December 2016, Mumbai: It's well past midnight. Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh emerge from their favourite Chinese restaurant to a dozen and more flashing cameras – journalists and camerapersons seeking a bite on his forthcoming autobiography and on Kareena Kapoor expecting her first child. Caught off-guard, my first exposure to the world of 'paparazzi', I don't know which way to look. All savoir faire, contented with the world around him as he always is after good food, Rishi Kapoor puts an arm around me, the other around Neetu Singh, and asks me to pose! And presto, the next day I am on leading film web sites and portals, savouring some star dust.
But the night is far from over. As we make our way back in their car, the stereo plays the evergreen 'Hum hai rahi pyaar ke' on 92.7. Soon enough, Rishi is humming along with the song. Sitting in the front seat next to the driver I get a glimpse of the man's love for music and why he managed to put that across to his fans in film after film – few actors in Indian cinema have been as good at acting out a song as Rishi. It's almost surreal – a balmy winter's night, empty roads, hazy neons, traffic lights on the blink … and Rishi Kapoor 'live' in a duet with Kishore Kumar, Neetu Singh seated next to him.
Suddenly, like one of those hoary Hindi cinema situations, the song sequence changes to high drama. Before we know it, we are being flagged down by the Mumbai traffic police. The driver had jumped a red light. Rishi, as is his wont, goes ballistic at the driver – and Rishi ballistic is as incredible a sight as Rishi singing. If Rishi and 'Hum hai rahi' was surreal, what follows is even more so.
Neetu, always the calming influence, pats Rishi on his hands and nonchalantly rolls down the window on her side. I have a feeling she knows what's going to transpire. A woman constable walks up to her side – another constable is already asking the driver for his papers – then stops short, and gasps, palm over her mouth, 'Aila! Neetu Singh!' Neetu gestures to Rishi to follow suit and he obeys, still grumpy. Another constable, but the same response! Before I know it, the star couple are outside, busy posing for selfies with the Mumbai traffic police. In another five minutes, we are on our way, the traffic misdemeanour forgotten!
Of all the memories of working on his best-selling autobiography Khullam Khulla – and there are many precious ones – this stands out for me, giving an insight into the enduring aura of the star couple and, at the same time, the utterly lovable everyday aspect of their life: singing along to a song on the radio, getting flagged down for speeding, and charming their way out of it…
The final manuscript came in for edits around October 2016 and the book was published in January 2017 – which gave us all of three months to bring out a book that took Meena (Iyer) and him five years to put together! Given his very committed personal involvement in what was clearly a passion project for him, it meant that I was spending more time with him in Mumbai – going over the text, adding anecdotes he would remember off the cuff, putting in new photographs (he would come across some rare ones shared by fans and WhatsApp them to me!), working on the pre-release publicity – than with my family.
In an unforgettable instance, I was in Hyderabad one Monday evening for the launch of another book, when I received an urgent call from him: "Shantanu, I need you to come over to Bombay tomorrow. There's something important I need you to see." Well, I had come to Hyderabad just for the night, had an important official meeting in Delhi the next day at 2, and was carrying no change of clothes. But try telling that to an animated Rishi Kapoor. So, off to Mumbai it was. And what a memorable and useful trip it turned out to be as Neetu and he took me to a rehearsal of his forthcoming stage show based on Khullam Khulla, watching which led us to add some wonderful titbits to the book. So what if I had to spend the next couple of days in the same set of clothes, my family back home wondering about my 'fatal' attraction for this charming star! And typically, when he met my family at the Delhi launch of the book, the first thing he told my wife was: "I know Shantanu's been coming to Bombay very regularly these days but don't worry, he isn't having an affair. I have taken care of that!"
Just about to board the flight from Mumbai, he called to say that he had heard of a Kolkata delicacy called 'jhal-muri' – how did one get that and would it be possible to carry some packets home for Neetu and his mother
And then the Kolkata Lit Meet. He had already expressed a desire to visit the famous Kali Ghat temple in Kolkata and I had made the necessary arrangements, with a lot of trepidation. Even without Rishi Kapoor around, Kali Ghat is a chaos of apocalyptic proportions. With him in the picture, I could only pray and leave it to the Goddess and Kolkata Police. Just about to board the flight from Mumbai, he called to say that he had heard of a Kolkata delicacy called 'jhal-muri' – how did one get that and would it be possible to carry some packets home for Neetu and his mother. So, there was I was giving him gyaan about this quintessential Bengali snack.
Later that day, a visit to the Kali Ghat – the authorities having cordoned off the area, so that I had the first unrushed clear view of the patron deity in my life. An elderly priest at the temple reminded him of Raj Kapoor's visit to the temple during the release of Mera Naam Joker and Bobby, with Rishi in tow for the latter! And on the way back, it took all the effort of Kolkata Police to ensure that the SUV he was travelling in didn't topple over with the jostling crowds which had gathered by now. Unfazed by it all, his first question after getting into the car was: "Now, where do I get some jhal-muri?" As he moved into his suite at the Taj, I ventured out in search of unadulterated roadside Kolkata jhal-muri for Rishi Kapoor.
If there's Rishi Kapoor, can food be far behind? Each of these trips was marked by memorable visits to the finest food outlets – sampling the best non-vegetarian local cuisine (often with the hotel band belting out his songs in the background). The only place where he had an upset stomach was Chennai – which he put down to having vegetarian food, coming as he was from a darshan at Tirupati!
In fact, on each of my visits to their home, the food was a major attraction, so much so that my colleagues half-suspected that I was going there for the food – the work, the edits, the book, only a pretext. It also provided me a glimpse of the legendary Kapoor hospitality. Not only was the food different and delectable each time, Rishi would personally call me the day before my arrival to check on what I would prefer to have. As they became aware of my sweet tooth, not one meal passed without some mouth-watering dessert. And if I didn't have the time for a meal, Neetu would make sure there was some exotic chocolate for me before I left.
The autobiography meant the world to Rishi Kapoor – I could make that out all through those months, in his almost childlike involvement, his sudden phone calls to check if an anecdote had been included, his worry if it was a story worth telling. It was. For me, the story of the making of the book was as important, not so much for being in proximity to an iconic star, but for the love and affection he showered as a human being. Thank you, sir, for the food, the fun, the stories and the music. It has been a privilege.