Rishi Kapoor had lived many lives in front of the camera and he had been many different actors in his real live. He started out as a child actor and went on to become a star and romantic hero as well as a veteran character artiste in his career spanning over 50 years. While his memory is forever tied to his boyish charm in his early blockbuster romances, it was his nuanced performances in his second innings as a character actor, that gave a glimpse of his immense talent and craftsmanship.
In his confessional book Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored, co-authored by Meena Iyer, and Rishi Kapoor, the actor talked about the second phase of his film career with fondness and reverence. He titled this section of his life, 'A Privileged Second Innings' and wrote:
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.
Audiences in my youth were fiercely loyal to their stars, generous with their praise and forgiving of all limitations. We didn’t have to put in much effort to court them.
However, Kapoor soon realized that game of the trade has changed and films don't work without efforts. The actor confessed in his book that the idea of preparing for a role was not something he was accustomed to, but he took up the challenge in Agneepath.
"The concept of prepping for a role was alien for the rest of us. It’s on this front that I find a real change. Ranbir prepares for his roles. Good, bad or indifferent, he works on every character he plays. He does only one film at a time, with complete focus on the character, and goes into the studio totally in the zone and ready. Cinema itself has evolved over the years. Today you can’t repeat the lost-and-found theme, the audience will put a whip to your backside and demand that you think afresh.
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.
During the second phase of his career, the actor introspected about his profession a lot, and told his son, Ranbir Kapoor, things that he must remember as an actor:
There are two life lessons I’ve given Ranbir as far as this profession goes. One is to put in the effort required to translate into ease on screen and the second is to never let success go to the head or failure to the heart. Success and failure are a part and parcel of cinema. You cannot succeed in every role or every film. But what needs to be consistent is your effort and your work. I can safely claim that my work has always been beyond reproach, I have stayed afloat all this while only because of my consistent work.
The following excerpts have been published with permission from HarperCollins, India.