Rishi Kapoor (1952-2020): Saluting the actor, beloved star — and costume designer’s dream

‘Curious Fashion’ is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series 

That, I suppose, was the brilliance of Rishi Kapoor. From the oversized goggles in Bobby to the infamous sweaters in Chandni — films eponymous with their female heroine rather than the hero — Rishi Kapoor carried his screen costumes with a rare kind of dazzle. He radiated a pure beauty in his early years, a luminosity and freshness that did not stale for a long time.

The antithesis to the angry young man, his romantic roles were brimming with sincerity and an alternative kind of masculinity that dressed brightly, immaculately, and joyously. No open-shirt, greasy, smouldering ruffian look for him. Instead, his was a cinematic wardrobe collected over the decades, of memorable costumes and looks, that no doubt costume designers had delighted in creating for his characters.

Wear surma and kajal? Okay. Cross-dress? Okay. A parrot-green qawwali costume? Okay. Wear appallingly patterned sweaters? Sure. Rishi Kapoor did not seem to have problems with coming across as ‘extra’ or over-the-top. An entertainer till the end, he must have been a costume designer’s dream. There are many memorable fashion moments in his 50-year filmography that come to mind.

Top of the list, of course, the coveted silver jumpsuit of Karz. Bobby (1973) comes a close second. In his debut film as hero, Kapoor carried off with elan prep-boy style suits, psychedelic shirt prints, turtlenecks, a Dr Seuss muffler and the aforementioned goggles. Bobby, a film about the beauty of young love, lit up a whole generation with its iconic fashion sensibilities.

From the oversized goggles in Bobby to the silver jumpsuit of Karz and the infamous sweaters in Chandni — Rishi Kapoor carried his screen costumes with a rare kind of dazzle

In another VCR favourite, Prem Rog (1982) he played Dev, a young schoolteacher in love with a young widow. A famous song has Dev riding a bicycle through a rainbow field bursting with flowers, with the young widow balancing in front of him, ironically in her absolute widow’s white sari. You might have missed the subtlety of it as I did initially, but Dev wears white in the film as much as she did. Amidst all the social inequality the film captures, it is their clothes that set a kind of equality between the two of them.

Through the terrible multi star dramas of the noughties, we endured fashion apocalypse with the all-white costumes, the white shoes and Rishi Kapoor’s colourful mufflers and sweaters, which perhaps hid beer bellies and made dancing with heroines in Swiss locales more comfortable (for the hero). I never did take to this new persona but I cannot deny its influence: many knitting enthusiasts waited to copy the designs of the sweaters, and it was a subject of great interest for Rishi Kapoor’s Twitter followers.

When he returned to the screen in a solid way in the 2000s, his style mojo was intact. In Luck By Chance (2009), Kapoor played a Bollywood producer of yore Romy Rolly with chutzpah, dressed convincingly in sweaty shirts with a handkerchief wedged in shirt pocket, a giant gold watch, lockets and multiple rings for good luck. Then came Do Dooni Chaar (2010) as the Hindi film industry turned a corner towards more realistic films, in which Kapoor downgraded to half-sweaters and a cosy monkey-cap to personify middle-class school teacher Santosh Duggal. As the wicked pimp Rauf Lala in Agneepath (2012), his menacingly kohled eyes stayed with you for a while.

Costume designers have a big contribution in the creation of stars and superstars, and the legacy of artistes. But they also need an actor who is a worthy canvas for their genius, a Rishi Kapoor to take it and run with it.

From a breathtakingly beautiful boy to the curmudgeonly elder on Twitter, with Rishi Kapoor, what you saw was what you got. The charm, the bluster, the straight-speak, the scolding that he often gave to paparazzi… it was all out there. But with his costumes, he seemed to transform completely into character. Kapoor played everything convincingly — from the many instruments he played in his roles (the dafli, the guitar, the piano, the violin!) to the many characters he brought to life before an adoring audience. He seemed to really believe in the characters he played, and we all believed in them with him.

Rishi Kapoor remains alive in our memories not just as many interestingly dressed characters we sang and danced, and laughed and cried with, but also as the essence of the incredible joyride that is called the movies.

Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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