I already wrote my farewell post to Rishi, what he meant to me, but I want to put together a post about Rishi the person. As a Kapoor, we (the public) know a remarkable amount about him personally, and Rishi in interviews and his memoir has made even more available. I’m not going to try to rake up scandal or demonize him, but I want to do my best to give a fair and balanced look at the life of this man we have just lost.
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it looks to me based on publicly available sources.
It’s funny how trauma spreads down the generations, isn’t it? Looking at Rishi’s life, it all goes back to something that happened decades before he was born. In the second week of October 1931, the Kapoor household suffered an unimaginable tragedy. They were a happy family of 5. The young father Prithviraj was just beginning his career as an actor, he had brought his wife and children down to Bombay to join him only a few months earlier. It was a love marriage, he and his wife and been together since their teen years, and were devoted to each other. The three boys loved this new city playground, from spending their childhood roaming the forests around the family country home they were now roaming the streets of Bombay. The two oldest, Raj and Ravi, would take off and have adventures together, sneaking away from Devi the baby of the family who always chased after them. And the mother was pregnant again! Soon there would be a new baby, more happiness in their little household. Then Ravi got sick. Their father was traveling, their pregnant mother tried to take care of him as best she could. And he died, all of a sudden, the way children sometimes do. His mother was exhausted, 9 months pregnant and grieving. She couldn’t handle her remaining children, 7 year old Raj and 4 year old Devinder. And so a few days after Ravi died, Devinder got out into the garden, and was playing happily, when he was bitten by a snake. He was dead within hours. Prithviraj returned home to find two sons dead and a new baby.
There is no recovery from something like that, not really. It doesn’t just last a lifetime, it lasts generations. Prithviraj reacted by removing himself from fatherhood. He treated his oldest son Raj like an incompetent employee, put him to work as a teenager in his theater troupe paying him starvation wages and, when he wanted to start working in film, called up his friends to warn them NOT to hire Raj, the idiot. His other two sons, Shammi and Shashi, he left to Raj to raise. They rarely saw their father, Raj dispensed their allowances, carried out their punishments, was the main figure in their lives. And Raj, following in his father’s footsteps, made sure they all knew just how little he thought of them. Expressing love man to man was forbidden.
The sad thing is that Raj clearly did feel love for his brothers, he just didn’t allow himself to show it ever. “Love”, for Raj, meant romantic love. What he felt for his brothers was a weakness and a shame. Raj lived his life running from honest emotions, hiding those things he should have been most proud of. Shashi in his 70s, Raj’s 14 years younger brother who he raised as a son, talked about how hard it was right after he got married when the movies he was in just weren’t working and jobs were hard to come by. Thank goodness for the actress Nanda, she saved him, she got him jobs and was wonderful to him on set and helped him find his feet. The interviewer who spoke with him then went and talked to Nanda. Who revealed that after her first film with Shashi was signed, Raj Kapoor came to her house and begged her to please look after Shashi, “he is my son”, but she must never ever reveal that Raj was the one who told her to do it. While Prithviraj was calling up people telling them not to work with Raj and to tell him why, Raj was going around begging people to work with his brothers but never reveal that he had asked.
Raj married at 21 to a distant family connection, Krishna. He was right at the start of his brilliant career, and within months of marriage he would meet and fall in love with the actress Nargis. Raj spent his children’s childhood torn between his artistic greatness, his love for another woman, and his duty to his family. At work, he was brilliant. He set box office records that still stand today, he invented Indian film, he built up a whole studio before he was 30 (a feat that would not be matched until Aditya Chopra in the 90s). He was a bit difficult sometimes for his collaborators, charming and genius and fresh and then suddenly turning on them, but overall people liked Raj. At home, he was a demon in the night. Rishi revealed in his memoir that his childhood memories of his father were this terrifying monster who would come into their home late at night. Their mother would order them to hide while she went down and dealt with him. Rishi’s best memory of his father was when he was on set with him, when he and his 2 siblings were brought in to be part of the background of a song in Shree 420. The best Raj was the one at work, not the one at home. And poor Rishi almost never got to see that Raj.
Rishi started his career because he wanted to spend time with his father. Raj needed a teenage actor for Mere Naam Joker and couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so he told Rishi he was doing it. Krishna objected, she wanted Rishi to finish school, but Rishi was excited to go on set and work with his father. On set, Raj insisted Rishi call him “sir” and respect him as a director, not his father. And Raj treated him as he would any other actor, insisted on perfection every time and ripped into him when he failed. Rishi’s first lead role, Bobby, made him a star and suddenly he was getting all the love and adulation and support he could want as a 21 year old from the strangers around him, while his father moved on to his next project and left him behind.
Rishi’s early years as an actor were mixed. On the one hand, he thought he was the greatest actor, coolest dude, and all around Best at Everything. He was obnoxious and horrible to reporters, co-stars, everyone. But on the other hand, his father had trained him viciously, so he worked like a perfectionist. He rehearsed, he attended music sittings, he worked on his dance moves and his lip-syncing and planned out how he would play his scenes. He also, following in his father’s footsteps, went wild with romance. He was young and free and handsome, and he loved being loved. So he had a string of girlfriends.
But here’s where Rishi is “better” than Raj, or at least different. While his father convinced himself that he was truly in love every time, and convinced the woman as well, Rishi kept things light. He made clear to every woman he was with that he was never ever going to be married, his relationships were short and private, there was no big public romantic drama like his father enjoyed. To his death, Rishi never said the name of any woman he was with except for his wife, he respected them enough to keep them private.
