan Malhotra (Agneepath). This speaks volumes for his stature, bankability, confidence and adaptability as an actor. His popularity and box office credentials were impeccable and consistent, being among the very few mainstream actors who had at least one hit to his credit in each and every year that he actively did lead roles.

He was gregarious in real life too, as well as very direct and straight-forward, mentioning several anecdotes in his autobiography which is aptly titled “Khullam Khulla”. As I bid goodbye to this great actor, let me conclude my tribute by declaring that he is the only actor, none of whose films can be remade with the characters that he played, because there can be no one like Rishi Kapoor again. He can’t be imitated or copied.  Om Shanti Om.