On 30 April 2020, the news of veteran actor Rishi Kapoor’s passing away shocked the nation. Now, even after a year, it still doesn't feel real. Kapoor’s co-star Juhi Chawla, who has worked with him at different stages in her career, spoke to The Quint, fondly remembering him as an accomplished actor, major prankster and loveable brat.
You have done so many films with Rishi Kapoor, let’s start from the very beginning. Your earliest memory of him and what was it like to work with him?
Juhi Chawla: My earliest memory of him is when I was quite little, and I remember that the film Bobby had become a big hit. I remember wearing Bobby clips and Bobby frocks because everything was branded Bobby at that time. Then I grew up and one day I am doing Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. I was totally a newcomer with Aamir, and Rishi Kapoor was the chief guest for our music launch. He was the star. You know, standing next to him, we all had our pictures taken. Then two, three years later, is when we did like a film. That time I was new, I just came into the industry and I was going to work with the Rishi Kapoor. I was standing in front of Chintuji and trying to say my dialogues and shaking in my knees, because I knew I’ll die if I make a mistake, I will look so stupid and was shaking and hoping that the shot be over because he never makes a mistake and I was so scared at that moment. That feeling only a newcomer knows when you’re standing in front of somebody you’ve seen on the big screen, and you never imagined that you will be standing in front of them giving a shot.
Then after I was a little more settled in my career and a little more confident I worked with him in Bol Radha Bol, Sajaan Ka Ghar, etc. But of course, I remember that whole schedule being great fun and all because the masterji was Tarun masterji and there was Davidji, so it was a fun film and all that stuff. We were in Ooty, and Ooty is lovely. I remember, the sweetest thing that has nothing to do with Chintuji it has to do with Ranbir. Ranbir and Riddhima had come with Neetuji because when schedules used to take place in Ooty, families used to also come along. At that time everybody stayed at the Taj. In the morning or in the evening I can't remember, we were outside and Ranbir, maybe Riddhima was there... I remember little Ranbir coming up to me, and I was outside and we were just hanging around, and he said, "What did the cannibal eat after he had his teeth done?" So, I was like what? He said, "The dentist" and I rolled with laughter. I found it very funny. I remember this little joke since then, that Ranbir had told me.
You guys have spent so much time together on sets. What was he like off-camera?
Juhi Chawla: With Chintuji we started playing Scrabble between shots and he was very good at it. But I was also not bad. I was decent. And I was always very competitive that I have to win, but nine out of 10 times he beat me in that game. He was so sharp and invariably when the shot was getting ready, the Scrabble was out and we were playing or listening to the director and wanting to know what our shot is. In between fans would come and say, “Please, we want to take a picture with you.” If they wanted to take a photo that’s okay, but invariably they would push their children on our laps and the children would start bawling in front of you. They would say, “My child wants to take a picture with you”. Chintuji would get very irritated with these things, because he was like, “The child doesn’t know who I am. Why would he want a picture with me? Why can’t parents just say that they want it?” Chintuji would just break calmly into this string of words in English, all high-sounding disjointed words. He would rapidly talk gibberish in long sentences and then say “Understood?”
By that time the people standing in front of him, who were mostly locals, would be gobsmacked and wonder, “What did Chintuji just say? And why did he say ‘understood’?” Because they didn’t understand anything. On top of that they are fans, so they got all the more nervous. They would say, “No, no nothing, thank you, thank you,” and would just disappear in two seconds. Chintuji would love it because he had been left alone and I would be standing behind watching this whole thing happen, and think “Chintuji what did you just do to them?” Then some other unsuspecting person would come and the same thing would happen again. By that time I would be rolling with laughter because I’m like, “They don’t know what he is doing to them. They just don’t know and they’re going to be in trouble in two minutes”. Chintuji would do this again and again. He was a prankster; he was bit of a brat. He was fun. He was very nice, and yeah, he was really unique.
