That Rishi Kapoor was a brilliant and prolific actor is an undisputed fact. In a career spanning 47 years, he acted in more than 150 films. Of these, around 37 to 40 films were either hits, super-hits, blockbusters or, at least, successful. In other words, his success ratio was about 25%. Bobby, Laila Majnu, Barood, Hum Kisise Kum Naheen, Amar Akbar Anthony, Sargam, Naseeb, Prem Rog, Coolie, Tawaif, Nagina, Sindoor, Chandni, Bol Radha Bol, Deewana and Damini were among his landmark films. Whether they were the aforementioned films, in which he tasted big success, or his other films which may not have proved to be hugely successful, his performance in every film was discussed with a lot of fondness. What better proof of his genius as an actor is needed than the fact that Rishi Kapoor bagged the National Award for the Best Child Actor for his performance in dad Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker in 1970.Before that, the only film in which Rishi was seen as a child actor was Shree 420 in 1955 when he was just three years old.
The number of leading ladies who were introduced opposite Rishi Kapoor would give the impression that Chintu, as he was affectionately referred to, had a unique fondness for new heroines. But the fact was that he was the one hero who never shied away from being cast opposite new faces. He also gamely took on acting assignments in women-oriented films, several of which even had heroine-centric titles. Not many heroes of his time, and even today, would be comfortable with signing on the dotted line for films with titles such as Bobby, Tawaif, Sindoor, Chandni, Bol Radha Bol and Damini. But Chintu not only signed such films but also made his mark in those women-oriented dramas. If Rishi Kapoor sportingly acted in films with ladies-oriented titles and/or subjects, he was also never shy of sharing screen space with top actors of his time, like Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna. He probably had so much confidence in his talent that such things never really bothered him. And he may not have been wrong in his choices because whether his films were hits, blockbusters or even non-performers at the box-office, people invariably praised his acting. However, this may have been the reason why, as many opine, Rishi Kapoor never got his due as an actor. A lot of people in the trade as well as among the general public feel, Chintu’s success in terms of box-office revenues garnered by his films and awards he was presented did not match his talent.
Actually, there could be other reasons for people feeling so. With titles of his films such as Bobby, Damini, Sindoor, Tawaif, Chandni, Henna and Bol Radha Bol, the human mind would tend to believe that the central character in those films would’ve been the heroine rather than the hero (Rishi Kapoor). That may have been the case but it cannot be denied that Rishi never let down his fans in those films too. There were also films like Nagina, Naseeb Apna Apna and Prem Rog, in which the leading ladies (Sridevi, Radhika and Padmini Kolhapure respectively) did have roles which were equally meaty or even meatier. In fact, it is also well-known that Rishi is the hero who has acted with the maximum number of new heroines. Dimple Kapadia, Ranjeeta, Shoma Anand, Kajal Kiran, Jaya Prada, Radhika, Sonam, Vinita Goel, Sangeeta Bijlani, Bhavna Bhatt, Zeba Bakhtiar, Tabu (her first release was Pehla Pehla Pyar, starring Rishi Kapoor, and not Prem which she signed first), Padmini Kolhapure (full-fledged role in Prem Rog and Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai, both opposite Rishi), Naseem and Ashwini Bhave were all introduced as leading ladies opposite Chintu.
He also worked in films like Amar Akbar Anthony, Coolie, Naseeb etc., co-starring none other than superstar Amitabh Bachchan. The fact that Amitabh Bachchan rose like a phoenix at the same time as Rishi Kapoor’s star was on the ascendant must have also come in the way of Rishi getting his due. Another reason could have been Rishi’s chocolate boy looks. His cute face and persona made him such a darling of the audience that his biggest asset — his face — also became his biggest liability, in a manner of speaking. For, going by his face, it became almost impossible for the audience to imagine that Chintu could play any other role than a lover boy. His versatility was never allowed to come to the fore as what preceded that were his cute lover-boy looks. People assumed, he could not play a street-smart boy, a cunning romantic, a manipulative lover. Even otherwise, during the time Rishi played lead roles, filmmakers played it safe by casting heroes only in roles they had successfully played. Stereotypical movies with the usual hero/es, heroine/s, songs, dances, romantic scenes, emotions and, in the case of action films, stunts were the order of the day. Hence, Rishi worked in mainstream formulaic films and hardly got a chance to experiment with his roles or characters on screen. Aamir Khan could’ve also got stuck in the groove of playing lover-boy roles had he not attempted something radically different in John Mathew Mathan’s Sarfarosh. And since Mathan was a debut-making director, a lot of the credit for the film’s success went to Aamir. Not just that, after Sarfarosh, the chocolate-faced Aamir Khan came to be viewed as a hero who could deliver in non-romantic roles too. Rishi Kapoor may not have taken such risks and, frankly, in those days, filmmakers did not believe in letting heroes experiment. Could you imagine an A-list hero playing a pot-bellied middle-aged father of three daughters, like Aamir Khan played in Dangal just four years ago?
