Rishi Kapoor, third-generation movie star, unofficial record keeper of Hindi film history, and widely acknowledged bon vivant, died on Thursday in Mumbai. He was 67. He is survived by his wife Neetu, his son Ranbir, and his daughter Ridhima and her family.
Kapoor was battling cancer, and had spent close to a year in New York City in treatment. He returned to Mumbai in September. He had been admitted to a hospital in Mumbai with breathing problems a few days ago.
According to a statement issued by the family, “Our dear Rishi Kapoor passed away peacefully at 8:45am IST in hospital today after a two-year battle with leukemia. The doctors and medical staff at the hospital said he kept them entertained to the last. He remained jovial and determined to live to the fullest right through two years of treatment across two continents. Family, friends, food and films remained his focus and everyone who met him during this time was amazed at how he did not let his illness get the better of him.”
Kapoor had shot some portions of his comeback film, the comedy Sharmaji Namkeen, in Delhi in February. He was also on track to star in the Hindi remake of the Hollywood comedy The Intern.
His death has robbed show business of a seasoned entertainer. A member of the Hindi film industry’s most storied clan, Kapoor first appeared before the camera as a child in the 1950s. After he started his career in earnest as an adult in the 1970s, his choice of roles spanned romances, comedies, socially themed dramas, thrillers, historicals and melodramas. His films often had impassioned declarations of love, innocence, humour, chart-topping songs, trendy dancing and colourful costumes (most notably a series of bright jerseys).
Whatever the quality or outcome of the project, Kapoor’s output was unwaveringly steady and dependable, the shield of trust that came free with a movie ticket.
Given his spontaneity and ease before the camera, could he have stretched himself further, experimented a bit more? This true believer in mainstream Hindi cinema’s biggest pursuit – a positive commercial outcome – might have punched below his weight, but even in his most trite movies, he was a twinkly-eyed charmer, doing what was required without betraying too much effort.
Some of this professionalism was learnt on the job and some of it was inherited. Like the doctor’s child who is familiar with medical jargon and the policeman’s kids who can distinguish between “handcuff” and “handkerchief”, Rishi Kapoor understood the pleasures, peculiarities and pitfalls of show business very early.
He was born on September 4, 1952, in Mumbai, the third of the five children of Raj and Krishna Kapoor. The family was already heaving with legends. Rishi Kapoor’s grandfather, Prithviraj Kapoor, had been a renowned stage and film performer since the late 1920s. His father Raj Kapoor directed, produced and starred in his own films, and had already rolled out one of his finest works, Awara , the year before Rishi Kapoor was born.
Raj Kapoor’s brothers, Shashi and Shammi, were leading men, and their wives were actresses (Shashi was married to Jennifer Kendal and Shammi to Geeta Bali). Rishi Kapoor’s uncles – Prem Nath, Rajendra Nath and Narendra Nath – were all actors. Rishi Kapoor’s mother, Krishna, was Prem Nath’s sister. Another of their sisters was the wife of screen villain Prem Chopra.
Rishi Kapoor’s brothers Randhir and Rajiv became actors too. Rishi would marry his co-star, Neetu Singh, and his son Ranbir would follow in his parents’ footsteps. So would some of his nieces and nephews, with Kareena Kapoor continuing to rule the roost.
“Acting was in my blood and there was simply no escaping it,” Kapoor wrote in his autobiography Khullam Khulla. The memoir, co-written with Meena Iyer, benefits from Kapoor’s refreshing honesty and prodigious memory. “My childhood was a dream, like an unending mela,” he wrote. “People from the film fraternity constantly streamed in and out of our home… The Kapoors have always been proud of our profession; nobody has ever been apologetic about belonging to the entertainment industry.”
As a child, he was frequently taken to the sets. Along with his siblings Randhir and Ritu, he was featured in the song Pyar Hua Ikraar from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 in 1955. Rishi Kapoor also appeared in a couple of plays as a child.
His first full-scale role was in his father’s Mera Naam Joker in 1970. When filming began in 1968, Rishi Kapoor was 16, and was recruited to play the younger version of Raj Kapoor’s character Raju, a circus clown. As a schoolboy, the tubby Raju has a crush on his svelte teacher Mary (Simi Garewal). Rishi Kapoor’s performance won him the National Film Award for Best Child Artist.
