21 February 2012

A Kapoor by Chance

My tribute to Rishi Kapoor, published in Open magazine in 2012:

Rishi is the least Kapoor-like of the Kapoors: shorn of the family mannerisms and preoccupation with their image. Now, on the eve of turning 60, he is getting the roles of a lifetime and relishing them, too.

On 26 January, 2012, India’s Republic Day, Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions released Agneepath, a much-trumpeted remake of the 1990 cult classic of the same name. Among those who watch and wait for Hindi films, there was a buzz of anticipatory questions: what was Karan Johar thinking, remaking father Yash Johar’s most beloved movie? Could debutant director Karan Malhotra’s vision ever live up to the memories of Mukul Anand fans? How could the too-beautiful Hrithik possibly step into the impossibly large shoes of Bachchan’s caustic, sneering Vijay Dinanath Chauhan?

By afternoon, however, as the first-day-first-show folk got to their computers, everyone was talking about something else. Trending on Twitter was not #HrithikRoshan, #KaranJohar or even #Agneepath, but #RishiKapoor.

After a lifetime of being typecast as a baby-faced love machine, the 59-year-old actor’s concentrated villainy as Rauf Lala has surprised Hindi film fans. Both gloriously filmi and entirely convincing, Rishi Kapoor’s performance is not only Agneepath’s biggest talking point, but also the one thing about the film on which everyone agrees.

As proprietor of an empire in which meat exports form a front for a sleazy business of underage female flesh and cocaine, Kapoor’s Lala has the task of embodying unmitigated evil while also being the father-substitute under whose watchful eye our hero grows to full gangsterhood. He must be both the ruthless kasai (butcher) with glowering eyes and the portly Muslim patriarch, mai-baap for the poorest of his community. At one point in the film, Rauf Lala is double-crossed and loses his son, and despite the terrible things his character does in running his unsavoury empire of business, Rishi makes you feel, for a moment, something akin to grief. I cannot think of anyone else who could have done it.

There is something about Rishi Kapoor’s face that makes you believe. It was true in 1970, when he was the slightly overweight teenager in Mera Naam Joker who made his entry by falling clumsily into the middle of a ring of expertly-skating classmates—and falling as clumsily in love with his sophisticated young teacher Miss Mary (Simi Garewal); it was true through the 1980s and 90s, when he managed to convincingly romance a long line of nubile actresses who kept growing further away from him in age. And it is more true than ever today, when he seems increasingly able to transform himself from Rishi Kapoor into the charming Sardar uncleji of Love Aaj Kal (2009), the anxious producer Romy Rolly of Luck By Chance (2009), or the hapless maths teacher of Do Dooni Char (2010).

Perhaps Lata Mangeshkar was onto something: she once called Rishi the most talented of the Kapoors, because his performances came without the baggage of mannerisms—without the bombast, melancholic excess or ada (stylish charm) so integral to the star personas cultivated by his grandfather Prithviraj, his father Raj, or his uncle Shammi. But despite his fine, often nuanced work, many of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s simply took it for granted that this man, whose cherubic face retained an uncanny vulnerability despite the legendary Kapoor kilos having begun to fill out his Fair Isle sweaters, should continue to dance his way through the hearts of younger and younger heroines. After all, he was the original loverboy.

Rishi Kapoor’s indisputable-and-eternal claim to that title was established with Bobby (1973), in which his father created for him a persona which was to last him for decades: the boyish, vulnerable young man who suddenly finds himself terribly, irredeemably in love. Love just happened—often at first sight—and then there was nothing you could do about it except summon the courage to tell the girl. And then the families. Despite the grandness of the romantic ideal—especially when, as in Bobby or Prem Rog (1982), love demanded full-on rebellion against all social and familial strictures—there was always an endearing artlessness to Rishi’s wooing of the heroine, and a light, frothy, friendly sort of relationship thereafter. Think of Monty in Karz (1980), announcing his love in song almost as soon as he meets Tina Munim, or Ajay in Khel Khel Mein (1975), where he and Neetu’s friends-as-much-as-lovers relationship was exemplified in the song Khullam Khulla Pyar Karenge Hum Dono.

Growing up, though, it was the ragged, edgy angularity of Amitabh Bachchan that had my exclusive attention. I only registered the aching, intense beauty of Raja in Bobby as a 20-something adult sitting in the US. I found myself—because of all the Rishi-love arising from an emergent Bollywood blogosphere dominated by White female fans—in possession of an inexhaustible stack of images of Rishi in all his technicolour glory: the wine-red bellbottoms, the blue bobble-cap, the oversized sunglasses, the sideburns, and oh, the lips.

Even in a cinematic culture known to make heroes of fair-skinned men with red lips, one would imagine that if you looked as delectably baby-faced as Rishi, it would have been a huge concern not to be thought of as what Enid Blyton might have called namby-pamby.

