Rishi Kapoor’s boyish charm helped propel him to superstardom in the 1970s. He embodied youthfulness in a slew of films (Bobby, Rafoo Chakkar, Khel Khel Mein, Sargam, Amar Akbar Anthony, Naseeb, Coolie) which helped make him an integral cog in the Bollywood machine. His megawatt charisma and smile, which could light up a room, made him irresistible to the filmmakers, and by his own admission, he “upped the youth quotient.”
By the time he became an industry “senior” and entered the second decade of his career in the 1980s, he had left behind his boyishness and brought a touch of maturity to his persona.
But this transition came only after tasting the bitter failure of Subhash Ghai’s reincarnation drama Karz (1980). It was released five months after his marriage to Neetu Singh and he believed it to be the reason for his “diminishing fanbase”.
“I was so demoralised that I couldn’t face the camera anymore,” he wrote in his memoir Khullam Khulla. “I would tremble on the sets and feel faint… I now began to blame my marriage for my diminishing fanbase. I believed that my acting days were numbered, that I had hit rock bottom.”
Kapoor did emerge from the doldrums and his status as a heartthrob was restored by Ramesh Sippy’s Saagar — a film where the genius director used everything the public loved about Kapoor minus the recklessness of a boy. The charisma and charm that captivated audiences were used to showcase the actor as a ‘man’ who makes informed decisions, based on his understanding of good and bad, unlike the rebellious teenager of Bobby (1973) who elopes with his girlfriend.
The plot outlines are the same as any love triangle. A young man Raja (Kamal Haasan) loves his longtime best friend Mona (Dimple Kapadia). Enter: richie rich Ravi (Rishi Kapoor), who also falls for Mona, and she reciprocates his love. After Ravi realises Raja loves Mona, he is ready to sacrifice his love. Raja, too, decides to dismiss his love for Mona after discovering that she doesn’t feel the same way for him. And, of course, there are villains who won’t let the lovers meet.
Despite a typical plot, you won’t mind getting transported in this cinematic fantasy because of the brilliant cast. Dimple Kapadia gives it her best in the comeback film. Kamal Haasan proves his acting prowess and leaves an indelible mark in our hearts, especially in scenes when he holds back his tears to ensure Mona and Ravi do not realise his feelings for her. (His performance deserves a separate article.) But it is Rishi Kapoor who surprises with his contained performance.
In the first meeting of Ravi and Mona on the beach, where Ravi, for the first time, notices the Venus-like beauty and falls in love with her at first sight, he doesn’t say a word. But his eyes do the talking. Next, when he meets her at a carnival and sits next to her in all-whites on a swing, his twinkling eyes mirror his heart.
“He was a guy with the most expressive eyes in the world. They spoke so eloquently for him. He said so much through his eyes. It conveyed all the emotions in such a beautiful way,” Sippy told Mumbai Mirror about Rishi Kapoor.
The filmmaker was happy to cast the seasoned actor for Saagar as directing him required minimum effort. He recalled during an interview with Mid Day, “One didn’t need to direct Rishi. He was such a consummate actor. Once the scenes were narrated to him, he understood it perfectly. He just needed to be ready and come on the set and perform the scene. I didn’t have to say much to him about what to do and what not to do.”
Kapoor complained about not being cast in “challenging roles” during his career. “I was stuck with the identity of a lover boy in colourful sweaters singing songs in Ooty and Switzerland. I wasn’t given enough challenging roles,” he was quoted as saying by The Hindu. Maybe this is why his output in the romances was unwaveringly steady and dependable.
His ease before the camera is evident in the song “Chehra Hai Ya Chaand Khila Hai” as he strums the guitar and sings to an already mesmerised Mona, making her fall in love with him. With her, the young India did as well.
Unlike the actors of today, who train hard to slip into their characters, learn horse riding, take lessons in singing and dancing, and isolate themselves to stay in the character; Kapoor never attended any training sessions. It was not because he was averse to developing new skills but because he was confident about his craftsmanship. He knew how to convince his audience he was singing and strumming the guitar in real just with his acting.
On Aap Ki Adaalat, he admitted, “You people must think I know how to play guitar or drums, in reality, I know nothing. Main aapka sirf bewakoof banaata hun (I just make a fool out of you). As an actor, I just convince you that I can play the guitar because it is my profession. I don’t know how to dance. But maine sahi neeyat se kaam kiya aur bohot mehnat ki (I worked hard and did it with utmost honesty).”
He romanced Kapadia in Saagar with such conviction that his wife Neetu Kapoor got insecure and felt “threatened”. To be fair, who wouldn’t be after watching the scintillating, ‘Jaane Do Naa’.
Kapoor had revealed in his memoir, “Many years into our marriage, Neetu confided in me that the only time she had felt threatened was when I worked with Dimple in Saagar. But she needn’t have worried. Dimple was a friend, even if she may have been a little more than that during Bobby.”
Towards the end of Saagar, when a battered Kapoor confronts his aristocrat grandmom Kamaladevi, who is against his union with Mona, there are no over-the-top theatrics. Yet, Kapoor translates the nerves of the moment with his dialogue delivery, cementing his reputation as an ideal lover. The scene where he expresses his helplessness to AK Hangal feels so lived in, as though Kapoor himself is undergoing a heartbreak.
Saagar made way for Rishi Kapoor to star in films (Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986) and Chandni (1989)) where he got a chance to showcase his versatility. Even in the final chapter of his career, he transitioned swiftly into character roles (Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk, Shakun Batra’s Kapoor and Sons, Habib Faisal’s Do Dooni Chaar, Nikhil Advani’s D-Day). Contrary to the popular belief that ageing diminishes an actor’s charm, Rishi Kapoor proved people really can get better as they mature.
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