Amid gangster dramas, crime thrillers and angry young man movies in the ‘70s, Rishi Kapoor established himself as the romantic hero from his very first film. His youthful looks and fashion was a breath of fresh air in Bollywood back then, and he did justice to romantic hero roles right up till Deewana in 1992, when the reign of Shah Rukh Khan as the king of romance was just beginning.
Rishi Kapoor never really took a break in his career and continued to adapt with the times, trying out various genres in films like Raju Chacha, Fanaa and Hum Tum. His attempt at middle-aged romance in Pyaar Mein Twist (2005) was also received warmly. His role of the older Veer Singh Panesar, narrating his love story in Love Aaj Kal, is probably one of the most endearing roles Rishi Kapoor fans have seen him in.
He tried a genre switch up with Do Dooni Chaar (2011), breaking out of his rich man image to play a middle-class school teacher who drives a scooter, is trying to keep his wife and children happy in inflationary times and dreams of buying a car.
But his most striking change in image came with the ruthless Rauf Lala in 2012’s Agneepath. Rishi Kapoor was seen at the peak in the film during the market scene, where he fails to take revenge for his son’s death. The menace in his surma-laden eyes could run a chill down anyone’s spine.
The very next year saw him try a stereotype in Student of the Year. His role of a closeted gay man was written as a caricature, but Rishi managed to make himself look endearing, so much so that when he passed away last year, fans recalled his death scene from the film to pay tribute.
In Shuddh Desi Romance (2013) he put on an accent to play a shop owner in Jaipur, the same year he teamed up with his wife and son to play a funny Haryanvi cop in Besharam. He again surprised fans by taking on the role of a grandfather in Kapoor and Sons (2016). He wore prosthetics to look much older than his real age, and carried some of the sass from his real life into the character that was probably the most entertaining part of the family drama.
He played an old man again in 102 Not Out (2017), but this time one that is scared to live his life to the fullest. As the 75-year-old son of a 102-year-old Dattatraya Vakharia (Amitabh Bachchan), Rishi completely dumped his jovial side and embraced all that was grim in his middle class existence – dead wife, irresponsible son – evoking emotions of sympathy in the audience.
Mulk, one of his last releases, was a critically acclaimed project against the backdrop of religious discrimination and terrorism. Rishi Kapoor played the patriarch of a Muslim family settled in Banaras, fighting the stigma that comes with being Muslim and being linked to terrorism. The seasoned actor brought gravitas to the character who refused to succumb to the polarities manifested by both Hindus and Muslims.
In the last decade or so of his nearly 50-year-long career, Rishi Kapoor proved that he had more left in him as an actor. He remained active till the time cancer struck, his last film Sharmaji Namkeen is yet to release. He was to take on the character played by Robert De Niro in The Intern in the film’s Indian adaptation. One can already imagine he would have done a stellar job. While that wish will remain unfulfilled, we can revisit the actor by looking back at the memorable performances he has left behind for posterity.