Talking about experimenting with roles, an incident that comes to mind about Rishi Kapoor is worth mentioning here. Years ago, K.C. Bokadia, who was yet to taste success of any kind, approached Rishi Kapoor to play the lead man in his Pyar Jhukta Nahin. It was a family film with a story about marital discord. Chintu did not like the story and politely refused without telling producer Bokadia that he did not approve of the story. But a persistent Bokadia kept pestering Rishi every few days. Sick and tired, Chintu suggested to Bokadia that he try narrating the subject to Mithun Chakraborty who, he (Chintu) knew, was not doing too many films. In spite of Mithun not having the image of a family-film hero, K.C. Bokadia heeded Chintu’s advice as he did not have much choice. An almost out-of-work Mithun jumped at the offer and signed Pyar Jhukta Nahin opposite Padmini Kolhapure. The rest, as they say, is history. The film went on to become the year’s biggest blockbuster and the tune of its super-hit song, Tumse mil kar, na jaane kyun, aur bhi kuchh yaad aata hai, yaad aata hai, became the signature tune of the newly-started Super Cassettes music company. It would not be wrong to say that Super Cassettes was established on the strength of that singular song. Rishi Kapoor used to often say, “It’s nonsense when any star tells you that he signs films after listening to scripts. No star has script sense. If I had the so-called script sense, would I have let a potential blockbuster like Pyar Jhukta Nahin go to another actor? The fact is, nobody can say, what will work with the public. We pretend to know all and, therefore, want to hear scripts before signing films but the truth is something else. Humein story sun ne ki tameez nahin hai!”
Chintu shifted to character roles when he no longer remained young enough to run around trees singing sweet nothings to new leading ladies. But his performances continued to be praised to the skies, whether in Agneepath or Do Dooni Chaar (in which he played the central character) or the more recent Kapoor & Sons and102 Not Out (in which he teamed with Bachchan 27 years after their last outing together, Ajooba).
A widely-held belief about Rishi Kapoor’s Karz is that it was a hit but the truth is that Subhash Ghai’s reincarnation film with super-hit music proved to be a box-office dud. In Ghai’s own words, “People never understood that my Karz was a reincarnation film, they could not understand that Rishi Kapoor was born again. This was because in the previous birth, we had cast Raj Kiran. So the point about reincarnation (which was the crux of the film) was lost on the audience. For the Hindi film-going public, as we learnt after this film flopped, a reincarnation film must have a double role.” Interestingly, years later, Bhushan Kumar actually acquired the remaking rights of Karz from Subhash Ghai for a reported price of — hold your breath — Rs. 5 crore! Like many among the public, even Bhushan Kumar was under the impression that Karz was a hit. He didn’t know, only its music was super-hit, the film was not even an average grosser. Anyway, Ghai was destined to earn from the Rishi Kapoor starrer — if not from the box-office, at least many years later, from an uninformed producer. Rishi Kapoor’s Karz was not to be a curse for its maker.
Chintu’s wife, the very affable Neetu Singh Kapoor, fondly called him Bob. One remembers an incident when Chintu and Neetu were seeing each other. They had decided to get married and Neetu was in the process of completing her films before quitting the acting profession. (Years later, she made a few exceptions and donned the grease paint for films like Love Aaj Kal,Do Dooni Chaar, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Besharam and Sanju.) Chintu was a very concerned boyfriend who would every evening telephone Neetu to find out if she had reached her home safely. One random day, Neetu got late at work and realised that she wouldn’t reach home that evening by the time he would call. Not to complicate matters (which would happen if Chintu repeatedly called on her phone), she asked her maid to keep the phone receiver off the cradle. That way, she thought, Chintu would assume that Neetu was home and was busy chatting with a friend. In those days, there were no mobile phones, so the easiest way to avoid an expected call was to keep the receiver off the hook. Neetu called her maid from the studio and told her, “Sun, main aaoon tab tak phone neeche uttha ke rakh dena.” On reaching home, Neetu rushed to the living room to find that instead of the receiver, the maid had quite literally kept the entire phone instrument neeche, down on the carpeted floor. The actress didn’t know whether to laugh or to fire the maid for her stupidity. The clincher came when the maid told Neetu, “Aap ne kahaa, phone neeche rakh dena toh maine rakh diya. Sahab (Rishi Kapoor) ke bahut phone aaye thhey, maine baar-baar bola ki memsaab abhi tak nahi aayi hai.”