Rishi Kapoor was to the manner born. Coming from the first family of Bollywood, he was seen as a child in the iconic Pyaar Hua Iqraar Hua song and then as an adolescent in Mera Naam Joker before making his debut as the male lead in Bobby, which was quite the phenomenon in the 70s. Fast forward and the films came thick and fast, many opposite his favourite co-star and later wife, Neetu Singh nee Kapoor. One thing that was always marked in his films was his complete involvement with a musical instrument whenever he got the chance to play one on screen. Whether it was the dafli in Sargam, a medley of instruments in Hum Kisise Kam Nahin or the guitar in Deewana or drums in Bol Radha Bol or saxophone in Karz — his expression, of being totally engrossed in what seemed to be creating the perfect tune, was loved by the audience. One came to know much later that he was a part of a band called The Nuts as a youngster, a picture of which he had shared on Twitter. In his second innings, he was again paired with Neetu in the comic caper, Do Dooni Chaar but his most stellar work would be as the irrepressible grandad, Amarjeet Kapoor in Kapoor & Sons and patriarch Murad Ali Mohammad in Mulk. Both films ventured into unchartered territory, the first about a homosexual coming out to his family and the second about a Muslim family trying to reclaim its honour when one family member gets involved in terrorism. His death coming a day after the stellar Irrfan Khan is certainly a blow to the lovers of Hindi films. Excerpts from an interview that was done at his residence at Krishna Raj on Mumbai’s Pali Hill post Agneepath (2012) by Rinku Ghosh:
There’s no doubt that you are a good actor but after Agneepath, which saw you transform into a villain for the first time, the buzz seems to have intensified. Does this belated spotlight bother you?
This has been the most intense week of my life, what with TV channels and newspapers lining up for interviews and the deluge of phone calls and greetings. And will you believe it when I tell you that I haven’t watched the film as yet? It’s not the attention, I have never sought it; it’s the recognition from a diverse section of people beyond the fraternity, be it politicians, officials, rank outsiders and the common man. I was so moved when Indira Jaisingh, the former solicitor-general of India, called me up personally to tell me how much she enjoyed a TV interview of mine, so much so that she watched the film after it and had become a great fan. It was an interesting experience. (At this moment director Imtiaz Ali’s father calls him up from Jamshedpur to compliment him for Agneepath). Such reactions make me feel great. And admittedly, I am on a high. I knew I had a meaty role but didn’t know a catalyst character between the hero and anti-hero, played by two biggies like Hritik Roshan and Sanjay Dutt, would manage to leave a big impression.
Why do you think Rauf Lala has made such an impact because you have had a mixed bag of character-driven roles in your kitty recently?
People never expected Rishi Kapoor to turn a visceral villain on screen. I had done very little externally except the net vest, my hair, beard and the kohl-rimmed eyes. The rest was my interpretation, my spontaneous emoting of what this character would do in real life. I never research, just rely on my instincts and my experiences. Rauf Lala doesn’t depend on mannerisms, he is naturally evil. I do accept the fact that I am a reasonably good actor but this role has really worked wonders. If you ask me objectively, this has been a stand-out performance.
Over the years I have only been doing romantic films. Nobody gave me roles I could experiment with until now and I am thoroughly enjoying this phase of being challenged as an actor, as an artiste. Finally, I am reinventing myself and getting my due. There is growth of an actor, not a star. I am not saying all my roles are great but finally I am being able to do justice to them and it’s fun to be on a rollercoaster ride. Be it a Rauf Lala or the patriotic sardar in Patiala House, the harried producer Romi Rolly in Luck By Chance or Everyman in Do Dooni Char, an unimaginable variety is surfacing for me. Did you know so many people thought that it would never be possible for Rishi Kapoor to become Mr Duggal? But it seemed Mr Duggal couldn’t have been more real. I am just humbled that all this has happened because my producers and directors have kept the faith.
How did you decide on each of these characters?
I always tell my producers that I do not want to play stereotypes, definitely not the typical father. The project must be of some interest to me so that I can bring something on the table. It is not going to be the lead but it must have some meat for me to chew on.
Rauf Lala wasn’t in the original version of Agneepath. Did that make it easy for you to accept?
