Remembering the legend that was Rishi Kapoor

Filed on April 30, 2020 | Last updated on April 30, 2020 at 05.11 pm

Extracts from the actor's memoir Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored (published by HarperCollins India), co-authored with Meena Iyer

I was born lucky.

On 4 September 1952, the planets, I am told, were in perfect alignment. My father, Raj Kapoor, was twenty-eight years old and had already been hailed as the 'showman of Hindi cinema' four years before. He was an actor, a film-maker and the owner of a studio that had produced films such as Aag (1948), Barsaat (1949) and Awara (1951), heralding the arrival of a showbiz wunderkind.

He was also a man in love - at the time, unfortunately, with someone other than my mother. His girlfriend was the leading lady of some of his biggest hits of the time, including the ones I just mentioned, his in-house heroine, the lady immortalized in the RK Studios emblem. Their on-screen romantic pairing was not just the most sought-after of that era, but is still widely acknowledged as one of the most iconic. In short, he was in a great place with his work and in life.

On this day, he was at home in Matunga. Along with him were about as many Kapoors (and a smattering of other relatives) that you could possibly fit into one room. My mother, Krishna, was surrounded by her in-laws, her brothers, including my mama, actor Prem Nath, her older children and my father. My two older siblings, four-year-old Dabboo (Randhir Kapoor) and three-year-old Ritu, although not entirely sure what the excitement was about, were caught up in it nonetheless.

My father's nineteen-year-old brother, Shamsher Raj Kapoor (later popularly known as Shammi Kapoor), had swung home from nearby Khalsa College. His youngest brother, fourteen-year-old Balbir Raj Kapoor (who grew up to be the heart-throb Shashi Kapoor), had joined the group after finishing his day at Don Bosco School.

My grandfather, veteran thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, who was a legend in his own right and acclaimed for his performances in classics such as Alam Ara (1931) and Vidyapati (1937), had wrapped up work on Anand Math (1952), his seventeenth film, and hurried home.

My grandmother, Ramsarni, pushed the men out of the room. When I finally emerged hours later, a robust and rosy- cheeked baby, my relieved and joyous father popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the arrival of yet another boy. I could not have asked for a more boisterous or star-studded welcome.

***

I may have been a reluctant two-year-old actor, but before I turned eighteen, my father had me hooked to the movie business for life. I was sixteen when he cast me as the young Raju, the film's protagonist, in his semi-autobiographical film, Mera Naam Joker, a celluloid narrative in three parts. By now I was old enough to know what I was doing, and it is crystal clear in my mind that Joker was when I began to enjoy the film-making process.

For something that would prove to be a pivotal moment in my life, even fetching me a National Award, it began rather undramatically. My father casually handed me the script across the dining table one evening. The whole family was having dinner together when he asked my mother for permission to let me play the young joker. My mother thought about it for a while and agreed, with the caveat that it shouldn't interfere with my studies or my attendance in school. Papa assured her that he would shoot my sequences only over weekends, so there would be no question of bunking school. I pictured us taking the Deccan Queen to Pune on Friday evening, filming for two days, and returning by Sunday evening to resume school on Monday.

As my head swung back and forth between my parents, listening to them discussing the matter so casually, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I could feel the excitement steadily growing, until I could hold it back no longer. I rushed to my room, pulled out a pad from my drawer and furiously started practising my signature, for future autograph hunters!

 

***

There are two life lessons I've given Ranbir as far as this profession goes. One is to put in the effort required to translate into ease on screen and the second is to never let success go to the head or failure to the heart. Success and failure are a part and parcel of cinema. You cannot succeed in every role or every film. But what needs to be consistent is your effort and your work. I can safely claim that my work has always been beyond reproach, I have stayed afloat all this while only because of my consistent work.

To reach this place, I have had two very different but equally critical and productive phases. My second phase as a character artiste is particularly gratifying because I could disprove certain misconceptions that people have about senior actors.

So much has changed over the years. Today films are made on generous budgets, actors are paid handsomely, even technicians are well paid. I don't see film-makers and producers cutting corners or trying to save a rupee here and there. Even medium- budget films are made on a grand scale. There's substantial food and drink for everybody, all sourced from well-known restaurants. There's mineral water for everybody. It's no longer tap water for most and water from home only for actors. I used to carry my own boiled drinking water and buttermilk. Today, spot boys and stars drink the same water. Life on the sets has changed for the better and I'm not complaining.

 

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India