Rishi Kapoor obituary

<span>Photograph: Hindustan Times/Hindustan Times via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hindustan Times/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Rishi Kapoor, who has died aged 67 of bone marrow cancer, starred as a leading man in almost 100 Bollywood films and was a member of the remarkable Kapoor family of actors and film-makers.

The son of the great director, producer and actor Raj Kapoor, Rishi started as a child actor, aged three, in his father’s hugely popular film Shree 420 (1955). But his proper debut came in Raj’s 1970 film Mera Naam Joker, playing the younger version of his father’s leading role. Rishi said that his father only gave him the part as he was unable to pay for a recognised star, and the film was not a commercial success in any case. The movie that gave Rishi stardom was his next, Bobby (1973), the story of a love affair between Raja, a rich Bombay teenager, and a poor girl, Bobby, from the wrong side of the tracks, played by Dimple Kapadia. In the story, also directed by Raj, he was Hindu and she was Catholic, which was in itself a bold move.

Rishi Kapoor as the title character in his breakout film, Bobby, 1973, with Dimple Kapadia
Rishi Kapoor as Raja in his breakout film, Bobby, 1973, with Dimple Kapadia. Photograph: Dinodia Photos/Alamy

Despite this the film was a sensation, becoming hugely successful at the Indian box office and earning vast sums of money in the Soviet Union. It was said that more than 60 million people saw Bobby in the USSR and the film is regarded as one of the all-time Bollywood greats, regularly shown in cinemas and on television.

Rishi, who won the Hindi film industry’s Filmfare award for best actor for the role, was always a modest man and complained that the award was all very well but that it had cost him a considerable bribe to get it. Latterly he explained that he was never quite sure whether the money (30,000 rupees) was paid to the right person or whether it was a giant con. Nonetheless, he was now a major star and through the 1970s and 80s he appeared in dozens of films, including Kabhi Kabhie (1976), a romantic drama noted for its award-wining soundtrack, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), a comedy that makes a case for religious tolerance, and the reincarnation thriller Karz (1980), with its chart-topping, disco-inspired soundtrack. These were often shot simultaneously, which meant that, arriving on the set, Rishi had to enquire exactly who he was playing and what were the lines and songs he had to accomplish.

At the turn of the century he played character roles to acclaim in another series of successful films. He was honoured with the Filmfare lifetime achievement award in 2008, and went on to win the Filmfare critics’ award as best actor for Do Dooni Chaar (2010) and best supporting actor for Kapoor & Sons (2016). His last film appearance was in The Body (2019).

Born in Bombay (now Mumbai), to Raj and Krishna (nee Malhotra), Rishi, who attended Campion school in the city, and Mayo College, in Ajmer, Rajasthan, was destined for the movies. His grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor was a pioneer of Indian theatre and early cinema, and the father of the Bollywood greats Shammi and Shashi Kapoor, as well as Raj. Rishi’s uncles on his mother’s side, including Prem Nath and Prem Chopra, were actors, as are his brothers, Randhir and Rajiv. In 1974, while shooting the film Zehreela Insaan, he began dating his co-star, Neetu Singh, and they married in 1980.

If Rishi had the advantage of being from a glamorous family that commanded immense respect in the entertainment world over three generations, he made his way without expecting any favours. In recent years he was often in considerable pain from his illness, but retained his good humour. He was also never afraid to be controversial, often saying that religion and eating were separate from each other, which was why he was “a beef-eating Hindu”. This caused considerable outrage in some quarters. But he was a charming man and, though not a great actor, possessed charisma that almost always carried him through.

In a way, Rishi was representative of the old Bollywood that has now virtually disappeared in favour of an industry that espouses new techniques and more relevant themes. Yet nobody could claim him as an old-fashioned star. His progression from male leads to character studies was remarkable for a range that not only kept him his fans but constantly broadened his appeal. And it has to be said that few Bollywood stars were regarded with more affection.

He is survived by Neetu, their son, Ranbir, who is also an actor, and daughter, Riddhima, a granddaughter, and Randhir and Rajiv.

• Rishi Raj Kapoor, actor, born 4 September 1952; died 30 April 2020