Juhi Chawla: Because we shot in Ooty a couple of times, we used to stay at the Taj hotel and there was this Mr. Bijlani, an elderly person, very stern. There was only one dining room over there. So invariably we would see this gentleman sitting all by himself. He would barely smile at anyone. He would sit, eat his dinner, sit for a while, and leave. Every time we went, Mr. Bijlani was always there. And he would always sit alone. So, once we just kind of went and you know, sat with him and made a little conversation. We got to know that he lived all by himself in a nearby hotel. Instead of having his staff cook he came there and ate and never spoke to anybody. He barely knew who Chintuji was because I don't think he watched films. But Chintuji went out of his way to be nice to him, like, lighten up somebody's evening. It was so sweet because Chintuji is not like... otherwise we wouldn't do that. Even after we stopped doing films over there, whenever we would meet up and if I said, "Oh! I've been to Ooty" he would say, "So how's that Mr. Bijlani? I wonder how he is." So, it was very sweet. Like he had a very soft side to him. Like I said, he was a fun package.
From then to now, you worked with him even on his last film that he couldn’t finish, Sharmaji Namkeen. What was it like sharing screen space with him after so long?
Juhi Chawla: I was so delighted that I was working with him and it’s such a cute film. Some observations I started making on the set. I realised when he was giving his shots, they were just so effortless, they were just so charming. And I as an artist was beginning to get insecure, not insecure but almost envious, that why don’t my shots come out like this? I know the effort I put into things and stuff like that and I’m just observing this quietly, as an artist inside. And I would frequently go to the monitor just to see if my shot is okay or not but he never went to a monitor. Then he would scold me in front of everybody, “You insecure actor. Why do you go and see this monitor? Hitesh why do you allow all this? The monitor is for the director, it was never for the actor. You’re not supposed to go and see your performance, he is supposed to see your performance.” And this he had been doing for like 30 years that I’ve worked, it’s been the same. So, by now I’m like rolling with laughter because I find it very funny, and not only me sometimes he would scold the director. Or something would happen and he would be like this cute, grumpy, affectionate self. I think he only scolded people he liked.
Juhi Chawla: And then I remember we were shooting in the car. We had some two or three scenes, which were to be shot in the car. We did our rehearsals and it was just him and me sitting. And I remember, I don't know how it came up but it was like, he told me that for him there's nothing like dialogues - every line has an emotion, and he just remembers that. He just associates it with the emotions, and then everything just flows for him and I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my God! All this time I've never looked at it that way". I've always looked at my lines like lines, and then tried to learn and emote them. Whereas he always did it the other way around. I was absorbing all this because I want to be as effortless as him.
Then he told me the strangest thing. He asked, "How do you people do advertisements? I cannot do an advertisements." Apparently, he tried at some point, and he just couldn't say the line, because, in advertisements, sometimes there's no story or anything, it's just about branding, or just saying some tagline or something like that. He was like, "There's no emotion there. I just couldn't remember what I was supposed to say, I cannot do ads," and I was looking at Chintuji and thinking - Huh!? This is totally the opposite to everything I know. He was such a true artist, such a joy to work with, so wonderful. Whether he was being funny or sarcastic, or emotional, everything was just so so easy for him.
When was the last time you met Rishi Kapoor?
Juhi Chawla: Since he hadn’t been well, so I’d message him saying,”Chintuji can I come over and meet you?” Because just two months before that we had been working. Then he had messaged back saying he was going for one of his routine check-ups in Mumbai and asked me to meet there. I’d gone with Sanjay, who has been my manager for 20 years. So, Sanjay, myself, Neetuji was there and we were there for three hours. Chintuji didn’t do too much of the talking, Neetuji and us were chatting. At the end of two-and-a-half, three hours, I was like, “You know, I think they’ll throw us out. Sanjay let’s leave now”. That was it. And after that, a month or so later, it’s like you know...
How did you get the news of his demise on 30 April, 2020? Do you remember that day?
Juhi Chawla: I remember that day. It was during the lockdown. I was home practicing some music and Jay (Mehta) came into the room and he was like “Do you know Chintuji has passed away.” I was so shocked, so saddened. I couldn’t think straight for the next two-three days.
I think we all remember Chintuji very fondly, and I’d like to think that he is very much around.