I hate the "passes away" part of the headline. I hate that he was just "67". I hate that the headline calls him an "actor", when he was also a star, one of the biggest of his time, one of the few who thrived despite the Amitabh Bachchan onslaught. I hate that the headline associates him with "Bollywood". No! No! No! He was part of Hindi cinema before Hindi cinema became global, became branded, became "cool" and began to call itself "Bawl-y-wood". I hate that the headline begins with the word "veteran". If Rishi Kapoor is a veteran — sorry, was a veteran; we now have to begin thinking about him in the past tense — what does that make us Seventies-borns, who waited for Chitrahaar so we could see him and Neetu bounce about like bunnies fitted out with springs?
You know the song right? Ek main aur ek tu? If I'm thinking of a song, first thing, it's because — like his uncle Shammi Kapoor — Rishi was a great "song actor". He had rhythm in his blood, but it's more than just that he could keep step with his costar, an excellent "song actor" herself. Look at him here, all smiles, until he gets to the line "de mujhe / pyaar ka jawab pyaar se", around the 1:55 mark (video below) — the smile vanishes. For a few seconds, just those few seconds, he truly imbibes the spirit of that line, which says "love me back". When he brings his hands to his forehead and flings them aside, he could be rehearsing for the part of Majnu, who he'd play the following year, in Laila Majnu. And just as suddenly, the smile is back. What a pair Rishi and Neetu made. Of course they got married. Yeh to hona hi tha!
A list of famous Rishi Kapoor songs is its own Wiki entry, so I'm not even going to try. Highlights would include Taiyab Ali pyaar ka dushman from Amar Akbar Anthony, where Rishi's capacity to clown around was at its peak. Then, there was that phase where he grew pudgy and was basically a sweater with arms and legs, opposite a series of newer, and newer, heroines. With benign Casanova pride, he used to beam about the number of "firsts" he'd had. Many of these heroines vanished but Rishi kept going. One of my favourite semi-dance numbers of his is the gorgeous title song from Yeh Vaada Raha, where he romances a pillar. A song is something pitched at a hyper-real zone, and Rishi knew that zone like few other actors. He knew just how "real" to be, given that you're essentially moving around to the sounds of an invisible orchestra and mouthing lines sung by other people.
Naturally, he wasn't taken seriously at all. He was a baby face. He was good in those Bobby-type movies, which got a lot of money but little respect! He didn't brood like Bachchan, whose face was made for intense acting. People seemed surprised when they saw Rishi in films like Mulk and Aurangzeb. Indeed, something had changed. When he was younger, he was always a competent performer, and sometimes even a good one, but the roles he was typecast in and the assembly-line filmmaking of the time rarely let him break out and deliver anything radically new. Like any actor stuck with the "spontaneous performer" tag, he did the things that came spontaneously – everything was on the surface. Laughs and tears came a little too quickly. His lines burst out from the top of his head, as if he couldn't wait to leave for the next schedule in the next studio. But now, older and fleshier, he'd slowed down. We saw pauses, silences. He'd become the "Bollywood"-era definition of an actor.
But even when it was just "Hindi cinema", there were plenty of serious roles, and seriously worthy performances. Look how beautifully he plays the scene in Prem Rog, where his character gets married to the widow (and rape survivor) he loves. She's heard his life is in danger and she's come to warn him. She's distraught from the moment she barges into his room, as he's been sleeping. He, on the other hand, constructs an entire arc from "I've just been asleep" to "I'm still processing your request that I leave this village" "okay, you're serious"… (Listen to how he de-melodramatises a potentially melodramatic line like "Kaisi baatein kar rahi ho tum", which another actor may have delivered more sharply.) By the time he reaches her level of intensity, with the embrace at the end, it's the perfect segue to the intense scenes that will follow.
The industry may have (understandably) tried to box him, but Rishi Kapoor gave everything a shot. At the peak of the Parallel Cinema movement, when critical love was being lavished on Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah, Rishi was seen in Ek Chadar Maili Si, where he's forced to marry his brother's widow. The film was shocking in how it messed around with the cherished bhabhi-devar relationship of Hindi cinema. Or take Doosara Aadmi, where he becomes the object of affection of an older woman whose lover he reminds her of. It was the Lamhe of its day. Then, there was Saagar, where Rishi had the unenviable job of playing foil to Kamal Haasan, who got all the big scenes. Playing a foil without making the man a crashing bore is its own kind of acting.
But enough. It almost feels like we have to prove Rishi Kapoor's skills only by saying "he could also be Naseeruddin Shah". No, he frankly couldn't. But good acting isn't just good dramatic acting. There's also good comic acting, good star-turn acting, good romantic acting, and yes, good song acting. A favourite performance? I'd say the one in Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai. It's textbook "commercial-film acting".
Of course, the textbooks have changed today, when we seek more "realism" or "naturalism" or whatever — but watch this film, and you'll see what a natural Rishi Kapoor was. If nothing else, watch the blockbuster songs. In Poochho na yaar kya hua, during the mandolin part in the prelude, a man appears with a mandolin, as if on cue. Where did he come from? We didn't ask these questions then. Rishi grabs the instrument, plays a bit, and then, when the man insists on staying, he shoves him out of the frame. Even now, even with this huge sadness, I smiled when I saw this bit again. That's the Rishi Kapoor I'm remembering as I write this. He smiled on screen and the world outside became a little bit lighter. He gave us joy.