It was on March 11 that he had tweeted, “Whatever happened to your threat of coming over?” That threat couldn’t be carried out, amidst the lockdown. Over the phone, he had then asked solicitously, “How are you doing buddy? If you need anything just WhatsApp.” I had joked that I could do with a bottle of wine to which he had chortled, “You still drink that piss? Just send someone over, your wish granted.”
Now how to send someone, anyone, to Wit’s End, the apartment block in Bandra, where he lived in a penthouse, waiting for his Pali Hill bungalow to be redeveloped, into a sky-rise? In any case, Rishi Kapoor, 67, was scheduled for a spate of hospital check-ups the next morning. His last words to me were:
"“Keep in touch KM. Will let you know what’s happening.”"
Today, the morning news announced that he had breathed his last in a hospital. Go, go to the comp and start writing your tribute, I told myself, fighting back tears. Two or three calls came from media houses, “Sorry to bother you, but could you…?” Instinctively, something within me cautioned, you’ll never be able to do him justice, to an actor and friend who’s never let you down, in fair or foul weather.
Yet another voice said, no you at least you have to try. So where do I begin and end? Damn you tears, be the buddy to Chintu bhai that you were, you can’t reach his funeral rites, bid alvida in the words you can summon. Do it. At least, if he’s somewhere up there, he could just guffaw, “I couldn’t give you the wine, iss liye your piece is sounding so bloody dry.”
And I’d smile back wanly, because his put-downers were elocuted with infinite love and warmth. Politesse was not for him, reserved solely for those senior to him.
“What’s your age?” he’d snap. To the reply, he’d scowl, “Go tell it to the Marines! Tu toh saala has been writing for so many years. You must be as old as my grandpa. Anyway, Neetu and I will always have a complaint against your Damini review. Do you know how difficult my role was (the husband of a victimised woman in a joint family)? But all of you so-called critics raved about Sunny Deol because it was more showy. See it again.”
After one more of such squelchers, Chintu bhai had invited me to his Krishnaraj bungalow on Pali Hill, for dinner. “I know it’s your birthday, spend it with us.” But…I had procrastinated. On landing at the bungalow, to my eternal gratitude he had organised a surprise party, topped by Italian cuisine and chianti. A dozen of my closest friends in journalism were there already. His pet dog, Dudley, milled around. The star’s faithful secretary Shantiji, with Napoleonic curls falling on his forehead, exhorted, “Jaiye, jaiye, you are being awaited.”
A chocolate cake with merely 18 candles were lit, my dank eyes suddenly resembled a deer’s caught in a car headlights. My eyes welled up as they would often by his kindness.
And he switched on the stereo in his den, which blared out the Beatles classic ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’. A bottle of Bordeaux was proffered, “You have to kill it” he insisted. I couldn’t, he handed the remnants to my household help driving my car that evening and commanded, “Make him finish the stuff over the Worli-Bandra Sea Link.”
So many awww moments with Chintu bhai – he didn’t like being called Chintu. ‘Why don’t you just call me Rishi instead… what sort of a name is Chintoooo?’ – that I can barely empty them from my depleting memory file. The start-off one, if may call it that, was at a Coimbatore Dockyard Road Station where Yash Johar-Ramesh Talwar’s Duniya was being filmed. Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar were on location. Rishi Kapoor would neither smoke a cigarette (his brand Silk Cut, which he quit over a decade ago, incidentally) nor accept a beer can to mitigate the heat under the scorching sun. Curiously, his first question to me was, “Our movie stories are always in a groove. I just have to make faces before the camera…well, so what do you opine?” Opine? Now where did he get that heavy-duty word?
To that he retorted, “Oho, I haven’t read a single book in my life. I was pretty good in my English lit classes though at school (Campion). At the final exams I got so carried away with the essay that I didn’t touch the rest of the questions. In the good old Kapoor tradition, I could never complete my studies. Films are in our bloodstream, so what do you expect?”
While at school he had fallen obsessively in love with a girl from a conservative Parsi family. He was rejected when Stardust magazine carried an article that he was dating his Bobby heroine Dimple Kapadia.
He would despatch lengthy telegrams to his first love, never to receive an answer. When he told me that, I cajoled him into co-writing a theatre musical titled Rishi. The script was almost completed on the Coonoor sets of Kapoor & Sons.
The budget allocated by the NCPA for the play was paltry though. “No issues,” he had shrugged. “We’ll get financiers or I’ll bankroll it myself.” The project began fading once he was diagnosed with blood cancer and rushed to New York. During his year-long hospitalisation, he would message, “Not to worry. We’ll do it. You get your arse moving, complete the ending and email it to me.”
Oh Chintu bhai, what can I say to that? But express my gratitude for your faith in me. Just like you did, on accepting a cameo in my film Tehzeeb, going to the extent of calling up your regular bespoke designer, Kachins, to give me a hefty discount. “I’m playing a rich guy aren’t I? I can’t possibly be seen in striped cotton shirts.” The four-day shoot with him was a delight, he would create his own moments, like breaking into cool moves to a remixed track of Elvis Presley’s ‘Jailhouse Rock’. Needless to add, he returned the cheque for his participation, assuring me, “When I work for the first time with a director, it’s for free. Now make a second film fast and I’ll charge you a bomb.”
