Irrfan and Rishi – Dr Naazir Mahmood


Perhaps the two could not have more different backgrounds before entering the Indian film industry. Rishi had a rich endowment in performing arts inherited from his grandfather, father and older siblings. Their family history spanned at least 50 years going back to the early 20th century in theatre and silent cinema.

Irrfan was an absolute novice to the field without any family connections to promote him. Just equipped with a certificate in acting and his intense desire to make a mark as an actor. He had to make inroads into the film industry by his sheer persistence and talent. Irrfan toiled for at least 15 years before he could claim a successful film role, and in the next 15 years his presence resonated across the borders and overseas. It was a relentless pursuit of high quality performances that made him more of a great actor than a film star.

For Rishi it was stardom from the word go. Carrying acting in his genes and with guidance from his elders, it was a paved road for Rishi. The press was on his side from the beginning, projecting him as the next Kapoor star who had the potential to eclipse the earlier ones. His father, Raj Kapoor, was not only the director and producer of Rishi’s first film in a lead role, but also the mastermind of the media hype that was created before ‘Bobby’ hit screens in 1973. At age 21, Rishi was destined to be a heartthrob and a sensation for young cine goers. Irrfan was just six year old then.

With a simple teenage love story, what was it that made ‘Bobby’ a blockbuster of all times? To understand this, we need to look at a previous flop by Raj Kapoor, ‘Mera Naam Joker’ (1970). It is an interesting episode in which we learn how a masterpiece of creative genius by Khawja Ahmed Abbas and Raj Kapoor is rejected by the viewers who fail to appreciate the art and the message presented to them. K A Abbas was a senior writer with progressive credentials and Raj Kapoor wanted to direct the best film of his career penned by Abbas. Both yearned to educate and entertain viewers, but miserably failed, at least initially.

That’s how society forces creative people to bend their talent in favour of commercialism. ‘Mera Naam Joker’ was six years in the making with big names of Indian cinema and a staggering budget. Now, Abbas and RK joined hands again to quickly make a low-budget, run-of-the-mill sentimental melodrama based on the poor-rich motif. And what a big success it was! Becoming the highest grossing Indian film of the 1970s, only to be surpassed by ‘Sholay’ in 1975. It was the youthful beauty of a newcomer 16-year-old Dimple Kapadia in her debut role and a chick performance by Rishi Kapoor that recouped all the losses his father had made in his previous film.

In the Karachi of the mid-1970s – when this writer was still at school – one could not miss listening to melodious and provocative songs of ‘Bobby’ such as ‘Jhoot Bole Kawwa katey’, ‘Hum tum ek kamre mein band hoon’, ‘Mein shayar to nahin’, ‘Mujhe kuch kehna hai’. With lyrics by Anand Bakshi and music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, the songs took youngsters like me to another world. That was the time in Pakistan when music played in cafes, hotels, public transport, roadside workshops, and on radio at homes. My father bought our first tape recorder in 1976, prompting us to collect loads of audio cassettes.

Raj Kapoor had preferred Dimple Kapadia over Neetu Singh who was just 15-year old and who later became Rishi’s wife. Dimple in a surprise move married superstar Rajesh Khanna who was twice her age at that time and she left her promising acting career for the next 15 years till she got divorced. Rishi Kapoor and Dimple both won the Best Actor Filmfare Awards for their performances, but later Rishi confessed that he had paid a bribe to win the award for which Amitabh was also a favourite for his performance in ‘Zanjeer’.

After a couple of unsuccessful flicks, Rishi’s next blockbuster was ‘Laila Majnoon’ with Ranjeeta in 1976. In addition to Rishi’s brilliant performance, the film became a success thanks to the bright new face of Ranjeeta, and absorbing dialogues by Abrar Alvi – who had directed and written such masterpieces as ‘Pyaasa’ for Guru Dutt in 1957 and ‘Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam’ starring Meena Kumari in 1962 . Laila Majnoon finally established Rishi Kapoor as an excellent actor not only in India but he also developed a wide following in the then Soviet Union and especially in Central Asia where Nizami Ganjavi’s long Persian poem Layla Majnun from the 12th century is a household name.

Then he had another couple of flops to his credit before he could find his place in 1977 as one of the three male leads in ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ and ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ in which he was overshadowed by the likes of Amitabh, Shashi and Vinod. Again there was a list of unsuccessful movies where he played the male lead but could not pull off a success. ‘Sargam’ (1979) with the song Dafli waale dafli baja, and ‘Karz’ (1980) were solo successes but yet again a series of flops till he was placed as a third lead after Amitabh and Shatrughan in ‘Naseeb’ (1981).

In the 1980s, though Rishi Kapoor appeared in dozens of films and entertained millions of viewers, just two films deserve a mention here: ‘Prem Rog’ (1982) with Padmini and Shammi Kapoor, and ‘Ek chadar maili si’ (1986) with Hema Malini and Poonam. Both films revolved around strong social issues and taboos in Indian society. ‘Ek chadar maili si’ was based on a superb novelette by one of the greatest Urdu short story writers, Rajinder Singh Bedi. Set in a Sikh family in rural Punjab, the story is a masterpiece and gave Rishi Kapoor an opportunity to show the lighter side of his acting talent as opposed to the limelight of the commercial cinema he had been working for.

In the 1990s, his list of movies expanded but there was just one movie worth watching and that was ‘Damini’ (1993). And in that too Meenakshi dominates as the female lead but Rishi Kapoor also managed to give a good performance. During the last 25 years, his movies turned to comedy and did provide some entertainment and relief to viewers but there was none that could be termed a great movie with an outstanding performance. He was a lively person till his death and kept himself active by accepting roles that he liked.

Lately, he had also become conspicuous with his tweets. He longed for peace between India and Pakistan and expressed his desire to cross the border to see his ancestral places in Peshawar. He was beyond any prejudice and showed his love to all religions and ethnic groups. He talked fondly about his Muslim family friends such as K A Abbas and Yousuf Khan (Dilip Kumar) who was pretty close to his father Raj Kapoor. If you ask me about his best movies to watch, I would recommend ‘Damini’, ‘Ek chaddar maili si’, and ‘Prem Rog’.

In him we have lost a fine actor and entertainer who could have done much better by being selective in his choice of movies. During his prime time – from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, Amitabh and Shashi Kapoor dominated the Indian cinema and Rishi Kapoor somehow could not come out of their shadow. In the second part of this article tomorrow, we will discuss Irrfan Khan in more detail.

To be continued