The sparkling eyes, robust complexion, ready smile and selfless romantic disposition were already on display in Mera Naam Joker. In the coming years, Kapoor sealed his reputation as the ideal lover boy, resulting in such popular romances as Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), Laila Majnu (1976), Sargam (1979) and Prem Rog (1982).
“Rishi Kapoor comes across as the nice boy who wasn’t just led by his raging hormones but loved with his soul as well,” Madhu Jain wrote in the biography The Kapoors. “He danced like a dream, effortlessly. The star-crossed or tragic lover label fit him well, especially in films like Laila Majnu. He also came at a time when screen romance was about love, not obsession… He symbolised a sense of masti and youthful energy, not to forget those magic dancing feet.”
Rishi Kapoor hit the ground running with his debut as a leading man in 1973. Raj Kapoor made Bobby, a story of star-crossed lovers, as a way to recoup from the financial debacle of Mera Naam Joker. Rishi Kapoor, now slimmer but still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, played Raj Nath, who falls in love with the Goan Catholic Bobby Braganza (Dimple Kapadia in her screen debut).
Although Bobby was a box-office scorcher, Rishi Kapoor was soon exposed to one of the axioms of showbiz – you win some and then you lose some.
“I didn’t have to struggle for fame and fortune,” he said in Khullam Khulla. “But not even my extraordinary family legacy could prevent me from the realities of life.”
Bobby was immediately followed by the flop Zehreela Insan (1975). Rafoo Chakkar (1975), which was based on the Hollywood cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot, fared better although, as Kapoor wryly remarked, “…since I was made up like a girl for the major part of the film, I could not be endorsed as a bona fide heart-throb”.
The success of Khel Khel Mein in 1975 wasn’t just a much-needed breather. The romantic thriller cemented the pairing between Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. She was a former child actor who was among the early candidates for the lead role in Bobby. Their shared delayed-1960s sartorial style – bell-bottoms, floral-patterned shirts, mini-skirts, floppy hair, oversized sunglasses – made them “fashion templates for teenagers before the MTV era”, Madhu Jain observed.
Over the next few years, Kapoor appeared as a solo hero as well as shared the screen with his peers, including Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna. Manmohan Desai brought these movie stars together in 1977 for Amar Akbar Anthony, in which Rishi Kapoor’s Akbar held his own against Bachchan’s scene-stealing Anthony.
Short on logic and long on wackiness, Amar Akbar Anthony is among Hindi cinema’s most-loved films. Kapoor recalls in his memoir that when Desai offered him the role over a scratchy telephone connection, he thought he was being asked to play the Mughal emperor Akbar. Kapoor and Desai collaborated on five more productions, including Naseeb (1981) and Coolie (1983).
The sprawling Kapoor family tree includes the Bachchans as one of the branches. Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan’s daughter Shweta is married to Rishi Kapoor’s nephew Nikhil Nanda. The Desais were added as an offshoot when Manmohan Desai’s son, Ketan, married Kanchan, Shammi Kapoor’s daughter and Rishi’s cousin.
The year 1980 was pivotal for Kapoor. On January 22, 1980, he married Neetu Singh. The Pakistani qawaal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, still some years away from global stardom, was flown in for the celebrations.
Five months later, Kapoor headlined Karz, Subhash Ghai’s unofficial remake of the Hollywood movie The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975). Karz fared only moderately despite a gripping story about revenge, tight performances by Kapoor as a reincarnated murder victim and Simi Garewal as his cold-hearted killer, and a chartbusting soundtrack by Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
The failure hit Kapoor hard. “I was so demoralised that I couldn’t face the camera anymore,” he writes. “I would tremble on the sets and feel faint… I now began to blame my marriage for my diminishing fanbase. I believed that my acting days were numbered, that I had hit rock bottom.”
He emerged out of his funk and the “usual package of hits and flops followed”. Among the films that restored Kapoor’s status and helped ease him into the next decade were Sargam, Prem Rog, Naseeb, Saagar and Nagina. The odd offbeat ventures included Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986), based on Rajinder Singh Bedi’s novel about a widow forced to marry her brother-in-law.
