Director Karan Malhotra and wife Ekta Pathak were receiving guests at their wedding ceremony three years ago, when the young bride spotted Rishi Kapoor in the crowd. She leaned over to her husband and remarked, "There's Rauf Lala!" Malhotra was working on the screenplay of his debut film Agneepath (2012) at the time and was trying to find someone to play the venomous butcher, Lala, envisioned to be a "fat guy with a crew cut." He decided to act on his wife's brainwave, but Kapoor, a friend of the director's father (late Ravi Malhotra), proved a tough nut to crack. After three months, several earnest discussions and a look test, he accepted the role. It would go on to define his "second innings" in Bollywood.
Kapoor's famous sweaters of the 1980s, long outgrown, have been discarded. At age 60, Hindi cinema's erstwhile lover boy has turned to unusual costumes, among them grimy pathani suits, floral Goan shirts and gaudy blazers. He has also traded exotic locations for dowdier sites. Watching the cherubic actor spew lethal lines as fluently as he once mouthed romantic songs has been a pleasant shock for people of a certain generation.
His first instinct on being approached for unconventional roles was to turn them down, directors reveal. The parts offered were set in terrains unfamiliar to the veteran actor and he was afraid they would shatter his image. But slowly, an intrinsic excitement to try new things overpowered the reluctance. "I convinced him the thrill was that he didn't relate to the character," says Maneesh Sharma, whose new film, Shuddh Desi Romance, will show the actor playing a Marwari caterer.
The '70s and '80s did not yield enough opportunities for experimenting, Kapoor has said in earlier media interactions. As the industry and audience broaden their palate, he has warmed up to offbeat roles, taking them on with the enthusiasm of a sugar-hit child. Now whenever a role requires someone of his age, Kapoor is the first choice, says director Nikhil Advani. Kapoor's portrayal of Goldman, a villain based on Dawood Ibrahim, in Advani's D-Day has won critical acclaim. "For the four soldiers in my film to look heroic, the antagonist needed to be all power," says the film maker. "(Kapoor) achieved 50 per cent of that by working on the look and the way he carried himself. The rest of the magic was his acting and voice."
Kapoor prefers being a spur-of-the-moment actor. On the sets of D-Day, just before a shot, he would seek opinions from crew members about how he should hold a cigarette. "He is one actor who cannot be imitated," says Advani. His first or second take is usually his best, says Malhotra. Fellow director Sharma, who has mostly worked with young casts, praises his natural flair, "Here I had an actor who is supremely experienced and talented but he said: 'I'm going to be spontaneous with the role'."
In TV interviews too, Kapoor acknowledges, with Punjabi abandon, his indulgences such as heavy eating and drinking. Crew members who have worked with him say his gruff manner is intimidating. "He tries to scare people off but he is like a teddy bear. He can't harm anyone," says film writer Bhawana Somaaya. Kapoor, who is in Lucknow shooting for Sudhir Mishra's Mehrunnisa, also starring Amitabh Bachchan, declined our request to be interviewed.
While celebrating the star's new phase, Somaaya argues that one cannot dismiss Kapoor's romantic films as monotonous. "He has played a rich lover, a poor lover, a dancer, a singer, a depressed lover; he has loved two women, been loved by two women, he has romanced an older woman and has even played a lover seeking revenge." He had the looks of a prince, she says, and few in his time could dance and lip sync with as much flourish.
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Success came early for Kapoor, who as a teenager won the 1971 National Award for best child artist for a short role in Mera Naam Joker (1970). A few years later, his first lead part as an infatuated teenager in Bobby (1973) won him a Filmfare Award. The film, which was made to pay off the debts from Mera Naam Joker's failure, propelled him to fame. Kapoor, who was younger than most contemporary actors and actresses at the time, ended up being paired with 23 new faces. An early attempt at playing a role with grey shades in Zehreela Insaan (1974), however, failed to work at the box office, limiting Kapoor's repertoire to romantic characters.
At the time, the show was dominated by Bachchan. "He was the angry young man but Kapoor was always the great lover boy," says film critic Anupama Chopra. Among Kapoor's co-stars was Neetu Singh, whom he fell in love with and married. The duo star red in 11 films together. Film website - IMDB - throws up an interesting credit - Kapoor's stint as wardrobe designer in Bobby. He also starred in the low-budget English films Don't Stop Dreaming (2007) and Sambar Salsa (2007), directed by cousin Aditya Raj Kapoor.
His last role as conventional lead actor was in Karobaar: The Business of Love, which had a delayed release in 2000. Middle-aged, overweight and bored, Kapoor took a breather from acting. Thirty-five years and more than 100 films later, he received the Filmfare award for lifetime achievement in 2008. However, it is only after this that he resumed acting with fresh vigour.
On the sets of D-Day, Advani says Kapoor offered advice to fellow actors and even helped direct some scenes. On his own, he directed just one film, 1999's Aa Ab Laut Chalein. The lacklustre film was a result of family pressure to keep the RK banner going and his heart was not in the process, reveals film writer Somaaya.
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Like his brothers, Kapoor studied in Campion School but academics did not interest him. With his father, Raj Kapoor, he shared a respectful relationship, addressing him as 'sahab' on the set. It was over dinner one night that his father discussed launching Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker, which prompted the gawky teenager to skip to his bedroom and practise signing autographs.
Now, he confessed in a Filmfare interview, he no longer likes being recognised or indulging fans. He does not shoot beyond 6 pm. A family man, Kapoor is protective of his home and privacy. "Those are his priorities. He has maintained the old-world values," says actress Bhagyashree, whose family is close to the Kapoors. However, his marriage did face problems several years ago, and son Ranbir said he channels the intensity in his own performances from memories of his parents' loud arguments.
Kapoor's relationship with Ranbir is that of a father, not a pal. He is closer to daughter Riddhima. When his son decided to step into films, he urged him to study Indian cinema starting from the 1950s. Kapoor still oversees the financial negotiations for Ranbir's films. While he was not entirely impressed with some of his son's most successful films, he praised the 30-year-old's instinct in choosing roles.
As another indication of Kapoor's success, he has seemingly been saying no to more films than ever before. "I have more films than Ranbir. I'm having the time of my life," he told Chopra at an event. But unlike his son, the senior Kapoor's choices often include crowd-pleasing movies such as Housefull 2 (2012), Student of the Year (2012) and Chashme Baddoor (2013). "He is not a youngster constructing a career. So he doesn't need to be careful," Chopra points out.
Kapoor recently said that he did not want to be lost between his father Raj Kapoor, the eternal showman, and son Ranbir, the emerging superstar. "I had to reinvent myself to show that there's a link between the two generations," Kapoor told Filmfare. "It was important to make the younger generation discover me." Going by the healthy pipeline of his films, many with fledgling directors, it seems that rediscovery is well in motion.