Over time, Chintu bhai remained Chintu bhai. Unaltered, whether I was occupying a chair as an editor of a publication or jobless. And he would always be disparaging about awards, “Do you know I had to pay to win my first Filmfare Award for Bobby? Nowadays, of course, awards are given just for showing up at the event or performing on stage.”
Take it easy bhai, I’d go, don’t get too antsy in Twitter, and keep your thoughts to yourself. “No way! Even Neetu tells me that. But I live in a democracy,” he’d riposte. “If I’m trolled I just block those who have a problem.”
Pragmatic and yet deeply emotional, he called me over one afternoon to disclose that the Raj Kapoor family had jointly decided to see the hallowed R.K. Studio. Uncharacteristically subdued, over coffee, he said that it was no longer financially viable to maintain the studio which his father had built. Mostly TV series were being shot there, which couldn’t afford the regular charges. Moreover, the huge stock of R.K. memorabilia had been gutted in a fire outbreak.
His brothers Randhir and Rajiv and mother Krishna, who was alive then, had taken the decision after many agonising discussions. He had hoped the iconic R.K. entry gate would be preserved and perhaps a cinema multiplex could find a spot with the sprawling compound.
Addicted to listening to yesteryear songs, most of them from R.K.films, Chintu bhai would watch TV, ensconced in a study where Black Label scotch was his pet poison.
“I’m warning you,” he had stated. “After returning from New York, where I would lose my patience like a kid, you may be find me boring company. Green tea ya coffee for me, tere liye sab kuchh haazir hai.” Yeah, I’d sulk, but I will always hold something against you, you didn’t allow me to write your autobiography (Khullam Khulla). Does anyone know you better than I do? His face would turn red, “Forget all that, the trouble is that you know too much. And if you wrote something that I would be embarrassed about, we’d end up fighting. I’d rather have you as a friend than a biographer.” Unsurely, I’d end the topic with a fair enough.
Rishi Kapoor wouldn’t talk at length about his father, I had detected, except to cite the incident when he had showed up late, punch-drunk, and didn’t know whether he was coming or going. The next morning, Chintu bhai woke up next to his father cuddling him. As a director, he’s describe R.K. as a tough disciplinarian, pulling him up whenever he gave a dissatisfactory take for Mera Naam Joker, Bobby which revived the fluctuating fortunes of the banner, and Prem Rog.
As the quintessential lover boy hero, he faced the mandatory highs and lows of hits and flops. Yet, nothing devastated him more than the comme ci comme ca performance of Karz at the ticket windows. It seems Karz was faring well but then Feroz Khan’s Qurbani decimated its collections.
“I don’t know what happened to me. I was so depressed, hit the bottle, it took me quite some time to understand that’s the way it is in showbiz.”
He was the one actor who had no qualms about pairing up with debutant heroines. If he’d bring up his movies he was fond, apart from the R.K. productions they were Laila Majnu, Raffoochakkar Sargam, Doosra Aadmi, Kabhi Kabhie, Chandni, Amar Akbar Anthony, Coolie and Naseeb and even the little-known Khoj with Naseeruddin Shah in which he played the baddy. “I suppose the audience liked to see me as a good guy, chalo theek hai. Maybe that’s why your artwallahs never approached me. I wouldn’t be able to have looked like a starving peasant in a Shyam Benegal film, would I?” The oddest piece of casting, he felt, was portraying a fiendish terrorist in Manoj Kumar’s Jai Hind. “But then one couldn’t say to Manojji, toh kar liya aur flop bhi ho gayee.”
A lull in his career was followed by a strong line-up of films, which showcased his skills as a character actor, especially in Do Dooni Char, D-Day, Kapoor & Sons, 101 Not Out and Mulk.
Rishi Kapoor was chuffed about returning to the field, and being restless, had accepted another fistful of assignments.
If you ever brought up Ranbir Kapoor in a conversation, the response would be, “Don’t ask me, ask him,” and yet go on to suggest that Jr should be seen in more commercially-viable movies instead of experimenting with the likes of Bombay Velvet.
Rishi and Neetu Kapoor Singh made for the ideal Bollywood star couple, always admitting that they had faced at least one major rocky phase.
To his buoyant personality, she’s the calm and collected one. And yes, both had approved of Alia Bhatt as their daughter-in-law. When’s the marriage then, I’d want to know. To that the answer was a roll of the eyes, saying, “That’s up to them, isn’t it?”
Somehow I’ve reached the penultimate paragraph of my epistle to Rishi Kapoor. Some readers may find their favourite Chintu film missing from, I apologise, I can’t, just can’t conjure up a listicle. There’s too much of Rishi Kapoor within my heart and mind, for the gift of laughter and tears, he imbibed in us. As for that departing tweet, “Whatever happened to your threat of coming?”
I’m certain that you wouldn’t want a friend to cry. You’d be embarrassed silly. But right now, buddy, tears are all I have.
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