In 1974, when Bobby hit the screens, it introduced Indian movie-goers to a new genre of films, that of teenage romance; and also to a cute, rosy-cheeked, youngster with a disarmingly innocent smile. The whole country fell in love with both.
Rishi Kapoor was only 22 years old at the time, so it didn’t matter that he looked about 16. But here’s the thing: time stopped for Rishi Kapoor in the 1970s. He became so beloved as the teenage lover that well into the 1990s, now in his 40s and far more portly and teddy bear-like, producers still cast him as the young lover, taking him to a level of enforced juvenalia that even JM Barrie couldn’t have bettered for his Peter Pan.
So, it was a relief for Kapoor’s true fans when, in 2010, director Habib Faisal, cast him as a pot-bellied, scooter-riding, middle-class, mathematics teacher, Santosh Duggal in Do Dooni Chaar. The Kapoor scion eased himself into tight-fitted V-neck sweaters and the skin of the character with an effortless ease that left many gasping.
“After the movie released, Yash Chopra called up and started congratulating me. I thought it was for Ranbir’s performance in Rocket Singh, which had also just released. It was much later that I realised the he was saying all those nice things to me for my act in Do Dooni Chaar. He said he couldn’t believe I could play this middle-class man that convincingly,” says Kapoor with a sense of contentment dripping from his voice.
And then came Agneepath. It changed the world as we knew it! His Rauf Lala was an embodiment of pure, unadulterated evil. His kohl-laden eyes oozed malice. His smile, now purged of all its cuteness, had turned into a cold and stabbing smirk. This was the start of a whole new career for the 100-film-old hero – a career that belongs to Rishi Kapoor, ver. 2.0.
“I never did such roles earlier, simply because nobody offered me such roles,” says Kapoor of his new avatar, when we meet him in his Bandra apartment. “I was good at romancing heroines on the Swiss Alps while wearing those oversized jerseys. Nobody thought I could be good at doing anything apart from lip-syncing to songs.” And when he says ‘nobody’, Kapoor admits he also includes himself. His first 100+ films never flopped, and fans were still absolutely smitten by ‘chocolate hero’ image.
“But now, finally, I am allowed to act,” he says. “I am getting such roles and hence I am venturing out of my comfort zone and challenging myself. I don’t want to do formula films, I have had my share of that and I am done with it. Next I want to lose weight for a role,” says the veteran actor breaking into a hearty laughter as he plonks himself into an enormous, cushy recliner and calls for tea.
Kapoor has always played cute, he says, because he looks cute. “Maybe I didn’t inspire the directors enough to trust me with complex characters. Maybe I didn’t look mature enough to pull off such a role,” he says. “Bobby was a film about teenagers but after that, for almost two decades, the audience didn’t let me grow up, and maybe even I wasn’t that keen. I was always this teenybopper, the chhota bhai or a young lad. And that became a mould I couldn’t crack open and come out of.”
The New Avatar
But in the past six years he has experimented with diverse characters far more than he had in the previous four decades combined. And he refuses to be humble about how good he is.
“When I played the romantic lead, my acting was never panned, and now that I am experimenting with such distinctly different roles, people are loving those as well. I consider it quite an achievement,” says the actor taking a long sip of his tea. “I act because I cherish it. For me, it is my one great love. Acting is in my blood. I grew up in the middle of cinema. Even when I was a kid, whenever someone clicked pictures, I’d pose and make faces.”
Although markedly different from one another, Kapoor’s new roles are also fairly stock characters – the middle-class teacher, a gay man, a don, an eccentric grandfather. But in Kapoor’s hands they have never become caricatures. “There is a very thin line between playing a clichéd character and turning it into a caricature. I have always tried to walk the razor sharp edge, never indulging in the easy way out,” he says. “I make sure the audience does not laugh at the characters I play, but they laugh with them.”
