As Indian cinema turns 100 years old, one powerful Bollywood dynasty can trace the roots of its stardom almost right back to the birth of the national film industry.
“We have been there throughout. All the milestones of cinema, there has been some Kapoor or other,” says 60-year-old Rishi Kapoor, who has notched up nearly 150 Hindi film credits over a 40-year acting career.
It started with his grandfather Prithviraj, a silver screen pioneer from the 1920s. Then came his son, the legendary Raj Kapoor, known as “the Showman” and “India’s Charlie Chaplin” for his roles as a loveable tramp.
Raj’s three sons followed him into acting, with Rishi leading the way as his generation’s romantic hero. Now Rishi’s son Ranbir, 30, is touted as “the future of Bollywood” and his niece Kareena is a leading actress.
That’s not to mention the Kapoor spouses, cousins, in-laws and other relatives who have taken a shot at movie stardom with varying degrees of success.
“The audiences have always welcomed us and given an opportunity and we’ve lived up to it,” Rishi says at his sprawling bungalow in Mumbai, which he shares with his wife Neetu, an actress, and their rising-star son.
The three of them will appear together in the film Besharam (Shameless), which Rishi is just back from shooting in New Delhi. He jokes that he is finished talking in interviews about his son, whose fame is fast eclipsing his own. “Whenever I talk about Ranbir … whatever I’ve said about him is in the headlines,” he says in mock anger. “The article’s about me, not my son!”
But he is clearly delighted that Ranbir is continuing the family tradition, which he puts down to “our purpose, our resolve, our passion for cinema”.
The lineage keeps producing talent – Ranbir won critical acclaim for his turn as the deaf-mute hero of last year’s hit Barfi! – but it also shows the power of a surname in an industry still mired in nepotism.
The main rivals to the title of “Bollywood’s first family” are the Bachchans. The superstar Amitabh married the actress Jaya Bhaduri and their son Abhishek has followed them into the movies and married the model and actress Aishwarya Rai.
Among other famous film families are the Dutts, the Bhatts, the Deols, the Akhtars, the Chopras and the Johars.
“I’m a brand ambassador of nepotism,” admitted the director and producer Karan Johar at a recent conference on cinema in Mumbai.
“If my father was not a film producer and he didn’t have that kind of contact with other illustrious filmmakers, I would probably have been a fashion designer, I would have been in the world of advertising.”
In showbiz worldwide it helps to have connections, but India is especially fond of its dynasties. But a few outsiders have managed to break into cinema.
The megastar Shah Rukh Khan, ranked as India’s top celebrity by Forbes, had no starry childhood but a middle-class upbringing in Delhi. The half-British Katrina Kaif, one of Bollywood’s highest-paid actresses, was brought up abroad, not speaking Hindi.
“I think it has become a more accessible space in the past 15 years. The pearly gates to the kingdom have opened up a little bit, especially for filmmakers,” says the film critic Anupama Chopra, who adds, however, that nepotism remains a “big part” of the industry.
Rishi insists that hard work and talent are crucial to make it to the top – not every Kapoor has hit the big time. But if you are one of the lucky ones, he sees little sense in diverting from the family path. “It’s plain logic. Why would I want to become a rocket scientist when I’m good as an actor?” he laughs.
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