Kapoor ended the 1980s with Yash Chopra’s Chandni, written for and led by Sridevi but ably backed by Kapoor and Vinod Khanna.
As newer talent emerged in the ’90s, Kapoor made a gradual shift towards character roles. But he was still popular as a leading man: among his early hits in the decade was David Dhawan’s Bol Radha Bol (1992), in which he played a double role.
The cult flop Ajooba (1991) was directed and produced by his uncle, Shashi Kapoor, while Randhir Kapoor’s Henna (1991) was a homegrown RK Films production. Raj Kanwar’s Deewana (1992) introduced filmgoers to television star Shah Rukh Khan. Kapoor was eclipsed by Meenakshi Sheshadri and Sunny Deol in Damini (1993). He also directed Aa Ab Laut Chale, in 1999, for RK Films.
His heroines were growing only younger – he romanced Divya Bharati, Sonam, Raveena Tandon, Juhi Chawla and Pooja Bhatt. Raveena Tandon’s father, Ravi Tandon, had directed Rishi Kapoor’s ’70s films Khel Khel Main and Jhoota Kahin Ka.
“In jest he once said he would end up acting with Dimple Kapadia’s daughters and perhaps even their daughters,” Madhu Jain wrote.
Although that didn’t quite happen, Kapoor was paired with Kapadia in Pyaar Mein Twist (2005), in which they played middle-aged lovers. Among his late-career standouts was Habib Faisal’s Do Dooni Chaar, among the films that kickstarted the current preoccupation with stories set amidst the North Indian salaried middle class. The comedy, which revolves around the purchase of a car, reunited Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. The Rishi-Neetu pairing was also a reference point for the younger lovers in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009).
In 2009, Kapoor starred in a political satire inspired by his nickname, Chintu Ji. His ability to get under the skin of characters continued in Luck By Chance (2009), in which he brilliantly played an old-fashioned Hindi film producer, and Delhi-6 (2009), in which he depicted a connoisseur from Old Delhi.
In Agneepath (2012), Kapoor shed his nice-guy image for the role of a nasty pimp. In D-Day (2013), he hammed hilariously as a fugitive gangster modelled on Dawood Ibrahim.
Abhinav Singh Kashyap brought together Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh and Ranbir Kapoor for Besharam in 2013 – an experience that the senior Kapoor described as “bloody disappointing”. He told Mumbai Mirror in 2014, “Neetu, Ranbir and I are all sorry we did that film… When Abhinav approached us, I thought it would be an entertaining film but it went terribly wrong.”
Although Ranbir Kapoor carved out his own path as an actor, often playing a downbeat and introspective screen lover, he was occasionally reminded of his heritage. The song Budtameez Dil from Ayan Mukerji’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) is firmly in the mould of the 1970s Rishi Kapoor club number. Siddharth Anand’s Bachne Ae Haseeno (2008) derives its title from the hit song from Nasir Husain’s Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), starring Rishi Kapoor as a singer.
“Being a Kapoor, be it my nieces, or my son, or for that matter, it could be me. We come with a lot of baggage,” Rishi Kapoor told Nasreen Munni Kabir in an interview in 2010 for Channel 4. “You know there’s so much expected of you. There is so much. People feel it’s very easy – you are a Kapoor, you can enter films easily, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s a big responsibility, it’s a big effort. You have to really be on your toes all the time, and you have to be there. And you have to be lucky. There’s this thing about being lucky. There have been certain Kapoor boys who probably didn’t get that many opportunities that I probably got. So I am lucky to have been in the frame. But yes, it does come with a lot of responsibilities.”
In the current decade, Kapoor earned acclaim for Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (2016), in which he was cleverly cast as a lascivious grandfather obsessed with the scantily clad Mandakini from Ram Teri Ganga Maili (an in-joke, since that film was made by his father). In 2017, Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk saw Kapoor in a substantial role as a Muslim patriarch forced to prove his patriotism when his son turns out to be a terrorist. Among his most recent roles was the thriller The Body (2109), in which he played a police inspector.