I liked the role but I refused it because I wasn’t sure I could carry it off convincingly. But the producer and director were very persistent, so I asked for a look test, the first in my 40 years of being in the film industry. Fortunately, the guidance of the new director, Karan Malhotra, and my own abilities helped me get the character right. I must give total credit to the director and producer for their foresight and confidence to cast me in the film despite my lover boy image. They could have taken any established villain but they voted for me. That was a great responsibility on my shoulder. Thankfully, the dividends paid off for them and me.
People are now saying you are competing with your son Ranbir in terms of performance...
Thankfully. I am to glad to be part of a phase of Hindi cinema where both of us have a chance to push the envelope with each project.
How difficult was it to adjust your vision as a seasoned actor with that of the young filmmakers?
They young blood has brought in fresh thinking with boldness and conviction. Who would have thought of putting a Rauf Lala in the middle of what is essentially a David versus Goliath battle? And he conceived him thinking of me. Karan took the skeleton of the old film and filled it up again beautifully. These youngsters are never tired, willing to experiment and keen to work with old actors too. They are a blend of tradition and modernity. Older directors are stagnating because they refuse to think out of the box, challenge the viewer. Rather they want to play it safe, repeating the formula of their once successful films.
Young men like Karan Malhotra have a great respect for seniors like us and at the same time are very straight forward and adamant about what they want. Even Habib Faisal debuted as a director with Do Dooni Char. It’s great that both my acclaimed performances have been with first time directors.
But you had to be malleable too?
If you are an actor true to your craft, you can adjust with anybody. Besides, I choose to work with only those whom I can gauge. When they come to me with their scripts, I can sense if they know their job or not.
Though you are not a method actor, would you say you have to put more thought into your characters now than before?
Well before I just had to run around trees, sing songs and wear jerseys. (I am just joking) We did have some good ones too but playing characters these days is certainly more interesting. The concept of hero has changed, he has many layers to himself. So as leading man, Ranbir can develop his range given the different protagonists he has to play.
How would you analyse the maturing of audience sensibilities?
Of course, a lot has to do with economic growth where people are ready to spend Rs 200 a ticket at a multiplex, which again is a single window for both big and small films. The sensibility of the person spending Rs 200 is not the same as the man driving an auto. You could say multiplexes have widened the bandwidth and made it possible for filmmakers to address a diverse range of viewers. So now you have films like Agneepath which strikes the perfect balance between the front benches and balcony, one that straddles the single theatre and the multiplex.
Would you agree that small budget films are nudging experiments in the industry?
It’s not only about the budget, it’s about the ability to make a good film that makes commercial sense. I believe art is universal and there is nothing parallel or mainstream about it. There is only good cinema and bad cinema, nothing crossover or in-between. Just because you throw in a few English dialogues, doesn’t mean you have crossed over to another genre or grammar. For 40 years of my life, I have been a commercial actor and when the viewer pays an entertainment tax, he earns the right to be entertained. Then I can’t serve him a film that goes over his head.
If you want to make an artistic film, then send it to Doordarshan for a free telecast, the tax burden is not on you. Anyway, I find most so-called arthouse films boring and pretentious. Otherwise you would not have had brilliant actors like Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi going mainstream. Would you say they are not doing good cinema now? It is an art to sing, dance, fight or become a Rauf Lala. I am an artiste, a genius of these virtues...
Let’s go back to your younger years, when you were growing up as scion of the Kapoor legacy... were you ever confused about what you wanted to be, an actor, director, a script writer maybe?
You are right, the influences of a film tradition were not only strong but ingrained in our psyche. It was like a lifelong internship at the Kapoor Institute of film-making. By age 10, all of us knew how to make a film, we had been exposed to every aspect of filmcraft. Unconsciously, you become a product of your environment and you feel you have to do something with films. Acting came naturally to me. Besides, Lady Luck favoured me because I was accepted as a romantic hero for 25 years and was a top star of my time. Acting has remained a joyride. I thank God I have been able to contribute to our family legacy and hope that Ranbir will take it forward.
You have produced Heena, directed Aa Ab Laut Chalein. Why haven’t you considered making a film under the RK banner?
