The story of Rishi Kapoor is a love story: he was loved as the chubby and cherubic child star who morphed into an irresistible, indefatigable romantic lead in dozens of comedies, dramas, musicals and thrillers. He famously fell in love with his leading lady Neetu Singh, married her, appeared in dozens more love stories with Neetu on the big screen – and the public fell in love with them both. Then, as the 21st century brought a career shift into twinkly-eyed avuncular character roles (and occasional bad guys) the public fell for him all over again. His loss is an awful blow so soon after Irrfan Khan’s death and also the loss in 2018 of Rishi’s frequent co-star Sridevi.
Rishi and Neetu had a son who went into showbusiness, actor Ranbir Kapoor, and the Kapoor family is a legendary movie clan. Rishi’s grandfather was the actor Prithviraj Kapoor, his father was the formidable producer-star Raj Kapoor and the number of Kapoors in Bollywood is dizzying. Rishi is incidentally the nephew of Shashi Kapoor – and by that token, the nephew of Shashi’s wife Jennifer Kendal, sister of Felicity. Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter Shweta is married to Rishi’s nephew Nikhil Nanda. The Kapoors are virtually the royal family of Indian cinema.
Rishi first tasted stardom as a 16-year-old in his father’s four-hour epic Mera Naam Joker, or My Name Is Joker, in 1970, the Pagliacci-type story starring Raj as a sad circus clown. Rishi plays Raj’s younger self: a sweet, roly-poly boy who falls in love with his rather svelte teacher. The film did not do well financially but Rishi was an enormous hit with his dreamy face and blue eyes, and a persona that appealed to motherly instincts and romantic adoration.
In fact, Rishi never entirely lost the puppy fat in adult life: there was something sweet-natured, unthreatening and cuddly about him which audiences loved. He was also a superb natural dancer.
His first smash hit was Bobby in 1973, his first adult role, although he is still supposed to be a teenager. This was the Romeo and Juliet drama of a rich businessman’s son who falls in love with a girl called Bobby (played by Dimple Kapadia) who is the daughter of a poor Goan Christian. The image of him riding a Royal Enfield motorbike with Bobby riding pillion became an iconic image in Indian cinema, to compare with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on their Vespa in Roman Holiday.
He met Singh on the set of Zehreela Insaan, or Poisonous Human, in 1974 – a tragic melodrama with another star-crossed-lover theme: Singh played Margaret. The pair were reunited in Khel Khel Mein, or All in the Game, in 1975, a romantic thriller in which Rishi and Singh modelled some rather wackily behind-the-curve hippy clothes: flared jeans and big sunglasses. They were to marry in 1980. Rishi cemented his star status after this by co-starring with Bachchan in the chaotic, goofy action comedy Amar Akbar Anthony in 1977 and after this, Rishi made an impression in Karz in 1980, inspired by J Lee Thompson’s supernatural thriller The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. He also had a tragi-romantic role as a lover opposite Sridevi in Chandni, or Moonlight, in 1989.
As the years went on, Rishi kept playing romantic and dramatic roles in a rollercoaster career of hits and flops but was always cushioned by his popularity – which in later years he parlayed into a big social media presence. He stayed his cheerfully pampered and well-preserved self, while his leading ladies stayed the same young age.
In his silver years, Rishi allowed his talent for sentimental comedy to blossom and he acted in a number of heartwarmers. In Pyaar Mein Twist in 2005, he was reunited with Kapadia as a middle aged pair who fall in love because their children are getting married. In 2018, he starred again with Bachchan in the knockabout romp 102 Not Out, playing the grumpy, 76-year-old son of Bachchan who is supposed to be a perky 102. Even here, Kapoor is essentially playing the “younger” role.
He was the big-hearted, sweet-natured leading man with the benign air of an eternal juvenile lead who stole audience’s hearts. His death is another sad day for Indian cinema.