2 weeks into my new series, and I am getting decent views and comments. Yay! I will tentatively continue. In case you are new to this, the idea is that if you didn’t grow up surrounded by Hindi film, it can be hard to learn all the things that small children in India just know by osmosis. And so I am giving you a little “101” course on the things you need to learn. Kind of a follow up on the basic grounding I gave in my book. (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here) Starting with the Kapoors, because where else?
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: These are not “facts”, or “true”, or maybe they are, I have no way of knowing! I don’t know the Kapoor family personally or anything like that. But if you are just beginning to get into the films, I want to give you a sense of the background that most people have for the Kapoors, what is behind all the allusions in film articles and odd comments in interviews.
Rather than doing this generationally, I am doing it by branches of the family tree. I started with Prithviraj and his two younger sons Shammi and Shashi, and their descendants (none of them very famous). Then I went back and did a whole post just on Raj Kapoor (because he deserves it!), plus Raj’s two daughters. Then my last post was on Raj’s oldest son Randhir and his wife Babita and children Karisma and Kareena. And now it is time for Raj’s next oldest son, Rishi. And his wife Neetu and son Ranbir.
Randhir suffered the curse of the oldest child, high expectations. He was thrown into starring and directing at age 24, and when he failed to live up to what his family wanted/needed from him, he kind of faded away. He has recently returned to take the lead of the family again, appearing at public functions and in character parts in films. Most likely, his fading away and his return are both related to alcoholism, first succumbing to it and later overcoming it.
Before moving on to Rishi, I want to talk about alcohol and the Kapoors a bit, because it plays a big part in Rishi’s life as well. The Kapoors are “Pathans” and Punjabis. Alcohol is just kind of part of that culture. It’s also part of filmi culture, so starting with Raj, when the family became so integrated into the film industry, alcohol took a bigger and bigger part of their lives. Every business meeting, holiday party, film launch, wedding, even just dinner with friends, it would all be accompanied by a drink.
This doesn’t mean that everyone was an alcoholic. It just means that alcohol was around all the time, available if you wanted it. And no one would be surprised to see a little drunk on occasion, like at work or while listening to a script narration in your living room or while playing with your grandchildren.
In terms of the Raj Kapoor family in particular, Madhu Jain in her book tells a story she heard from one of Raj’s frequent collaborators. Raj was known to be a man who enjoyed a drink. And sometimes he would get drunk on set and yell horrible insults and criticisms at his stars. And then he would come back the next day, sober, and apologize in such a charming manner that they had to forgive him.
But what Madhu Jain’s informant told her is that Raj wasn’t actual drunk. He would start to sway and slur, after spending the morning drinking nothing more than water. He had discovered that being drunk was a bit of a get out of jail free card, he could get out all his frustrations in one burst and never be blamed for it.
Now, picture being Raj’s sons. Seeing alcohol all around them, and seeing how it (seemingly) gave their father the power to say and do anything he wanted with no consequence. Is it any wonder that they would come to rely on drink perhaps a bit too much?
I don’t know the Kapoors personal, and even if I did, I’m not trained to make this kind of diagnosis, but just from the outside, it looks like all of Raj’s sons have suffered from relying a bit too much on alcohol. And both of his oldest sons have gone on the same path of succumbing to, and finally overcoming their addiction (I’ll be getting to the third son in the next session). But Rishi is the slightly happier story. Perhaps because he felt he had less to overcome and cover up?
While Randhir was thrown out without support at 24, to star and direct in his own movie, Rishi was directed by his father in both his early roles. His first appearance on screen was in Mere Naam Joker, at age 17-18, playing a younger version of his father’s character. Just as his uncle/brother Shashi had played a younger version of Raj in Awara a few years earlier.
4 years later, Rishi was asked to carry a whole film on his shoulders, Bobby. And he did a phenomenal job. But then, he also had a lot of help. For one thing, the he was essentially playing himself, a sensitive charming rich man’s son, devastatingly young and with no experience of the world. His father wrote him a perfect launch role.
And for another, his co-stars were more than adequate to carry the film without any help from him, everyone from Pran as his father to Durga Khote as Dimple’s grandmother brought with them decades of film experience. And then there was Dimple herself, a co-star as fresh as he, their interactions felt like two young people shyly getting to know each other, because they were two young people shyly getting to know each other!
And at this point I feel obligated to mention the most scandalous and least likely to be true Kapoor rumor, that Dimple is Raj and Nargis’ love child. Pros: She kind of sort of looks like Nargis, Raj gave her a grand launch out of nowhere, the age kind of sort of works. Cons: She has a well-established history with her family, she doesn’t look THAT much like Nargis, the age doesn’t work perfectly (plus, how exactly did Nargis hide a pregnancy?), and why would Raj launch his love-child in a sexy romance opposite her half-brother?
