Untangling Rishi Kapoor's Complicated Legacy

Rishi Kapoor was an iconic actor with a career panning decades. But in his later years he was toxic on Twitter and in his interviews admitted he wished he had done some things differently.
Indian Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor gestures at the launch of Indian Bollywood actress Kashmira Shah's new calendar ‘Kashensuous’ in Mumbai on March 6, 2011. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP via Getty Images)
Indian Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor gestures at the launch of Indian Bollywood actress Kashmira Shah's new calendar ‘Kashensuous’ in Mumbai on March 6, 2011. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP via Getty Images)

Rishi Kapoor, who died on April 30 in Mumbai after a prolonged battled with leukemia, had an illustrious Bollywood career that spawned over 150 films. He was 67 and is survived by his wife, Neetu Kapoor, son Ranbir and daughter Riddhima. His first screen appearance was as a child actor in Shree 420, a film directed and produced by his father Raj Kapoor. Kapoor appeared in the iconic song, Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua as one of the three children walking in the rain. He also played the role of a young Raj Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker in 1970, three years before his official debut.

Kapoor’s public persona and early career would come to be defined by his romantic films such as his super hit debut Bobby, Rafoo Chakkar (a Some Like It Hot ripoff), Sargam, Sagar, Karz, Prem Rog, and Chandni; but he also acted in comedies such as Amar Akbar Anthony and social dramas like Damini. He steered clear of action films, a genre deemed unsuitable for his cherubic visage.

Rishi Kapoor
Rishi Kapoor

As the social dramas of the 1950s and the 1960s that encapsulated India’s post-partition disillusionment made way for romantic potboilers, Kapoor cashed in on that wave and was the quintessential chocolate boy, serenading heroines and dancing around trees.

“I danced around a lot of trees. I could do a thesis on it,” he joked once.
The success of Bobby, which was credited entirely to Kapoor—his co-star Dimple Kapadia was married by the time the film released, which meant she was sidelined by the patriarchal movie industry—made him an overnight sensation.

“I was 20, I was brash, I was paid a lot of money, my lifestyle had gotten awry,” the actor recalled in an interview. His next film, Zehreela Insaan (1974) failed at the box office, an experience Kapoor said he was glad about as it ‘grounded him.’

The rise of action heroes such as Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha, slowed down Kapoor’s career as he suffered a string of failures in the late 1980s and 1990s.

In his biography Khullam Khulla, Kapoor actually admitted to buying the Best Actor award for Bobby in 1974 to edge out Amitabh Bachchan, with whom he wasn’t always on the best of terms. Bachchan was the most likely contender that year for his performance in Zanjeer.

“I am ashamed to say it, but I actually ‘bought’ that award. I was so naive. There was this PRO, Taraknath Gandhi, who said to me, ‘Sir, tees hazaar de do, toh aap ko main award dila doonga.’ I am not the manipulative sort but I admit that I gave him the money without thinking,” he wrote.

Kapoor’s striking candour and willingness to discuss his personal life on terms no current day Bollywood actor would dream of, resulted in some eye-opening television — often in interviews with his friend, occasional co-star and television host Simi Garewal.

“I was like a ping-pong ball, going up and down,” Kapoor once said in an interview with Garewal, describing the state of his career in the 1990s. Perhaps at his lowest phase at the time, he also nonchalantly remarked, “I don’t think I’ve done any great work for my children to be proud of.”

His 1999 directorial debut, Aa Ab Laut Chalein, was a commercial failure and the last film to come out of the iconic RK Films stable.

The tremors of a failing career also led to some domestic disquiet in Krishna Raj, Kapoor’s Pali Hill bungalow.

Rumours about a marital crisis became subject of intense scrutiny and according to an Outlook article, in the wee hours of November 1, 1997, Kapoor’s wife Neetu Kapoor rang up the Bandra police station complaining about abuse.

When the cops turned up, Rishi Kapoor didn’t allow them inside, saying that his wife was fast asleep. The next day, the cops showed up again and both Rishi and Neetu denied making the calls.

While the story was all but buried, in an interview with Savvy magazine soon after, Kapoor said, “Which marriage doesn’t go through its share of tiffs and arguments? But we are not on the verge of a divorce.”

But the most uncomfortable glimpses of Rishi and Neetu Kapoor’s life together were visible in a 2016 interview with Simi Garewal.

“Why do you all fight so much?” Garewal asked. “Is it the alcohol? Is that all you’d change in him?”

A terse Neetu paused and nodded in agreement, before saying, “It isn’t going to stop.”

As the interview progressed, a subdued Neetu Kapoor described Kapoor as ‘good-hearted’ but ‘self-indulgent’, even as he seemingly talked down to her. When Garewal asked Rishi how he’d describe Neetu to people who don’t know her, he said, “My wife” before adding, “I am very grateful to her. For the lovely thing she gave me … the two little kids of mine.”

“That’s all?” Neetu retorted, to which Rishi said, “Quietly listen,” before talking about how difficult it is for a woman to be married to a male actor.

When Garewal asked Neetu if she’d pray and fast before the release of her husband’s films for good luck, Neetu replied that she did.

“Stupid Indian woman,” Rishi said. The audience clapped.

“Can someone please stand up for me?” Neetu said, visibly upset behind a brave smile.

The segment ends with Neetu saying she survived the marriage because she’s a ‘strong person’ and in life, you’ve to forget things and move on.

Would she marry him again?

“Yes, but minus the alcohol.”

