To anyone growing up in the 1990s, the success of the Bollywood masala film was a given. Before Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge changed the rules and introduced a fresh storytelling format, films like Dil, Beta, Karan Arjun and Khalnayak, steeped in long-established tropes of honour and valour, were the only game in town.
And Anil Kapoor was arguably their pre-eminent star. The actor, who turns 60 on December 24, is remembered most for his tapori act in Tezaab and Ram Lakhan, but his massive oeuvre is testament to how he brought a surprising subtlety to what were often cringe-making, didactic morality tales.
In 1992’s Beta, for instance, he played the village chump whose love for his mother was absolute, infantilising him to such an extent that when he falls in love with Saraswati (Madhuri Dixit), the seduction sequence is akin to her deflowering him. That movie, with its vicious domestic politics, was a huge hit at the box office, and Kapoor was universally acclaimed for his tearjerker performance.
While Kapoor had appeared in Hindi, Telugu and Kannada movies before, he first hit the big league with the 1983 film, Woh Saat Din, in which he played lover to Maya (Padmini Kolhapure) who is married off to Anand (Naseeruddin Shah). Kapoor plays Prem, a struggling musician whose poor prospects forced Maya’s family’s hand. It was a classic Bollywood sacrifice story with enough complexity and great acting to establish Kapoor as a serious contender.
Kapoor belongs to the generation of actors that was active in the years between the outsize influence of, on the one side, Amitabh Bachchan, and on the other, Shah Rukh Khan. Never a superstar, he nevertheless fashioned an enduring appeal for himself by disappearing comprehensively into his roles. He could be side-splittingly funny (Chameli Ki Shaadi, Khel), unfazed and battle-ready (Meri Jung, Parinda), dreamily romantic (Lamhe, 1942: A Love Story), or all of these together (Mr India).
While Kapoor has never identified with serious-minded cinema, he dabbled in it occasionally, such as in 2005’s My Wife’s Murder, a tense portrait of a failed marriage.
At a time when physical intimacy in films was frowned upon, Kapoor serenaded his heroines with a wide-eyed intensity. From Kate Nahin Kat Te with Sridevi in Mr India to Dhak Dhak Karne Laga with Dixit in Beta, songs featuring Kapoor were fiery homages to onscreen chemistry that never tipped into the vulgar due to his endearingly mounted naiveté.
Perhaps the film that best invokes Kapoor’s versatility is 1991’s Lamhe. The actor shone as Viren, the suave prince whose love for Pallavi (Sridevi), an older woman, is nipped in the bud due to the demands of tradition. In this exquisitely directed Yash Chopra drama, destiny brings Viren and Pallavi’s daughter Pooja (also Sridevi) together. Kapoor’s striking persona imparts a measure of gravitas to a romance for the ages.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Kapoor has constantly reinvented himself in a career spanning over 40 years. In 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, he played Prem, the wicked quizmaster whose fervent attempts cannot prevent Jamal from winning the show and the prize money. Slumdog Millionaire became a global smash hit and won eight Oscars, including Best Picture.
That success, however, did not translate into meaty Hollywood roles for Kapoor. In a severe misstep, he played a bumbling industrialist in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. That role attracted much disdain back home, and Kapoor suspended his nascent Hollywood career – but not before plugging his contacts to buy the Indian rights for the thriller 24. Two seasons down, that show has reinvigorated Kapoor’s career, showcasing how Bollywood stars can shine in the limited television format.
In rude health for his age, Kapoor continues to appear on the big screen. His role in 2015’s Dil Dhadakne Do fetched him a Filmfare Best Supporting Actor award, and he is shooting for sequels to two of his biggest hits, No Entry and Aankhen.
Like the other, more illustrious Kapoor clan, Kapoor’s family is solidly Bollywood. His father Surinder Kapoor was a successful producer, and both his brothers, Boney and Sanjay, are in the film business. All three of his children are in the movies – Rhea is a producer; Sonam, after several misses, has had a fantastic year; and Harshvardhan debuted this year in the unsuccessful Mirzya.
Well past his prime, Kapoor continues to be a fierce presence. Promoting his film earlier this year, Harshvardhan appeared on Comedy Nights with Kapil. Anil Kapoor tagged along, and it was clear even to the unbiased observer that the 60-year-old actor brings more panache and pizzazz to the screen than his progeny can hope to, at least for now.