After coming back to India, Ranbir worked as an assistant director to Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Black (2005) for a while. Neetu and I will forever be indebted to Sanjay for the spectacular manner in which he launched Ranbir’s career as an actor with Saawariya (2007). However, I do have a bone to pick with him.
As it happens, Ranbir ended up starting his career with a film based on the same story that inspired a film my father had once worked in. The film was called Chhalia (1960) and it was based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story White Nights, the same fantastical premise that Bhansali’s Saawariya is based on.
I was keen to know what my son was doing in his debut film, I wanted to know what the story was. But whenever I asked Sanjay, he would be evasive and promise, ‘Sir, I’ll come back to you.’ He didn’t give me a straight answer for a few months, and I began to wonder if he was avoiding me. One day, he called up Neetu and told her, ‘Sir keeps asking me, “What are you making, what are you making?” Now you tell me, what story could I have narrated to Amitabh for Black, what could I have told Shah Rukh about Devdas?’
Neetu told me what he had said and I agreed to back off, thinking to myself that if he is a good director, it must be all in his head. Since he was a responsible film-maker, I decided that Ranbir was in safe hands. Neetu and I had both loved Devdas, we were mesmerized by the opulence of his cinema. He would come by sometimes and play the music he had recorded for Saawariya and I thought they were excellent compositions.
But then the film was released and it bombed. When we saw it for the first time, I was aghast. I immediately recalled my father’s film, Chhalia, which was Manmohan Desai’s first film. It didn’t run for even two shows. That story could never be made into a film. If only Bhansali had told me, I would have dissuaded him. Saawariya had Salman Khan, in Chhalia it was Pran sa’ab. Bhansali had Ranbir, Manmohan Desai had Raj Kapoor. Here it was Sonam, there it was Nutan. Saawariya had great music, so did Chhalia. Chhalia was set in the context of Indo-Pak relations. Saawariya had, I don’t know how to describe it, a spaced-out blue or green background. People uncharitably called it a ‘blue film’. Neither film worked commercially.
The failure of Saawariya didn’t upset me because Ranbir was appreciated for his work and he moved from strength to strength. Sometimes, when an artiste thinks he is making great cinema, he is often not open to accepting anybody else’s inputs. He is running with his vision. Not my father, though. When he made films, he would shoot one schedule and invite the whole town to see it. He used to value people’s opinions. Today, I am told that film-makers like Aamir Khan and Rakesh Roshan show their product to people as the film progresses. I gather that the Yash Chopra family doesn’t show its films before their release to anybody. But when Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) was ready, they called us to see it on a Tuesday, three days before its release. When you see a film, even if you dislike it, it’s only polite to say, ‘All the best for Friday.’ That’s what I did when I saw Rocket Singh.
Jaideep Saini, the writer of the film and a friend, and director Shimit Amin wanted to know what I thought of it. I said to them, ‘If you ask for my opinion three days before its release, how does it matter? You have already made the overseas delivery. If you had asked me two months back, I would have given you my frank opinion.’ I added, ‘You don’t feel satisfied if the lead actor does not succeed at what he’s doing.’ They replied, ‘That would be the usual ending, we wanted to do something different.’ I retorted, ‘Then why ask anybody for his opinion?’
I remember my father being cocksure that people would sit for over four hours to watch Mera Naam Joker. He was wrong. He reshot the climax of Ram Teri Ganga Maili because he listened to people. He did something similar during Bobby too. After Joker and Kal Aaj Aur Kal, he could not afford to have another failure, he had to make sure that Bobby was a super hit. That’s why he changed the original ending written by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, in which the two young people die. He also introduced Prem Chopra’s character and added a commercial angle to the film.
I believe Ranbir has had it tougher than I did, because the acting scene is far more competitive today than when I entered it, making his success that much sweeter. There is such an abundance of talent and so many options out there that to come out on top each time is truly a feat.
Of course, he is only about ten years old in the industry, having started his career in 2006. When he made films like Rocket Singh and Rockstar (2011), my friends, my family, even some of my producers, wondered what he was up to. Kabhi lambe baal, kabhi Sardar bana hai, what’s he doing? Everyone expected him to go down the traditional path and establish himself as a star before proving himself as an actor.
But everything changed for Ranbir after Barfi. The film was at once a vindication of his stand and a massive blow to all his critics who had denounced his choices.
Now everybody expects Ranbir to experiment. His choices failed again with Bombay Velvet (2015) and to some extent with Tamasha (2015). I didn’t see these films but Neetu did. She felt that the film-makers had gotten ahead of themselves by repackaging a tried-and-tested formula in a non-commercial style. Of course, it is never only the actor who can be blamed for the failure of a film. There are times when a script fails, the execution fails, the mammoth cost of film-making causes it to fail, or it could be a combination of all these and more.
Frankly I am not the right person to judge Ranbir’s work. I see his films but I don’t like any of them. I am always analysing them as an actor and not as a father and always end up being overcritical. Neetu is far more perceptive. She knows which film will work and which won’t. Thankfully, I have been proved wrong time and again. I didn’t like Barfi or Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, but both of them were super hits. I didn’t think much of Raajneeti. I watched it only because of Ranbir. And that too was a successful film.
I once said, ‘I always knew I was a big father’s son but I didn’t know that I was a big son’s father too.’ It was an honest statement. I am Raj Kapoor’s son but I am also immensely proud to be Ranbir Kapoor’s father. On my Twitter handle I call myself the hyphen in the middle!
Excerpted with permission from Khullam Khulla, Rishi Kapoor, HarperCollins India.