Later on, in his biography, Khullam Khulla, Kapoor described his wife as someone who’d ‘put up’ with him.

“Incredibly, she has done it without nagging me to change, and patiently puts up with my whims and moods.”

About Neetu leaving the film industry soon after their marriage. Kapoor wrote that though he didn’t force her to leave work, he wasn’t comfortable with her working.

“But to be honest,” he wrote, “I didn’t try to convince her to keep working either. There was a chauvinist in me that didn’t want his wife to go out to work. I wanted Neetu to finish all her commitments before we got married. All I can say in my defence is that my views have changed since then.”

Indian Bollywood film actor Rishi Kapoor with his wife Neetu Singh attends the Stardust Awards in Mumbai late on January 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Indian Bollywood film actor Rishi Kapoor with his wife Neetu Singh attends the Stardust Awards in Mumbai late on January 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)

His relationship with his son, Ranbir Kapoor, was fraught with tension, an equation many attribute to his father’s complicated relationship with Neetu Kapoor. Kapoor Sr. didn’t quite approve of Ranbir’s choice of films either.

In an interview with this writer, Ranbir had said, “My relationship with my father is a lot like a formality. That really has become the base of our relationship and that is the dynamic that we share.”

Rishi himself said that there was a ‘wall between the two of us’ and that he didn’t know what to talk about with his son. “There were quite a few quiet moments,” Ranbir remarked to his mother, once she returned home after a few days and asked how it was.

“I always had to be home to break the ice,” she recalled.

Months later, I’d meet Rishi Kapoor at his Bandra house, where, while speaking, the actor choked up. Responding to what his son had said, Kapoor Sr said, “I gave him everything. Everything that was required. Education, love, things you need when you are at an impressionable age. I gave him everything.”

On Ranbir’s comment of his desire to be closer to his children than his father was, Kapoor Sr said, “Perhaps it was my mistake. I should have looked at Ranbir in a different way. I should have. But it’s only at this age that I’ve realised it.”

Whether he was able to bridge the emotional gap between Ranbir and him is something only the two of them would know, but in the last few years of his life, when he was diagnosed with and treated for cancer in New York, friends who visited him said he remained cheerful and positive.

“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,” a statement from the Kapoor family read.

Ranbir Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor
Ranbir Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor

The turn of the millennium marked a fresh start for Kapoor’s career.
After a spate of hit films where he was essentially cast as the ‘wise old man’ from the days of yore, such as in Hum Tum, Namastey London and Love Aaj Kal, Kapoor rebranded himself by choosing a number of meaty character-driven roles that earned him accolades.

Whether it was the endearing, eccentric Santosh Duggal in Do Dooni Chaar or the menacing Rauf Lala in Agneepath or the deliciously over-the-top Bollywood producer Romy Rolly in Luck By Chance, Kapoor’s second run was objectively richer in terms of variety and the depth of performance, showing his wide range of talent as an actor who could ace playing the role of Dawood as well as a Duggal.

It wasn’t always an easy ride. During the shooting of Kapoor and Sons, word on the street was that he had major clashes with Shakun Batra over the young filmmaker’s directorial style.

Kapoor later confirmed this in an interview with HuffPost India.

“Like in the eighties, all the actors who were working in Indian cinema, all of them had minimum four films based on beating the damn villain,” he said. “You can’t do all that crap anymore.”

He said he found it difficult to recreate the same emotion for multiple takes from different angles, which wasn’t a thing back in his day.

“We had problems working several times on the same emotion. He wanted to recreate it from several angles. I said I won’t be able to recreate it so many times, because I’m a spontaneous actor and with that many retakes, my spontaneity will die.”

Despite the acceleration of majoritarian politics in the country, Kapoor didn’t shy away from taking on difficult, complicated characters in the last stages of his career. In Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk, he played Murad Ali Mohammed, the patriarch of a family one of whose members turns a wanted terrorist. The film addressed the growing demonisation of the Muslim community and Kapoor was lauded for his performance, for which he faced the standard right-wing backlash.

Talking about his performance, NDTV said, “The veteran actor provides the bulwark upon which Mulk builds itself.”

While Amitabh Bachchan monopolised the trope of the angry young man in the ’80s when Rishi Kapoor was playing the docile tree-hugger, the advent of social media would see an interesting role reversal.

While Bachchan passed off WhatsApp forwards and Dad jokes as tweets, Rishi Kapoor turned into an angry old man, scolding and scoffing at people, blocking those who criticised him, and, in many cases, being outrightly abusive towards users. He called one user a ‘bitch’ and an ‘asswipe’ and said ‘fuck you’ before adding, “Oops not with that fckn face lol.”

When I had asked him about his Twitter persona, he defensively said, “It’s not that I’m not abusive. They just abuse me, give me maa-behen ki gaali and I’ve given that back to them and blocked them. Nobody knows and you don’t see that.”

On Twitter, Kapoor would make jokes like, “Loyal husbands will get heaven after they die, disloyal husbands will get heaven when they’re alive. Choose wisely. Bangkok Tourism.”

Many of his sexist tweets and abuses inevitably landed him in controversies, but Kapoor blithely carried on. It was that casual unconcern, or maybe the facade of it, that marked Kapoor’s career and eventful personal life. Perhaps the most telling statement of Kapoor’s satisfaction with the way his life turned out came in an interview with The Hindu.

“There are no regrets,” he said. “For the simple fact that I always got what I wanted, and I did justice to it.”