The most interesting thing about Bobby is that it was a grand launch for Rishi, but wasn’t actually supposed to be. He got the starring role because you don’t have to pay family, so he was cheap. Mere Naam Joker had left RK Studios massively in debt, and Raj needed a quick hit to make up for it. So he threw together a light-hearted guaranteed hit teenage romance, filled it with good songs and good supporting characters, and used two super young and super cheap actors for the lead roles. And in this careless no pressure way, Rishi was launched and a star was born.
Rishi has a certain careless confidence and charm onscreen. He did better as the rakish lover boy than he ever did as the noble hero. Perhaps because of this, most of his hits tended to be multi-starrers, where one of the other big stars of the day could take the lead and bring the gravitas.
But while he was playing careless charmer onscreen, off screen he was slowly becoming the mainstay of the family. As Randhir sank further and further into whatever it was that was dragging him down (alcohol, depression, self-doubt, who knows!), Rishi became the best and most consistent earner for the family. And remember, just as Raj was more of a father than a brother to Shashi with the 14 year age gap, so were Rishi and Randhir both big brothers and “father” figures to their much young siblings, Rima and Rajiv.
Rishi had also inherited the nasty Kapoor temper to go along with his charm. You can see it now in interviews and on his twitter, little bursts of brutal anger at his enemies. It’s an odd combination, this cheerful light demeanor on film matched with a dark blunt brutality off-screen.
Which brings me to Neetu! The woman who matches his personality with her own light and joy, and ability to endure. In a lot of ways, Neetu was similar to Randhir’s wife Babita. With the big difference that she didn’t actually enjoy acting. And that she met Rishi when she was much younger. That sounds like a bad thing, but I think it was actually a good thing for their particular relationship.
Neetu started as a child actress, at 8 years old. She transitioned to heroine parts at 15, and went on to work in 55 movies in 10 years, a punishing schedule. As you can imagine, with this schedule, school and playtime and everything else that is part of a “normal” childhood was not something she experienced.
Neetu’s debut film was opposite Rishi’s big brother Randhir, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that is when they first met. If not then, soon after, when they co-starred in Zehreela Insaan, her 6th film as a lead and 13th film overall, and his 3rd overall and second as a lead. She was 15-16 during filming, and he was 21-22. They co-starred in 12 films after that in the next 6 years.
In the early stories of their romance, they are both clear that it wasn’t really a “romance” at all. He became sort of a protective big brother to her on film sets, picking her up in the morning and taking her home at night. And she became a bit of a worshipful younger sister, willing to do whatever would please him. For instance, he used to make her phone up his many many girlfriends for him, so their families wouldn’t be suspicious hearing a male voice on the phone.
Maybe because of this off-screen relationship, because he treated Neetu like the little teenage girl she was, their interactions onscreen have a kind of carefree happiness and youth to them that was really remarkable. Even before they started officially dating, they look like a couple in love when you see them on screen.
There are various stories about how this close friendship turned into love. There is one about Rishi going abroad for filming and sending Neetu a telegram letting her know he missed her. There is another about him giving her a gift out of the blue that let her know how he felt. But all versions agree that they were friends first, close friends, and that Rishi was the one who made the move to turn it into something more. And Neetu, starstruck at this older charmer, was quick to agree.
Side-story: The tales of Neetu calling up his girlfriends for him, and listening to his tales of heartbreak as a friend before dating were always kind of around, a standard part of interviews. But in a fairly recent interview, I think for Besharam, Neetu repeated them again, and Rishi was shocked! In a kind of “really? I did that? I have no memory of a time when I would have been so unaware of you as an attractive woman that I would have talked to you about other women!” kind of way. It was super cute.
It’s good that Rishi is cute, because he has a lot other downsides as a romantic partner. Once they started officially dating, however it happened, Neetu was informed of a lot of rules she was expected to obey. First, no expectations of commitment, he didn’t want to get married. Second, she had to be home at a certain time and available when he wanted her, producers and directors talk about how Neetu would start to panic if filming went late because Rishi kept track of when she arrived home, either by meeting her there or calling, and she couldn’t be late. And finally, of course, after marriage she would have to quit work.
As I mentioned, it is kind of good that Neetu was so young when she met him. While Babita (supposedly) chaffed at the expectations for a Kapoor woman, Neetu embraced them. She had spent her whole childhood working and supporting her family, to have someone take charge of every part of her life was a relief. And she sincerely dreamed of being “just” a wife and mother, grocery shopping and making dinners instead of working 12 hour days on crowded film sets.
