Rishi Kapoor: Bollywood’s Ultimate Loverboy

For several decades it was difficult to imagine there would ever be a wrinkle on Rishi Kapoor’s face.

A few years before his death in April 2020 at the age of 67, he was romancing debutants like Divya Bharti, Zeba Bakhtiar, and Tabu, singing memorable songs in the Alps, bringing into fashion colourful pullovers slung over his shoulders.

We thought he was the Dorian Gray of Indian cinema— an ageless, immortal icon of youth, stunning good-looks and energy. And now he is gone. Pinch yourself again; Rishi Kapoor is really no more.

With him is gone also an era. Rishi Kapoor was one of the last reminders of an age when India grooved to RD Burman’s beats, sang along with Kishore Kumar and that forgotten genius Shailendra Singh, memorized Saahir Ludhianvi’s poetry and dreamt of romancing divas like Dimple Kapadia, Neetu Singh and Sridevi.

He was one of the few surviving links to the age of Manmohan Desai’s lost-and-found stories, of Raj Kapoor’s grand projects, of Yash Chopra’s chiffon-and-Switzerland romances, of multi-starrer cinema where an entire galaxy of stars would take the audience on a journey beyond the make-believe, of a golden age where films would be like Chitrahaar—an endless treat of song and dance.

The mark of a true legend is that their biography should read like the history of their era. Rishi Kapoor was one such legend and a lot more.

Who do you remember when you think of Rishi Kapoor? Amitabh Bachchan, his perennial elder brother in a reel-life family where one of the siblings had a drink problem that needed a Vinod Khanna-esque character to resolve?

Jeetendra, Rakesh Roshan, Mithun Chakraborty, Rajesh Khanna, Anil Kapoor? Or, does your mind hark back to a long, long time ago when a student with cheeks that resembled, as Saahir wrote, dehakte anaar peeped through the door to see Simi Garewal undress? Does he not remind you of Pran, Prem Nath, Durga Khote, Paintal and almost everybody you can think of?

Rishi Kapoor wasn’t just history in motion, he was also geography. Watch his cinema again—it will take you not just to Zurich, Geneva and London, but also the tulip gardens of Srinagar, the meadows of Pahalgam and the breath-taking beauty of the Himalayan valleys.

“Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra,” Prem Chopra (who else) famously said in Rishi Kapoor’s Bobby. He was wrong; the name of Prem (love) was and will always be Rishi Kapoor.

Picture him flirting with Neetu Singh in Kabhi Kabhie, burning the screen with his charm in that timeless Ludhianvi-Khayyam song Tera Phoolon Jaisa Rang, imagine him strumming the guitar on a Goa beach, serenading Dimple Kapadia in Saagar, or exploding with megatonnes of energy as he warns ‘Bachna ae Haseenon’ and you’d know the R in Rishi was actually for Romance.

Like all great journeys, Rishi Kapoor’s cinematic odyssey began with a necessity. His father Raj Kapoor, the greatest showman of Indian cinema, was heavily in debt after the failure of Mera Naam Joker. To bring himself out of the financial mess, he needed a new template for his outdated tramp-with-a-good-heart cinema, and for the new paradigm a new face.

Rishi Kapoor was barely out of his teens then, his whiskers had just about started descending down his cheeks. With his flaming pomegranate like cheeks, ruby-red lips and dreamy eyes, he resembled the picture of vulnerability. (Watch Aruna Irani try to seduce him and you’d know what I mean).

Raj Kapoor hit on this avant-garde idea of making this innocent, just-out of-school boy with a hint of flab—Dimple ribs him in the film by calling him “Dibba” —to do the unthinkable—first get locked up in a room with a girl and throw away the key, and then elope with a girl. It was young, it was fresh, it was erotic, and it was scandalous. But, it was also a hoot.

Rishi Kapoor was an idea the Indian audience was waiting to happen. By the mid 70s, Rajesh Khanna had faded away a bit, pushed into the second-lead by the tsunami called Amitabh Bachchan.

Swayed by the success of the angry-young-man, every existing actor was trying to be a copy-cat and, ultimately, falling on his painted face. In this muchness of angriness, Rishi Kapoor was a perfect foil to Bachchan—young, pretty, a bit portly and vulnerable—someone a girl would happily hit upon.

Two things happened with Rishi Kapoor’s arrival on the screen. And we are not talking about the craze for the midget bike called ‘Bobby’ or polka-dotted shirts. One, romance turned young—skipping generations from the avuncular Rajendra Kumar to the boyish Rishi Kapoor. And two, it became acceptable for a leading star to give space to powerful women on the screen. If you look at Rishi Kapoor’s trajectory, you’d realise Bobby—named after the heroine— was an apt beginning of a career that culminated with Damini, touching milestones like Chandni and Henna on the way.

To imagine that the R is Rishi would one day turn into Ruffian on screen would have been blasphemous in the 70s or the 80s. But, you see, the good thing about cinema is that it gives everyone the luxury of takes, re-takes and also the benefit of changing their image completely. So, when Rishi Kapoor portrayed Rauf Lala in Agneepath, it was the cinematic surprise of the decade. He did it with so much menace, bestiality and villainy that you felt retrospectively concerned about the women he had romanced in his youth.

The bad guy act, even if considered easy, is the most difficult thing in Indian cinema. India has had a huge pantheon of stars but very few have had the courage to try a negative role, and even when they have, the results have been downright average to disasters. Amitabh Bachchan tried it in Ramgopal Verma’s Aag and burnt his pants. Aamir Khan flirted with the idea in Deepa Mehta’s Earth but rushed back to the safety of the lover-boy spiel. Only Shahrukh Khan has two memorable entries under that category on his CV—Baazigar and Darr. But, Rishi Kapoor’s Rauf Lala ranks right up there because of two reasons—one he was returning to the big screen after a long hiatus, and two, nobody expected him to be anything other than a lover boy, or perhaps, a benevolent uncle or daddy ever in cinema.