And yet, Rishi has never seemed insecure about his non-macho looks. He is happy to play innocent, though he often belies that first impression with an act of  daredevilry. In the first scene of Khel Khel Mein, the reigning college dadaVikram (Rakesh Roshan) rags the baby-faced new boy so relentlessly and successfully that Neetu Singh and the other girls beg him to stop. Just when you aren’t expecting it, though, the ‘so sweet’ new boy turns around and matches the bully blow for blow. (Later in the same film, he gives a perfect rendition of stage fright before delivering an impromptu performance, complete with guitar and trademark muffler.) So secure was Rishi about his prettiness that he spent at least one film largely in drag: Rafoo Chakkar (1975). In this silly and rather charming adaptation of Some Like it Hot (1959), Rishi alternates between two fake identities. He’s wonderful as the bumbling millionaire in a red-and-white chequered blazer who walks a wide-eyed Neetu Singh onto someone else’s Srinagar houseboat with an “Aaiye, aaiye, sab mera hai—bagh, phool, pani, scenery”. But he seems even more ridiculously effervescent when he’s camping it up in mini-skirts and feathery headdresses as Neetu’s fellow dancer and confidante Devi. 

That’s the other thing about Rishi: he always managed to give the impression of having a rollicking good time. Dancing seems to have come naturally to him, and it is remarkable how often he actually plays a performer in his early films: a small-time musician in a band, an enormously successful pop star, a qawwali singer. He was an entertainer actually playing an entertainer.

There’s a self-referentiality there which may or may not be deliberate. But Rishi Kapoor’s roles over the last few years have contained much cannibalising of his cinematic persona: singing Main shayar toh nahi with screen-son Saif Ali Khan in the Yash Raj production Hum Tum (2004), or doling out advice on how a proper love affair ought to be conducted— again to Saif Ali Khan—in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal.

The most remarkable self-referential role of all, though, is in the tragically under-watched Chintuji (2009), a wishful parable about modernity, corruption and the nature of celebrity in India. Director Ranjit Kapoor (a Hindi theatre veteran whose previous association with the film industry was as a dialogue-writer for such memorable films as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Bandit Queen and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa) casts Rishi as a semi-fictitious version of himself. The filmstar Rishi Kapoor, affectionately known to his fans as Chintuji, is invited to the charmingly unspoilt town of Hadbahedi, where—according to the film’s narrative—he happens to have been born. The townsfolk hope to make their town better-known, while Chintuji, accompanied by a likeable young PR agent called Devika (Kulraj Randhawa), wants to make Hadbahedi the first rung of his future political career. But the more the good people of Hadbahedi try to please their honoured guest, the more unbearably Chintuji behaves: insisting on airconditioning when there’s no power, demanding desi murga (chicken) and whisky of his vegetarian, teetotalling hosts, and only looking happy when he’s told that the painted wooden cut-out of him that’s been created for the occasion is a full 35 feet (higher, he is assured, than the 25 foot one of Amitabh in Allahabad and the 30 foot one of Rajnikanth in Chennai). The actor who apparently refused Yash Chopra’s Darr (later made with Shah Rukh Khan) because he felt his audience didn’t accept him in negative roles has clearly come a long way.

Among the odder pleasures of Chintuji is a sequence where a B-movie director (Saurabh Shukla) shoots a song with Rishi as a feather-bedecked tribal chieftain thumping happily away to lyrics that go: ‘Tarantino, Wilder, Capra/ Ozu, Bertolucci, Peckinpah…’. But Chintuji also contains the filmic reunion of Rishi Kapoor with Kseniya Ryabinkina, the Russian dancer who played Marina, the second love of Raj Kapoor’s life in Mera Naam Joker. The coming together of the two actors 40 years later is so spectacularly unlikely that it cannot but be affecting. But the real purpose of Kseniya’s appearance is to create a self-referential cinematic moment, one in which the lying, cheating Chintuji of the film is transformed because an old Russian woman—a character from another film—exhorts Rishi Kapoor to become as ‘good’ a person as his real-life father. It is a point at which the real and the imaginary come together to create a true Hindi cinema moment, a moment at which one cannot but wonder what it is like to be Rishi Kapoor.

In a wonderfully unusual 1975 Filmfare profile of Raj Kapoor and his sons, the well-known non-filmi columnist Behram Contractor (better known as Busybee) described the beginning of the interview thus: ‘Rishi was nervous, tongue-tied and timid, and Daboo was respectful. Raj Kapoor is known to have this sort of influence on his sons… Seeing them sitting together opposite me, I had the strange impression that I was the principal of Campion School and Raj Kapoor had brought his two sons to be admitted.’ Later, Busybee asks ‘the boys’ if they had ever thought of doing anything other than being in films. The responses are revealing. ‘Daboo said, ‘I was destined to be in films. Therefore I was born in the Kapoor family.’… Chintu said, ‘Same’. And he looked at me with eyes which said, Why-don’t-you-stop-pestering-me-with-questions-when-my-father-is-here.’

Growing up in the shadow of a legend is never easy. Even the otherwise sympathetic Busybee thought Rishi was a bad actor, ‘except when directed by his father, when he is super’. But what Busybee’s sharp eye caught was not just a shyness in front of his father, but a refusal of braggadocio remarkable for any actor, especially a Kapoor.

Rishi Kapoor has spent a lifetime refusing to spin grand narratives around his work. “I didn’t make a great effort. I just did what I was told,” he says in The Kapoors (Penguin, 2005). “My father used to show me what to do and I did it.” But his father has been gone for nearly 24 years, and he had established himself independently of his father’s films many years before that. Now, watching him in Agneepath, an amiable patriarch presiding over a qawwali-carpet-chandelier song of the sort his younger self made so energetically his own, one feels the grand narrative has been spun for Rishi Kapoor.

Published in Open magazine, 2012.

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