Rishi finally decided he was ready to be married just as suddenly as he decided he was ready to start dating Neetu instead of just being her friend. Again, a commonly told story is how they had the formal exchange of rings and announcement on the spur of the moment at a party his sister Ritu (Shweta Bachchan’s mother-in-law) was throwing in Delhi. She was nagging Rishi about when he would finally marry Neetu, and Rishi snapped and declared he would do it right now. He borrowed a ring from his sister, Neetu borrowed one from the director of their current film who was also there, they exchanged rings in front of everybody, and a few months later they were married.
Neetu was 23 and retired, after 15 years of working. And she promptly learned that Kapoor wives were not only expected to put up with quitting work (which she was more than happy to do), but were also expected to put up with even more restrictions than Kapoor girlfriends. She wasn’t allowed to question her husband, to expect him home at a certain time, to expect him to assist in raising their children, to even expect him to be faithful. That wasn’t the Kapoor way. At least, not any more. Prithviraj by all accounts never strayed from his wife, and Shashi of course never cheated on Jennifer (because Shashi is The Best Kapoor). But Raj, Shammi, and Randhir, they just considered it a matter of course that their wives were at home and other woman were in the world, and what they did in the world didn’t effect what happened at home. Rishi over the years was linked with everyone from Dimple Kapadia (again, I really don’t want the half-sibling rumor to be true!) to Juhi Chawla.
Neetu in occasional interviews has talked about the shock of these years, going from the misery of working working working to the different kind of misery of sitting still and waiting. Riddhima, her first child, was born almost exactly 9 months after the wedding (Kapoors, man! What did I tell you? Very fertile, no birth control). And her second, Ranbir, was born a little over a year later. During their childhood, like her mother-in-law Krishna before her, Neetu took the lead in all of their home matters while Rishi worked crazy hours supporting the family.
I don’t want to downplay Rishi’s contribution here, just like I don’t want to downplay Raj’s in the previous generation. Yes, he missed parent-teacher meetings and probably some birthdays as well. But he kept the whole family going, not just with money, but prestige, power, all the things that have smoothed the way for his children in the present day are only there because their father worked 20 hour days on film after film through out the 80s. But the fact is, when Ranbir talks about his childhood, or when Neetu talks about those days, it was a lonely time for them and Rishi just wasn’t around that much.
And when he was around, it was a little scary. Piecing together what all 3 of them have said in interviews, plus the 1997 frantic phone call to the Bandra police station from Neetu, it sounds like a toxic mixture of alcohol and spousal abuse. At some point in Ranbir’s childhood, his father went from an absent presence to a present and terrifying one. And, like her sister-in-law Babita, Neetu had finally had enough and left him. But not for long.
The timeline on this is a little fuzzy, but there were a few years in the late 90s when everyone kind of knew that Neetu and Rishi were living apart. And then by the time Ranbir was launched in 2007 (10 years after the frantic police call), they were firmly re-coupled.
There was also much talk at the time about Rishi’s new “diet” and health-consciousness and how Neetu is keeping him on the straight-and-narrow. Coded language to say “she took him back if he controlled his drinking”. Rishi still isn’t completely on the wagon, interviewers will make a point of mentioning “he said as he took a sip of his Black Label” or whatever, because they know that we know that Rishi has a drinking problem. But it seems to be under control. For one thing, I doubt if Ranbir would give so many interviews about his troubled childhood if those problems were still present in his parents’ marriage. (Sample Ranbir quote: “Sometimes the fights would get really bad. I would be sitting on the steps, my head between my knees, till five or six in the morning, waiting for them to stop”.)
Again, I’m not an expert on alcoholism, but to me it seems like Randhir’s problem was that alcohol took over his life. Whereas Rishi’s problem was more about using alcohol as an excuse to do other things he shouldn’t have been doing (womanizing, beating up his wife and possibly also kids). And now he doesn’t do those things any more and doesn’t need to use alcohol as a crutch in the same way.
Now, this whooooooole story makes you see Ranbir in a whole new light, right? He seems like the most spoiled had-it-all-handed-to-him guy in the world, but actually he spent his childhood tossed between an abusive father and long-suffering mother. His older sister Riddhima got out young, marrying yet another wealthy Delhi businessman at age 25, after a half-started career as a fashion designer. Ranbir left to study in New York at around 20, and then came back a few years later to conquer Bombay. Which is where I will pick up next time! Stay tuned!