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Rishi Kapoor, not your typical Hindi film hero

Rishi Kapoor, who died this morning, was a dashing lead in classics like 'Bobby' and 'Karz', but also did some of his best work in support of other actors

Rishi Kapoor in 'Do Premee' (1980)
Rishi Kapoor in 'Do Premee' (1980)

If you’re growing up in the 1980s, a boy in love with Hindi cinema’s macho heroes, you can be forgiven for being less than enamoured of Rishi Kapoor. Here he is, as the diminutive Akbar in one of your favourite films, singing qawwalis and being romantic and chirpy, while your “heroes" Anthony and Amar (in that order) do the manly things, swaggering and getting into fisticuffs and being funny-drunk. Years later, you will be better placed to appreciate the centrality of Akbar – bard, commenter, dispeller of veils – to this film, and the quiet, tempering charm of the actor playing him. But back then, you see him as a third wheel, much like the kid brother who will try to placate Bachchan with “Chal mere bhai" in Naseeb a few years later.

Near the end of the decade, the same actor again plays a music-loving pacifist in another of your favourite multi-starrers, JP Dutta’s Hathyar. In the climax, as Sanjay Dutt and Dharmendra go down blazing in a haze of bullets, it is Rishi Kapoor’s Sami Bhai who tries to pry guns away, to negotiate peace between gangsters and cops. This sort of thing can be unappealing if you want some good old dhishkiyaon-dhishkiyaon, but even in that mood there was a moment that stuck with me for decades.

Sami Bhai has just been beaten up and is offering no resistance. Clutching a pole, out of breath, seeing that his assailant is about to walk away, he makes a trio of wordless gestures (ranging from “come, take out more of your anger on me" to “what, you’re done already?") – the whole thing takes up maybe three or four seconds, but it is as good an acting vignette as you’ll see.

Of course, Rishi Kapoor did so much in the 1970s and 1980s, across genres, that it was impossible not to sit up and take notice, even if he wasn’t your preferred “hero" type. Glancing through his filmography is to be reminded that he was an essential presence in many different types of films: from his effortlessly lithe musical performances in Karz and Hum Kisise Kam Nahin to one of his few truly offbeat films of that period, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Ek Chaadar Maili Si, to the thriller Khoj, where he more than held his own against Naseeruddin Shah in an exciting verbal joust that builds to the climactic denouement.

Looking back on his work during that time, it’s interesting to consider how often he seems to be a silent or passive presence, or how often we see the character he plays in relation to someone else – from the boy watching his teacher, Simi Garewal, undressing by the lake in Mera Naam Joker, to the adult looking at Dimple Kapadia by the sea in Saagar. In both cases, and in so many others, watching or romancing dozens of heroines over the years, he came to represent a relatively unthreatening variant on the male gaze – shy, longing, even courtly. And he frequently played secondary parts in woman-centric films like Prem Rog and Tawaif, unafraid to be the not-always-likable man who must grow inwardly before he can take on responsibility. (In this, he is a clear precursor to the Ayushmann Khurana persona of the current age, even though today’s films are more politically correct and overtly progressive than most of the social dramas Rishi Kapoor did in the 80s.)

Self-effacement was one of the keys to this persona. If he seemed to melt into the background in multi-starrers where he worked with action heroes, this was equally often the case in the “social dramas" where the focus was on the women. (In Damini, he did both: playing second fiddle to Meenakshi Seshadri – as the film’s protagonist, a tireless upholder of truth and justice – and the red-eyed Sunny Deol as a lawyer who fights a woman’s cause with macho zest.) And yes, in later years, there were times when the self-effacement yielded to a form of showiness or peevishness: there are some boastful passages in his autobiography, Khullam Khulla, such as the ones where he seems to take credit for “introducing" a number of female stars, or says that Bachchan always had the advantage of writers and directors kowtowing to him. But perhaps that sort of thing is a natural by-product of feeling like one was neglected or hard done by in one’s prime.

After a long gap in the 1990s and early 2000s, where he did little of note, Kapoor famously found a second innings, playing roles that his fan base of two decades earlier would have found it hard to imagine him in – from the pedantic movie producer in Luck By Chance to the sleazy Rauf Lala in the Agneepath remake, the middle-class Lajpat Nagar teacher in Do Dooni Chaar, or the Dawood Ibrahim-like gangster in D-Day, launching into a colourful monologue at the film’s end, and using an explosive profanity that one would never have expected to see from the Chintu baba of old. He also played a version of himself in the affectionate, under-watched Chintu-ji, which was a part-tribute to his father’s brand of filmmaking. And most recently, he was the beleaguered Muslim lawyer in Mulk, trying to clear his family of terrorism charges.

These are all roles that permitted greater displays of versatility than the old Hindi cinema did, and in interviews and in his book Kapoor spoke about how he had waited for decades to be able to do such films. But while respecting the range he showed in his later years, I think any real appreciation of Rishi Kapoor the star-actor requires being able to marvel at the many quiet moments of magic he found within long-established templates. For a real tribute, you couldn’t do much better than to watch his many fine performances in song sequences like Jeevan Ke Har Mod Pe or Hoga Tum se Pyaara Kaun or Parda Hai Parda, to see how an actor with integrity and a work ethic can enhance even formulaic-seeming situations.

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