Born into the third generation of Bollywood's most famous dynasty, it was inevitable that Rishi Kapoor would become an actor. His grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor acted in India's first “talkie,” Alam Ara (1931). His father Raj Kapoor has been called Indian cinema's Victor Hugo. He established RK Films in 1948 and was the subject of a Toronto International Film Festival retrospective last year.
Now 59, Rishi Kapoor was barely in his teens when he appeared in his father's magnum opus Mera Naam Joker (1970). Then came Bobby (1973), a teenage-runaway romance. A huge hit, it launched Kapoor's career as a romantic heart-throb through much of the seventies and eighties. He eventually married his reel- and real-life sweetheart Neetu (Singh) Kapoor, and their son Ranbir Kapoor is one of Bollywood’s hottest young stars today.
Lately, Rishi Kapoor has played character roles in big-budget Bollywood productions such as Agneepath and Housefull 2. Released earlier this year, both films did brisk business at the box office, collecting close to $20-million (U.S.).
You’ve been acting in Hindi films for more than 40 years. If you had started now, how would your experience of Bollywood be different?
My first role fell into my lap. I remember one day, my father asking my mother if it would be okay for me to play the part. And my mother said, ‘All right, as long as it does not disturb his studies.’ I immediately went into my room, took out a foolscap sheet of paper and began practising my autograph. I was maybe 15, 16.
My father would mortgage everything to make his films. He owned a studio but we never owned a house until Bobby. Today banks finance films, there is corporate financing, films are insured.
As for actors, they get in on their own merits. My own son Ranbir is there because of his talent, not because he is Rishi Kapoor's son or Raj Kapoor's grandson.
How would you define what the current generation of filmmakers is doing?
In our times, the audience was more forgiving. We often made what we call “lost and found” cinema. Brothers got lost at birth, and then reunited by the end of the film.
Today our movies are more innovative because we are competing with world cinema, the Internet, TV, video games for the audience's attention. There are new voices who are thinking outside the [Bollywood]box.
Having said that, the movies that ultimately do big business are our run-of-the-mill films. People like their popcorn to last through the songs, fights and melodrama. Housefull 2 [a raunchy comedy about mistaken identities and a four-wedding finale]is the biggest blockbuster overseas this year.
One of your recent films Do Dooni Chaar (2010) was distributed by Disney in North America. How is their presence changing the Indian market?
Do Dooni Chaar was a very small film. I played a school teacher, and my wife Neetu played a homemaker. The film addressed a large problem in India – the teacher wants to buy a car, even though his salary can barely cover his house and kids.
It was an offbeat film, and people identified with it. I don't know if Disney is doing any more films in India. Of course, other studios like Fox are in India. They all recognize the growing market for Indian films. I say why not? The more the merrier.
How is your son Ranbir Kapoor's approach different from yours?
He is a on a different curve all together. The characters he opts for – whether it's Wake Up Sid, Rocket Singh or Rockstar – they are very different from roles other actors his age take. He doesn't want to be a romantic hero with 40 backup dancers. He wants roles of his age, to tell stories of his age. And he is winning accolades for it.
If your dad was in Bollywood today, would he be impressed by it?
I don't think so. He lived in a different time, and his sensibility was very different. For example the songs, they would not make any sense to him. In those days, they addressed an issue, they had some lyrical value. Not much of that exists any more. Nobody understands the beauty of dialogue, what is being said on screen. My father would have disowned me if he found out I worked in a film like Housefull 2.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Rishi and Neetu Kapoor will kick off a five-part series called Indian Cinema in Conversation on May 6 at the Powerade Centre in Brampton, Ont. For information on tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.ca or call 1-855-985-5000).
Special to The Globe and Mail