The Heart of the Matter
But unlike many other actors, he doesn’t believe in ‘becoming’ the character or ‘living’ the character. “I try to look different. I try different kinds of roles. But it is the same human being who is acting those parts. So there will always be a bit of me in the characters I play,” says Kapoor emphasising that he is not a method actor, although he respects that school of acting. “Instead, I let my instinct plan the projection of the character. I will not live in a certain kind of atmosphere outside the sets to be the character. And I don’t think that makes me any less successful or effective as an actor.”
So, how does he build his characters then? Kapoor claims it’s quite simple. “For actors, the biggest weapon to get into the skin of a character is the memory bank. I still have a lot of unused material which I can utilise to create new characters. But writers need to come up with interesting roles,” he says.
Kapoor acknowledges that filmmakers these days are offering challenging roles and off-the-curve films are giving tried-and-tested masala films tough competition at the box office. “The autowallah films will always be there and they will always be the major chunk of the box office. But there is now an educated section in the audience who do not want to watch those dumbed down movies,” explains Kapoor.
But Kapoor never wishes to swap places with his son Ranbir, who is known for experimenting with his roles in non-formula films. “Main hero bana thha dhai rupay mein. India has developed in leaps and bounds and educated itself since. Cinema reflects society and it will keep changing with the society. What is revolution today will become everyday reality and eventually the formula. Then another ‘revolution’ will give birth to another different kind of cinema. What is important is to keep upgrading yourself with time,” he says adding that he will always remain a student of cinema. “Once and actor starts thinking that he has arrived, the show is over for him.”
The Naughty Grandpa in Kapoor & Sons
I thoroughly enjoyed playing the nonagenarian and I am pretty impressed with my performance. Many people on Twitter told me that I reminded them on their grandfather - that’s the kind of compliment an actor yearns for.
The director (Shakun Batra) was very categorical that he was dealing with serious issues and all the comic relief was to be provided by the grandfather’s character. But some emotional moments made the character humane. Every day, Batra and I fought on the sets. Not for creative reasons, but on how to execute the scenes. We both wanted the best results. It was a brilliantly written role. The dialogues did half my job and I after Greg Cannom created the makeup, I started feeling every bit of this 90-year-old grandfather.
There are people who didn’t realise till the end that it was me; then there were some who recognised my voice but thought I was just dubbing for the film!
The Don Reincarnated in D-Day
I tried a different look. People say it was a Dawood Ibrahim biography, but it wasn’t. It was inspired by a lot of real people. For me, such a role was a big departure from what I had previously done. I think I deserve credit not only for managing to pull it off, but also being appreciated for it.
Baddie Beginning in Agneepath
Who could have thought that I could do such a role with conviction? Much of the credit goes to Karan Johar and Karan Malhotra. They strongly believed that I could play a baddie. I was very unsure when I took up the role. But I put all my heart into it and perhaps that was reflected on screen. I experimented with my look and mannerisms, and it worked.
The Gay Professor in Student of the Year
It was all a lark. I had just finished Agneepath and Karan was working on his next project. There was this role of a principal - a fun loving guy who has the hots for the sports teacher. He had an emotional strain too. After playing a baddie in Agneepath, I wanted to do a fun role. And I thought this would be a good break. I was never scared of taking up a role. I am a brave-heart that way. For me there are no taboos.
The Middle-class Man in Do Dooni Chaar
I always wanted to play a typical Punjabi Delhi guy with canvas shoes, half-sleeve shirt, bushy moustache and a helmet. And when Habib Faisal narrated the role to me, it was just the same character. I couldn’t refuse! The way my hair was oiled and brushed, the canvas shoes, the bushy moustache and the helmet helped me create the interior of the character, which included my gait, mannerisms and way of speaking. I can’t speak fluent Punjabi, but I know the kind of Punjabi that Delhi guys speak. I go to Delhi pretty often and I have observed them closely. For actors, the biggest weapon to get into the skin of a character is the memory bank.
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From HT Brunch, December 18, 2016
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