“Curiously As I Got Older, The Offers Kept Getting Better” – Rishi Kapoor On His Second Innings
Excerpted from Khullam Khulla by Rishi Kapoor with Meena Iyer, where the superstar talks about his second – and extremely successful – outing in Bollywood as a character actor.
There’s a huge difference between what I was and what I am, and I’m not talking about my weight. In my former avatar as Rishi Kapoor the romantic hero, I never had to do any homework. For the first twenty-five years of my career, I got by without having to do any preparation whatsoever for a role. And it wasn’t just me, none of the leading men in the 1970s and ’80s had to, or ever did. So when I hear that Ranbir is attending a workshop before starting a film or flying off to New York for acting lessons before he can play a hearing- and speech-impaired man in a film, it’s an alien concept for me. I’m not against it, I’m just not used to it.
But what I didn’t do as a lead actor, I have had to do as a character artiste and I have to confess I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My life as a character actor began as I was completing the only film I ever directed – Aa Ab Laut Chalen. It didn’t do too well. Directing a film is a thankless job and for a person like me, a perfectionist, I find it very tiring. In times to come, I will definitely direct again but I am at my best in front of the camera. So I said yes to Veeru Devgan’s offer to do a character role in Raju Chacha and then my friend Rahul Rawail’s Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi. A steady stream of extremely interesting characters came my way after that, and all the films did well.
One of the first roles I had to prepare for was that of Rauf Lala in Agneepath, a dark, evil character mired in the drug and prostitution business. I was, and still remain, humbled by the faith that producer Karan Johar and his young director Karan Malhotra had in me, the quintessential singing-dancing romantic hero. Needless to say, I was totally unprepared for it when they approached me. It took a lot of coaxing for me to agree to do the role. It was beyond anything I had ever imagined I would be asked to do. To even associate Rishi Kapoor with a baddie required a fertile imagination. Casting me as the uncouth Rauf, and pitting me against Sanjay Dutt who played the central villain, Kancha Cheena, was a masterstroke by the two Karans. There was no Rauf Lala in the original screenplay, it was a later addition, and with no reference points it was a real challenge for me. But it gave a sparkling new dimension to the film. My look, with kohl-rimmed eyes, helped me immensely in playing a crude man in the slave trade. The karakul cap and traditional kurta-pyjama were touches my director and I conceived together. I worked hard to transform my former soft image, including my body language and acting style. I even injured myself quite badly during the fight scenes, but I was so caught up in my character, I barely noticed and continued without breaking for first aid. I had to convince the audience that this was one evil bloke and it gave me a lot of satisfaction to know that I pulled it off.
I also played a baddie, a corrupt-to-the-core cop, in Aurangzeb, which I count as one of my finer performances. It remains a greatly underrated film, a gritty and realistic cop-and-mafia drama set in Gurgaon, which deserves a wider audience. Since the film failed at the box-office, few saw my work in it.
Another role that was a sharp variant from my popular image as a romantic hero was my character in Do Dooni Chaar. It wasn’t just that I had to play someone older in years but the look of the character was completely novel for me too. My initial thought was that I looked too well-fed and khaate-peete ghar se to pull off the role of a middle-class person who had to struggle to buy even a small car. However, Habib Faisal was confident of my abilities as an actor and that paid off. My characters in Do Dooni Char, where I played a middle-class schoolteacher, D-Day, where I played an underworld don (rather like Dawood Ibrahim), and Kapoor & Sons also tested my mettle as an actor. A lot of homework went into each of these roles, including multiple discussions with my directors on the character, and they have caused me to change my approach to my work. I also dubbed differently when I played these roles.
In Kapoor & Sons, I played a ninety-year-old grandpa who is a bit of a pervert but the heart and soul of the film. It took me four to five hours every day for the makeup alone. Karan Johar spared no expense and engaged American makeup artist Greg Cannom, whose credits include his incredible work on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, along with Logan Long and my personal makeup man Pappu Gondane and the makeup team of Dharma Productions. My makeup alone cost a whopping ₹2 crore.
Shooting for the film, which took place in Coonoor, wasn’t an easy task. I completed my work in it in approximately twenty-six days and there wasn’t a single day when I didn’t argue and fight with my director Shakun Batra. We argued because I couldn’t agree with his method of working.
You see, I’m a drinking man. And yet every morning, I was up at 5.30 a.m. From 6 a.m. I was in the makeup chair with Greg working on my face. Once the prosthetics were done, I could scarcely recognize myself. At 12 p.m. I would report for work. And then the actual drill would begin. Shakun wanted to cover every shot from many different angles. But I am an old-school actor. I respect all schools of acting but my strength is spontaneity. I couldn’t recreate the same expression for all the shots. In fact, with every successive shot, I lost my verve. I found myself getting restless as the same shot was taken from different angles. This new practice of capturing a single shot from several different angles has gained acceptance because, in the digital era, there is no fear of raw stock being wasted. But I could not shake off the feeling that it turned actors into robots. However, once the film was released and the accolades poured in – the latest being the Screen award and the Stardust award for best supporting actor – I had to concede that my anger was misplaced and there was merit in what Shakun did. I admitted as much to both Karan Johar and Shakun.
Curiously, as I got older, the offers kept getting better. Many of the films didn’t fare well but I began to enjoy an unexpected benefit of being a character actor – I no longer had to shoulder the responsibility for making a film work at the box-office. That was the leading man’s burden. Instead, I could simply enjoy working in the film and the appreciation that came my way for the performance.
As a lead actor, the characters written for me were always wealthy lover boys and I insisted on scenic locations and good- looking lead actresses. Nobody ever offered me any poverty-stricken roles. Stories revolving around poverty and distress were meant for film-makers who made art-house cinema. I belonged to the glitzy world of mainstream, commercially viable cinema where everything was lavish and beautiful. In the popular cinema of my time, it was Amitabh Bachchan who got to play the downtrodden common man, not I. I was always the rich man you could fantasize about. And even in films where I didn’t play a rich person, I always got to wear fancy clothes and woo the heroine in style. Film-makers in my era did not set much store by realism.
Happily, the second wave of films I worked in did well commercially and people began to believe that I was a lucky mascot for them. I don’t come cheap, I have a hefty price tag as a character actor too, but film-makers have been more than willing to pay it. In return, they get a very sincere actor who is professional and gives them what they want before the camera. I’ve always played with a straight bat and producers have appreciated this quality in me.