Several generations of Hindi film fans learned to love through Rishi Kapoor films.
Born into a clan widely considered to be Bollywood’s first family, Kapoor made a name for himself playing cherubic heroes with winsome smiles who danced their way into leading ladies’ hearts. In those days of typecast roles, he rarely strayed far from that script, save an occasional dalliance with slightly more serious topics.
Later in his life, however, he seemed to want to challenge himself, playing a variety of characters, from a middle-class school teacher aspiring to buy a car, to a kohl-eyed pimp, to the patriarch of a Muslim family accused of supporting terrorism.
Kapoor died of leukemia on April 30. He was 67.
The grandson of Prithviraj Kapoor, who is considered a pioneer of Indian theatre and the Hindi film industry, and the son of the prodigious producer Raj Kapoor, Rishi made his own place in Bollywood and leaves behind a long legacy of films.
Although he had a small part to play in his father’s semi-autobiographical opus, 1970’s Mera Naam Joker, Rishi’s career truly launched in a film produced and directed by his father called Bobby (1973). Starring the nubile Dimple Kapadia in the title role alongside the fresh-faced (down to his painted pink lips) young Kapoor, Bobby was a runaway success. Kapoor went on to play the chocolate-boy (an Indian terminology for sweet) hero for most of his career, until the early ’90s, when it became a little hard to suspend disbelief and consider him a romantic lead—even by Bollywood’s notorious patriarchal standards.
Through it all, however, Kapoor maintained a sense of humor. He’d joked that he’s run around trees a lot, and could write a thesis on it, referring to many romantic songs in which he’s played someone serenading his lover. He also owned his character’s propensity to wear ugly sweaters with aplomb while singing those songs in locations ranging from the Indian hill station Ooty to the Swiss Alps, noting his collection of the double-knit, garish monstrosities in several tweets.
In celebration of yet another icon gone too soon, let’s look back at some of Rishi Kapoor’s more notable films:
Bobby follows the classic Bollywood plot line about the lonely rich boy Raj Nath (Kapoor) falling in love with the poor girl Bobby (Dimple Kapadia), the daughter of a fisherman. This was both Kapoor’s and Kapadia’s debuts, and featured them in their teenage heart-throb glory: Rishi with his bell-bottoms and fat ties and Dimple in shift dresses and a red bikini. The success of this film helped Rishi’s father Raj Kapoor pay off the debts he’d racked up with his disastrous epic Mera Naam Joker.
Another ’70s classic that combines a murder suspense film with teenage romance. Ajay (Kapoor), Vikram (Rakesh Roshan) and Nisha (Neetu Singh, who went on to marry Rishi Kapoor) are three college-going pranksters. On a trip to the hill station Shimla, they decide to con a wealthy but miserly businessman. Then the man turns up dead. When the trio set out to prove their innocence, a series of misadventures leads them to a mysterious figure named Black Cobra.
Khel Khel Mein features twohit songs by one of Bollywood’s beloved composers, R. D. Burman: “Ek Main Aur Ek Tu” and “Khullam Kulla Pyar Karenge.” Plus Rishi’s look in the film features an array of long scarves, another one of his trademarks.
A well-regarded romance by Yash Chopra, who was known for making melodramas centering around female characters and shooting musical numbers in exotic locations. The film was a huge hit, and its songs played incessantly on the radio. The film featured Sridevi, a popular South Indian film actress, who went on to become one of Bollywood’s first female superstars.
Rohit (Rishi Kapoor) meets and falls in love with Chandni (Sridevi) at a family wedding. His family disapproves of the alliance because Chandni doesn’t come from a similar social standing. Nevertheless, Rohit pursues and convinces Chandni to marry him, but a romantic gesture goes awry, leaving Rohit paralyzed.
Rohit decides Chandni is better off without him. Heartbroken, Chandni moves to Mumbai, where she finds a job—and eventually love—with Lalit (Vinod Khanna). That is, until Rohit re-renters her life. Who will Chandni choose?
Chadni proves a perfect showcase of both Rishi Kapoor’s double-knit/ugly sweater glory and Sridevi’s vivacious starpower.
A remake of the 1990 film of the same name, Agneepath is a cult classic action drama starring Bollywood veteran superstar Amitabh Bachchan. For Kapoor, it was quite the transformation from the pink-lipsticked romantic loverboy Raj Nath to the kohl-eyed pimp Rauf Lala.
Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan plays Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, the son of an honest village school teacher murdered by local goon and drug trafficker Kancha (Sanjay Dutt). A young Vijay witnesses his father’s death, leaves the village and vows to return to get his revenge.
In the city, Vijay starts working for Rauf Lala, who trafficks drugs and girls. He soon becomes Rauf’s trusted man, and uses his position to go back to the village to exact his revenge.
Rishi Kapoor was initially hesitant to take on the role of Rauf Lala. He told an interviewer that he only signed on after doing a look test that convinced him that he could pull it off. It is a strange experience to watch him transform into a foul-mouthed gangster, but he clearly relished the challenge of playing against his type.
There are so many reasons to watch—and rewatch—this film about a dysfunctional family and the love they have for one another: Pakistani actor Fawad Khan’s sensitive performance as a struggling writer; the sweet romance between Siddharth Malhotra and Alia Bhatt; and the seasoned performances by Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah as their constantly bickering parents.
But Rishi Kapoor, as the ornery and skirt-chasing grandfather, who keeps on faking his death in order to get more attention from his family, gets the biggest chuckles, even though it’s a little hard to see him act under the layers of unnecessary latex. Nevertheless, his experience as an actor and his iconic voice—laden equally with mischief and nostalgia—carries him through.