A big reason Rishi Kapoor will live on forever are the songs filmed on him. The actor’s stardom was to a big extent about his loverboy image and, in Bollywood of the seventies and the eighties when he reigned, such an image came with a ceaseless flow of great and superhit songs.

Rishi’s launch as a hero happened with Raj Kapoor’s “Bobby” in 1973. Till date, the film is synonymous with Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s unforgettable score. Songs like “Tu maike mat jaiyo” and Main Shayar toh nahin” define the arrival of a young loverboy hero who would redefine romance on the Hindi screen forever.

Rishi Kapoor in fact had a strong connection with songs since childhood. Even before starting his acting journey with “Mera Naam Joker”, Rishi had featured in the song, “Pyaar Hua, Iqraar Hua” in “Shree 420”.

Over the years, Rishi has been the dafli-wielding dafliwaale of “Sargam” and the affable qawwal Akbar in “Amar Akbar Anthony”. His versatile image that could swing from being the traditional romantic hero the playful campus hunk suited Mohammad Rafi’s sonorous voice as much as Kishore Kumar’s rich vocal texture.

Youngsters who were growing up in the 70s era have shaken their legs to the iconic actor’s several songs — especially “Dafli wale dafli baja” in “Sargam”. Sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, the song, which featured actress-politician Jaya Prada opposite Rishi Kapoor, was a massive hit back then.

Till date, people try to recreate that ‘dafli’ hook step of Rishi Kapoor. Last month, Rishi Kapoor had re-tweeted a video of middle aged couple of dancing to the tunes of his song ‘Dafliwaale dafli baja’. Reacting to the video, Rishi Kapoor shared that he found the clip “cute”.

Among Rishi’s most iconic musical hits is Subhash Ghai’s “Karz”. Be it “Ek hsina thi”, “Om Shanti Om”, “Dard-e-Dil” or “Main solah baras ki”, almost every song of the film went on to be a blockbuster, cementing Rishi Kapoor’sapiring with Tina Munim.

There are many anecdotes about Rishi and his songs. For instance, the funny thing is Rishi wasn’t too fond of “Om Shanti Om”, which continues to be considered one of his greatest dance numbers till date.

In his memoir “Khullam Khulla”, he had written: “However, I must admit that I was often hopelessly wrong in my initial reactions to some of these chartbusters. I remember Boney Kapoor coming to meet me, brimming with excitement, with a recording of ‘Om shanti om’ in Karz. The composers Laxmikant-Pyarelal and director Subhash Ghai, obviously ecstatic with the results, had sent him to Panchgani where I was shooting. I gave Boney an earful, saying what a lousy number it was and wondering how Laxmikant-Pyarelal could come up with such a number for me.”

On the other hand, he had a fondness for the soulful “Main Shayar Toh Nahin” from his debut film “Bobby”. The song, which was sung by Shailendra Singh, also featured actress Aruna Irani, who used to be dancing sensation in yesteryears. Rishi Kapoor had used to consider the particular track as his anthem.

While undergoing treatment for leukemia in New York last year, Rishi once had a musical encounter with one of his fans during his salon visit, as the Russian fan recognised him and played the famous song “Main Shayar Toh Nahin”. Rishi even shared a video of the encounter on his Twitter, thanking the fan for singing his “anthem”.

Romantic pairings back then depended to a large extent on hit songs. The success of his pairing with Neetu Singh — who would eventually become his wife Neetu Kapoor — in films like “Kabhi Kabhie”, “Amar Akbar Anthony”, “Doosra Aadmi”, and “Khel Khel Mein”, depended to a large extent on the songs of these films.

The couple’s number “Khullam khulla pyaar karenge” from “Khel Khel Mein”, composed by RD Burman and sung by Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle” continues to be a lovers’ anthem.

While on romantic pairings, one cannot miss Rishi Kapoor teaming up with Dimple Kapadia. If “Hum tum ek kamre me band ho” in “Bobby” represented innocent love, “Sagar kinare” and “Jaane do na” in “Saagar” was all about scorching chemistry.

His spate of hit songs continues in the eighties, with Sridevi in “Chandni”, and in the nineties with Madhuri Dixit (“Yaarana”, “Prem Granth”) and Juhi Chawla (“Bol Radha Bol).

Decades later, people still talk of these songs. Among numerous new-gen stars who have recreated his songs is son Ranbir Kapoor, who reprised his dad’s popular track “Bachna ae haseeno” in his own 2008 film “Bachna Ae Haseeon”

It is impossible to list or rank the songs of Rishi Kapoor. IANS lists here some songs that we love to hum:

Hum tum ek kamre me band ho (Bobby, 1973)
Om shanti om (Karz, 1980)
Khullam khulla pyaar karenge (Khel Khel Mein, 1975)
Dard-e-dil (Karz, 1980)
Chandni o meri Chandni (Chandni, 1989)
Bachna ae haseeno (Hum Kisise Kum Naheen, 1977)
Main shayar toh nahin (Bobby, 1973)
Tere mere hoton pe (Chandni, 1989)
Chehra hai ya chaand khila hai (Sagar, 1985)
Dafliwale dafli bajaa ( Sargam, 1979)
Yeh Vaada Raha (Yeh Vaada Raha, 1982)

  • Adapted from tributes by The Federal and IANS of India

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