Neetu was different. Neetu was 15 when they first met, and co-starring with Rishi’s uncle Shashi (only a few years older than Rishi thanks to the Kapoor early marriages and long periods of childbearing). Neetu and Rishi started to be cast alongside each other, and Rishi felt sorry for her. Neetu had been a child actress, working since age 8, without a lot of protection around her. Now she was this bouncy pretty recently developed young woman and Rishi was very aware of the dangers present in the film industry towards bouncy innocent young women. He made it known that she was under his protection, he started picking her up and dropping her off after filmings, he adopted her a bit. Not that Neetu saw it that way, she just saw this swoony older boy who deigned to pay attention to her a bit for reasons she didn’t understand, and gave her strange rules for life she couldn’t see any reason for but obeyed anyway (why couldn’t she get a ride home from the nice older producer? Why did she always have to take the bus home with Rishi instead?). Neetu was his little buddy, he even had her call his girlfriends for him, and made her listen to his agonies over his latest affair.
And then one day, she wasn’t. He was out of town filming and found himself missing Neetu more than anyone else. So he sent her a present and a telegram, which he had never done before, and Neetu realized that maybe Rishi was in love with her! Once they started dating, everyone knew they were dating. It wasn’t like the other relationships Rishi had, the temporary secret things. Rishi made known through out the industry that Neetu was “his” now, that he had certain rules for her, and that everyone must make sure she follows them. Neetu now had to be home at a certain time, had to call him at a certain time, had to only do certain things. If they were a regular couple in modern times, I might find this alarming. But in the time and place where they were, this was oddly loving. Rishi still was not planning to marry Neetu or anyone, and he told her that. But he managed to give her the protection of his name without marriage. Neetu was extremely vulnerable, most of her agemates have stories of rape, seduction, pressure to have sex for roles, or simple harassment on set. Neetu experienced none of that. Rishi’s youthful aggressive loud demands kept her safe. He loved her enough to be the “bad guy”, as it were. A wiser young man would explain to her the dangers she was in, make her a partner in keeping herself safe, but Rishi was doing the best he could as he saw it.
This went on for years. Rishi was still sure he would never be married, but at the same time he had lost interest in anyone but Neetu. Finally it was his big sister who pressured them into announcing an engagement at a party in Delhi, followed by a big filmi wedding presided over by Rishi’s “Great Showman” father. Rishi was 28, Neetu 23.
Rishi was not a good husband, and also was a good husband. Neetu really truly wanted to quit working. She had never known a “normal” life, she had worked all day every day since she was 8 years old. Rishi gave her that, married her and brought her home and made sure she never had to work another day of her life. And Rishi struggled, hard, to be a better husband and father than Raj had been. He came home at night, he was there for family vacations, he took his kids on location shooting and on to sets with him as much as possible. He didn’t cheat, or at least not what he considered “cheating” in his own mind. He would get crushes and fall in love with his co-stars on set, and yet he never crossed that invisible line he had put in his own mind. And yet, the pressure of his inherited demons were just too much. When his career went bad, he blamed his wife for it and took his frustrations out on her and his children. He drank, he sank into depression, the day by day work of marriage and fatherhood seemed beyond him. He was trying, and failing, and depressed because he knew he was failing. A bad husband fails, but a good husband keeps trying. He was both.
Rishi kept trying, right to the end. After his son grew up, he started to see the same patterns repeated again, and it broke his heart. He wanted to be his son’s friend and he didn’t know how. He started trying to give career advice, he liked managing Ranbir’s career because it felt like something he could give him, something they could have together. He was proud to repeat the few times Ranbir had thanked him, or mentioned something he used in a performance. But at the same time, he was sad because he had talked with Ranbir about their relationship and learned Ranbir was afraid of him. He didn’t know how to get past that, how to change it. He knew he had let down his wife too, knew that in the early years of their marriage he had been terrible to her, blamed her for everything in his life instead of taking responsibility. He learned that she knew, had always known, when he had those “crushes” on co-stars and it broke his heart. Old friends, he saw that they pulled away from him and understood it was because he had hurt them, he didn’t know how to apologize or what he had done wrong, but he accepted that it was somehow his fault and this was his punishment.
Rishi had so much on him, all his life, more than any one person deserves. As a child, he and his older brother Randhir tried to keep the younger kids distracted and entertained and unafraid when the Demon came into the house. As a teenager, he tried so hard to make his father love him and approve of him, an impossible challenge. As a young man, he ran from love, decided the safest thing was to never marry or have children, never risk turning into his father. He fell in love and kept running, tried to find a way to marry without being married. And then he was forced into it anyway and was a failure as he feared, and the guilt over failing made him worse, and on and on. He watched his brothers fall one by one into alcoholism, destroying their lives and families and held on by the skin of his teeth to his own career, and his own family. He felt pressure to keep the family studio going and tried his best, but failed. He struggled to be a good father, lashing out any time he felt his son was threatened and trying to “earn” his love. He struggled to be a better husband, constantly praising his wife and publicly acknowledging the failures he had made in the past. He struggled to be a better actor too, humbly admitting his past failures and mistakes, always working with new directors and new co-stars, searching for illusive perfection again and again and punishing himself when he fell short.