Kapoor’s career holds a mirror to the shifts in Hindi filmmaking practices, which include a move away from melodrama, greater emphasis on realism in plot and performance, and decreased reliance on lip-synced songs. Kapoor, however, was a natural at both lip-syncing and dancing. In his memoir, he credits the contributions made by music directors, singers, lyricists and choreographers to his enduring popularity.
The list of Rishi Kapoor hit songs perhaps outstrips his film roles, and is a testament to his ear for music and eye for smooth dance moves. “These memorable melodies played a big role in my successful innings as a young film star,” he wrote.
The turbulence in Kapoor’s career sometimes extended beyond the screen, with reports of hot-headed behaviour, spats with his wife (including episodes reported in the Mumbai press about how she allegedly approached the police at one point to complain about his abusive behavior), and runs-in with other celebrities. Khullam Khulla dedicates a whole chapter to “Fights, Flare-ups and Fans”.
The famous Kapoor love for liquor, second only to rich food, had its ugly side. At one point, Kapoor “got so high that he smashed everything in sight”, Neetu Singh told the magazine Filmfare in an interview, which is quoted in Madhu Jain’s biography.
“When it comes to food and drink, I’m the quintessential Kapoor who can’t control himself,” Kapoor wrote in his memoir. He added elsewhere, “I am a difficult man, I have many quirks and fears. My sisters and my mother have always said that Neetu deserves a medal for staying married to me, and I have to agree with them.”
The candour wasn’t available to just about any curious journalist. While free of self-consciousness on the screen, Kapoor could sometimes be tight-lipped, impatient and even grumpy in interviews. However, Twitter unleashed another side of him, and added a new layer to his fame for the new millennium. Apart from being Ranbir Kapoor’s father, he was known for his unfiltered tweets, which mixed humour, commentary, nostalgia and snark.
On social media, at least, Kapoor didn’t always receive the reverence with which movie stars are greeted, leading to apologies and backtracking that must have been puzzling for a celebrity of his vintage. His Twitter account did, however, reveal his sharp memory and ability to resurrect memories of long-forgotten movies and personalities.
“The evergreen hero has been refashioned yet again for a zero-privacy age,” journalist Priya Ramani observed on Scroll.in in 2015. “It’s almost like the nature of this invasive yet confined-to-a-screen medium allows him to be more than himself.”
Among Kapoor’s more relaxed conversations were the ones he did with Simi Garewal. Rishi Kapoor and his younger brother, Rajiv Kapoor, were Garewal’s first guests on her popular television show Rendezvous with Simi Garewal in 1997. Although Kapoor didn’t submit easily to Garewal’s deceptively chummy questions about his approach to his craft and screen persona, the encounter came off less as a cynical performance and more of a display of a showbiz veteran going with the flow.
“I had stardom on a platter – then after that, what,” he said about the perils of fame. “The journey was, there were ups and downs, I thought I was victorious at times, I failed at times… I believed my ability to work hard kept me going.”
He was dismissive about his acting abilities: “I had my good moments and bad moments…I don’t think there’s anything to trumpet about, I don’t think I have done any great work.”
On the question of physical fitness, the ample-waisted actor laughed: “Need we say more?”
In 2016, Garewal conducted a frank and funny conversation with Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh in Melbourne. She introduced her guest with the words, “He has been part of your romance, part of your love life, part of your marriage, so many things.”
Kapoor charmed the stockings off the crowd: “I was very brash and arrogant, which I am even now.”
He shrugged off attempts to read too deeply into his roles: “We never got the chance to live in one film at a time. Yes, whatever we did, we survived.”
Neetu Singh, who called her husband “Bob” (a variation of “Baba”), revealed that both had healthy egos, and would spend days refusing to talk to one another. Kapoor was also blunt about his emotional distance from his son, Ranbir: “I am not in a backslapping relationship with my son. There has to be some respect for the father. I am not that kind of a man.”
Why don’t you branch out, do something else besides films, asked an audience member at the Melbourne event. The guffaws that preceded Kapoor’s response said it all. Why would I do that, acting is all I know, and it’s all I ever want to do, he replied – a professional to the hilt, once and always.