Filmmaking is a full time job and I don’t have the time as I am enjoying this phase of my acting career, probably my best. I am not saying never, I will definitely try my hand if I get a good script. But right now I am not in that space. I don’t even want Ranbir to take up direction now; he is young, should concentrate on his acting and not jump puddles. As a father, I must respect the fact that you let your son find his way among the bushes...
My father did not interfere with my career either and I am the better for it. I have not guided Ranbir and that’s why he is standing on his own feet. He has got to take the bouquet along with the brickbats.
How did his entry to films happen? Did he discuss it with you?
Though his growing up in a film family taught him a lot, Ranbir went to film school, the Lee Strasbourg Institute and is trained in all aspects of filmmaking. He came back, worked as an assistant to Sanjay Leela Bhansali and got his break. As a product of today’s society thriving on the information highway, he doesn’t really need my advice. Besides, we don’t bring back or discuss work home. He is very close to his mother, talks to her but in the end he exactly knows what he is doing and takes his creative decisions. There is an appreciable growth in him. Though he is young, he has not been a college boy sitting in a canteen, he has done a Rajneeti, Rocket Singh and now Rockstar.
These days, there is an entire image-building machinery around an actor, one that ensures his brand value and a media profile. How was it in your time?
Thankfully, my body of work has always spoken for me and I have never needed that kind of a media profile or projection. You have come to interview me, I never asked my PR to organise it. We Kapoors have never lobbied for awards and have been happy entertaining the aam janta. I have never lobbied for recognition and it has been 40 years. People who are not even 40 years old have been awarded by the government. The government never cared for the Kapoors and well, we also don’t give a damn. We are here by the masses, of the masses and for the masses.
Of course, the platform has become so huge these days that stars are under constant pressure to sell themselves all the time. This has taken a toll on today’s actors, they are working lesser, may be just two films a year. We worked in four films a year. With easier revenue, visibility and endorsements, they are invading your consciousness every day. In our time, there were just Doordarshan and hoardings. We did up to four films a year, generated employment in the industry, ensured revenue for everybody, endorsed the worker. Now all our technicians are looking for rehabilitation in the television industry.
Any roles that you might want to look back with satisfaction?
As an actor, I don’t want to dwell in the past and bask in the glory of what I have done. I look forward, want to be encouraged and prodded to do much more than I am capable of. I don’t want to stop. I have a quiver full of arrows, each different from the other and I’d like to hit the eye with each of them.
What kind of projects are you busy with now?
I have done my first slapstick role in Sajid Khan’s Housefull 2, which will be releasing in April. I have done Karan Johar’s Student of the Year, where I will be playing a gay Dean, who is very subtle. I will be appearing in a remake of Chashme Buddoor with Lilette Dubey. It is a modern version of the old film where I will be playing the character of Saeed Jaffery. I will be teaming up with Amitabh Bachchan after many years in Sudhir Mishra’s Mehrunissa, a story about two friends who fall out over a girl and do not talk to each other for 39 years. Then there is a mature spin on a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara type bonding with Naseeruddin Shah and Boman Irani.
So you have a hectic pace?
Not really. I am no longer the leading man who has to give 60 days. A character actor can work in short bursts. Of course, there is a lot of travelling.
In your time, every actor, be it a man or woman, had a personality. Today everybody looks factory made... your comments.
Actors today are very image-driven and have intelligently carved such constituencies for themselves that they have managed to last 15-20 years. Nobody is a complete package. More so among the leading ladies. From 16 to 35, they all look clones, the make-up, hairstyle and the look are the same. Sadly, we haven’t had a good actor since Sridevi, who had terrific star value as well. Of course, there was Rekha. Today you define actresses by what they lack, somebody has sex appeal, somebody knows acting, somebody looks good... Nobody is everything.
So when do we see you with Neetu ji again?
She is very reluctant about coming back and it is my insistence that made her take up Do Dooni Char. I did that because the role was a custom fit for her.
So what do you do in your spare time?
I like to relax, watch TV, I am not a great reader but I follow newspapers and news television. I play Literati, a form of scrabble online; I have played over 15,000 games.
What about social media?
Well, I exist on Facebook but will be the last guy to sign up for Twitter. When I do not even open up to the Press, what am I going to talk about with the invisible world? (Well, he did join Twitter and owned it with his brand of wit and humour.