1973 was a watershed year for Bollywood. The 'Khanna' tsunami which had swept the nation for four years was on the wane. In May 1973, Amitabh Bachchan's 'Zanjeer', directed by Prakash Mehra, hit the screens and the 'Angry Young Man' prototype landed a brutal punch to a tottering Rajesh Khanna.
Then came Raj Kapoor's 'Bobby' in September and gave the country its new teenage icon Rishi Kapoor who oozed innocence and sprightly charm. Suddenly Khanna seemed too jaded and cantankerous to be an ideal lover boy.
'Bobby' became one of the biggest blockbusters of Indian cinema and a 20-year-old Rishi took over the mantle of a 'lover boy' from Khanna, effectively pushing the reigning superstar of the country to the periphery.
The 'Angry Young Man' prototype heralded by ‘Zanjeer' went on to dominate the silver screen and Box Office for the next 15 years. Accompanying him was the ‘He-Man’ Dharmendra who was a bridesmaid to Bachchan in the pecking order of stardom. As the guns blazed and tempers soared, Rishi remained the sole beacon of romantic sheen, musical mosaics and lilting love in Bollywood. While the audience got adrenaline and high-octane intensity from the 'Angry Young Man', they invariably turned to a 'boy' to have their fill of light-hearted fun and romance.
Rishi, the son of a showman Raj Kapoor, remained relevant as a Box Office star for nearly 20 years, 1973 to 1993. His period of commercial saleability coincided entirely with the megastar Amitabh Bachchan whose untammelled clout as a leading man also lasted for nearly 20 years - starting from 'Zanjeer' in 1973 till 'Khuda Gawah' in 1992.
Keeping himself commercially viable and popular for nearly 20 years in the face of Bachchan mania was no mean feat. But, so enamoured was the media and trade, in particular, by Bachchan that Rishi's Box Office longevity and prowess were often either under-appreciated or put in the shade. While his acting finese and charming screen presence were universally lauded, he was never hailed as a massive Box Office draw or a superstar.
Throughout the 1970s, after 'Bobby', Rishi appeared in a spate of big hits such as 'Rafoo Chakkar', 'Khel Khel Mein', 'Laila Majnu', 'Hum Kisise Kun Naheen', 'Sargam' and 'Amar Akbar Anthony'. In most of these films, barring 'Amar Akbar Anthony', Rishi was either a solo lead or the main lead. One can either cavil that he largely limited himself to one-dimensional role, that of a cherubic lover boy, or marvel at the fact that at the time when action potboilers were the flavour of the season, Rishi swam against the tide and kept the flames of impish romance burning.
Interestingly, while Khanna, Dharmendra and Bachchan dominated the 1970s with a slew of blockbusters, it was Rishi who reeled off the biggest solo hits of the decade, be it ‘Bobby’, ‘Laila Majnu’ (1976) or ‘Sargam’ (1979). 1970s was a decade of big-budget multi-starrers and Rishi also starred in many of them which struck gold at the Box Office, but it was his excellent record in solo-hero films which set him apart. Even Bachchan didn’t have as many huge solo grossers as Rishi in the 1970s.
In the early 1980s, though Rishi deliverd a gigantic solo superhit - 'Prem Rog' - he mostly had to contend himself to playing second fiddle to Bachchan in films such as 'Naseeb' and 'Coolie'. Subhash Ghai's 'Karz', released in 1980, came a cropper at the turnstiles, but has now become a cult film among youngsters.
While Bachchan contiuned to rule the roost in the 1980s, Jeetendra also made a splash with social dramas such as 'Tohfa', 'Himmatwala', 'Maqsad', 'Justice Chaudhary' etc. Mithun Chakraborty made his mark with corybantic musical entertainers. Meanwhile, Rishi endured a rought patch between 1984-88 when most of his film flopped unceremoniously including the much-hyped 'Saagar' (1985).
New stars on the block - Sunny Deol, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shorff and Sanjay Dutt - also added to his cup of woes. Sunny and Anil, in particular, had a pretty good run at the ticket counters in the late 1980s and were considered the prime contenders to dethrone the ageing Bachchan.
His only major hit during the period was 'Nagina' (1986) for which Sridevi walked away with most of the credit. Yash Chopra's musical 'Chandni' (1989) broke the dry spell for Rishi as well as for the veteran director who had been delivering flops afer flops in the 1980s.
In the early 90s, he delivered hits such as 'Bol Radha Bol', 'Damini' and 'Deewana', which was Shah Rukh's debut film, but the litany of duds also flowed in. As he had pushed Khanna to the periphery in 1973, the emergence of Khan trio - Aamir, Salman and SRK - hastened his amble into the sunset as a leading actor in the mid-90s. Khans rode the resurgent wave of romantic films in the 1990s and reaped windfall.
As his girth swelled and body ballooned after he turned 40, his fortunes started plummeting rapidly. His career as a leading star ended with bummers such as ‘Anmol’, ‘Gurudev’, 'Yaarana', 'Saajan Ki Baahon Mein', 'Izzat Ki Roti', 'Prem Granth', 'Prem Yog' and 'Daraar'.
In the latter half of his career, when he started taking up interesting character roles, he whipped out sterling perfromances in films such 'Hum Tum', 'Love Aaj Kal', 'Namastey London', 'Do Dooni Chaar', 'Agneepath', ‘Mulk’ and 'Kapoor & Sons'.
While his career conincinding with that of a Bachchan is one of the reasons behind him not getting his due as a Box Office star, another one could be that he played supporting roles in movies starring top-tier stars such as Bachchan, Dharmendra & Jeetendra and hence they got lion's share of credit for successful films.
From Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Vinod Khanna to Sunny, Mithun and Anil, all were posited as a potential threat to the ruling deity Bachchan at different points between 1973-1992, but Rishi’s name wasn’t spoken in the same breath as them. He was never a serious contender to a no.1 position at any point despite his longevity, monumental solo hits and appreciable consistency.
However, keeping the nation hold onto the beauty of romance and music for 20 years amidst the guns, gore and gloom is the compelling enough reason for him to be qualified as one of the most bankable stars of his era. He radiated distinct aplomb and zestful mannerisms in this solo films - 'Bobby', 'Sargam', 'Prem Rog’, ‘Chandni’ - and added his light, insouciant touch to multi-starrers. Many of his movies & songs have stood the test of time and are readily lapped up.
And the women of any generation, young or old, never stopped swooning over him. Not even after he has breathed his last.