Rishi Kapoor recalls the first time he saw the man who would go on to become his frequent co-star and fellow traveller in Hindi cinema. “I remember him as a lanky, handsome man auditioning for Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Saat Hindustani at the time,” Kapoor said during a conversation at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai on Thursday. “He was sitting on the floor and giving a written test. Mr Bachchan is such a pleasure to work with as an actor. I observed how he flirts with his character and gets into the character in just about a day. He works his way into his character. That is his craft.”
The occasion was a promotional event for the May 4 release 102 Not Out, Umesh Shukla’s comedy that stars Bachchan and Kapoor as a father-son pair. The acting legends chatted with each other and took questions from a full house at the hour-long event.
“We have had the opportunity to work through four or five generations of Indian cinema and still have an opportunity to be together and talk to you all,” Bachchan said at the event. Their shared credits include Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Kabhie Kabhie (1976) and Naseeb (1981), and 102 Not Out is the first time since Ajooba (1991) that they will be in a movie together. The comedy is about a 102-year-old man (Bachchan) who plans to send his depressed 75-year-old son (Kapoor) to an old age home.
Bachchan and Kapoor have played brothers or friends in the past, but this is the first time they will be seen as father and son. “You played my step father-in-law in Kabhie Kabhie, we were brothers in Amar Akbar Anthony and Naseeb, we were friends in Coolie and secular friends in Ajooba,” Kapoor told Bachchan. “And in 102 Not Out, we play a father and his son. We have had 27 years of playing various relationships in different films.”
Kapoor is better known for playing men with a zest for the good things in life. In 102 Not Out, he is at the lower end of the emotional spectrum. His character is “finicky and tensed” Kapoor explained at a previous press event. “He is living in denial and is depressed. He gets affected by the smallest of things. He is very awkward and wears clothes that are a size looser so that he can wear it when he becomes fatter. But he has got great respect and love for his father. Even when there is drama with him, he does not lose his tradition and culture.”
Ten years separate the actors in real life. Bachchan, who is 75, made his debut in 1969 with Saat Hindustani, four years before Kapoor starred in his first leading role in Bobby (1973). Kapoor had previously featured as a child actor in his father Raj Kapoor’s films Shree 420 (1955) and Mera Naam Joker (1970). “One day at the dinner table, my father spoke to my mother about casting me in Mera Naam Joker for his younger part,” Kapoor recalled. “I never reacted then. I quietly got off the table, went to my room and then to my study table, and took out a sheet and started practising my autograph. These were the early bearings that I went through.”
For Bachchan, fame was hard-won after a series of early flops and underperforming releases. The movie that turned his fortunes around was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand (1971). “When I came to Mumbai, I actually brought along my driver’s license thinking that if I don’t get a job, I would drive taxis to fill my stomach,” Bachchan said. “One morning I was driving a borrowed car and filled petrol and went to shoot a film. The petrol had been exhausted and I had come back in the evening to fill the tank. In that short span of time between morning and evening, the film Anand had released, and people recognised me at the petrol pump.”
The venue for the conversation was not without significance. The Royal Opera House, which used to screen movies apart from staging performances until the 1990, was where Manmohan Desai’s 1977 madcap comedy Amar Akbar Anthony ran for 25 weeks. Starring Bachchan, Kapoor and Vinod Khanna as brothers separated during childhood, the movie’s highlights include a scene in which the siblings donate blood to their mother without realising her identity.
“The mad genius that was Manmohan Desai was a huge joy,” Bachchan said about the blood donation sequence. “We used to sit and laugh on the sets and we used to point out how illogical that scene was. But he was so right. When the scene came in the theatre, the audience used to explode with laughter.”
Popular Hindi cinema has undergone a massive change since both actors started their careers, Kapoor noted: “The audience was much more forgiving earlier, every actor had three to four films based on lost and found sagas and love stories.”
Bachchan agreed, adding that the shift in storytelling has been accompanied by changes in filmmaking technicalities. “Film is not film anymore because we do not shoot on film anymore,” Bachchan said. “There is a movement where some of the Hollywood directors want to rejuvenate the idea of shooting on film again. But it is going to be very tough. Film was the most expensive element in the film. Therefore it was used very economically. For newcomers it was frightening because we had to get it right in the first take. We are artistically inclined to finish the shot in the first or second take. Sometimes we feel constrained when that is concerned.”
The change is not all bad – at the previous press event, Kapoor said that he was getting a pick of far more exciting roles than when he was in his prime. “I did so many romantic films and did it continuously for 25 years, singing in Kashmir, Ooty and Switzerland and people used to call me the sweater man all over the world,” Kapoor said. “The audiences of today want better cinema, better theatres, terrific sound. Actors of my age are getting work. People past 40 were supposed to retire. Hindi cinema was predominantly youth cinema. But now it is different and I am enjoying it.”
Bachchan too has been through numerous highs and lows, but when an audience member drew parallels between him and the mythological Phoenix, he sounded philosophical. “There may have been some difficult moments and phases in my life, but at the end of the day you say to yourself, what can I do,” he said. “No matter how big a star you are, one day nobody will recognise you. You have to understand that somewhere. We must appreciate that the audience love us and be prepared that somebody else bigger than you will be loved one day. You will just have to face this. This is life.”
Kapoor drew attention to Bachchan’s remarkable resilience by citing the example of Manmohan Desai’s Coolie (1983). Bachchan was grievously injured while shooting with Puneet Issar shoot for the movie, which also starred Rishi Kapoor.
“He finished the shot with Puneet Issar and went and lay down in the garden on the set,” Kapoor recalled. “Only then people knew he had gotten injured. He did not interrupt the shot when he got hurt. He finished the shot. That is the kind of actor he is.”
Bachchan recovered after weeks of hospitalisation, and returned to the sets to resume the shoot. “We were shooting Coolie’s climax after his injury in the Bandra reclamation area and the producers had given an advertisement on newspapers that Bachchan would be shooting,” Kapoor said. “Every day, over a hundred thousand people would come to see Amitabh Bachchan in bone and flesh. And they would cheer for him when he was shooting for a scene. There used to be an uproar when he used to hit Puneet Issar in the scene. That is what Amitabh Bachchan is all about.”