A stage musical – titled Rishi – was to be performed, under the aegis of Mumbai’s prestigious National Centre of the Performing Arts (NCPA) – written (yes!) by Rishi Kapoor and myself, circa 2017.
The play in two acts was written, following a dozen of evening sessions at his Krishna Raj bungalow on Pali Hill, followed by a wrap-up of its 24 scenes during late night hours in the course of the filming of Kapoor & Sons in the calming ambience of a five-star suite in Coonoor.
The auspicious date for the play’s performance was selected as 28 September, when Rishi Kapoor’s cult love story, Bobby had released in 1973.
Reason: The story we were attempting presented the umbilical cord to his first adult role as an actor besides dedicating it to the teenaged girl who had groomed him painstakingly to face the camera, three years after his cherubic schoolboy National Award-winning act for Best Child Actor in Mera Naam Joker.
The girl in question came from an upper-crust Parsi family, they had met at an inter-school evening party. She studied at the Cathedral and John Connon School, he at its rival Campion, at a brief trot from one another in South Bombay.
Her family was contacted for the go-ahead for the play, which was given on the condition that we altered her real name. Hence it was changed to Sayeh Mistry. An uncommon name, Sayeh means Shade or Shadow. Real names were retained vis-à-vis Neetu Singh, Rishi Kapoor and his secretary Ghanshyam.
The plot of the play in essence narrated the obsessive love story of Rishi Kapoor and Sayeh Mistry, before he turned into an overnight star, the nation’s prime heart-throb after the phenomenal success of Bobby.
Sayeh’s conservative parents hadn’t quite approved of their daughter’s suitor from the outset - since there was an ingrained prejudice at the time against the Bollywood system, associated with rampant adulterous affairs and an unsteady career.
Despite that, Sayeh and Rishi would date regularly at the now-defunct Bombelli’s café at Churchgate and watch movies at the close by Eros cinema. If tickets weren’t available for the last day, last show screening of Camelot, he had surprised her by acquiring them through his contacts at the theatre. They would exchange small gifts – romantic cards, lockets and good luck charms.
When Rishi informed her that his father, Raj Kapoor, was adamant on casting him in Bobby, Sayeh was apprehensive about her parents’ reaction. Covertly, she helped him to lose weight by exercising, maintain a strict diet regimen and had even designed some of his costumes, including blazers and a long purple-and-black scarf.
Bobby premiered at the Metro cinema, and it wasn’t the same ever again. The Mistrys were sent invitations but neither Sayeh nor her parents showed up. Next, a gossip item in Stardust stated that Rishi was “involved in an affair” with the Bobby girl Dimple Kapadia. Sayeh refused to take his phone calls or ever meet him again.
Distraught, from his location shoots away from Bombay, the actor would send her lengthy telegrams running into tens of pages. No answer. His co-star Neetu Singh in a series of breezy entertainers, tried to play Cupid, helping him to word the telegrams. In vain.
Subsequently, Sayeh married a businessman, settled in London and was never heard of again, till decades later it was learnt she had succumbed to cancer. End of story? Not quite. Sayeh’s mother invited the actor to her house and apologised. She had never allowed Sayeh to read any of the telegrams, which were stored in a drawer.
The mother returned the unopened telegrams to the actor. A bitter-sweet end, that, during the writing of which Rishi Kapoor’s eyes would moisten with tears.
The play was to include three musical set pieces – medleys of vintage songs by Elvis Presley, Paul Anka and the Beatles, dances from Bobby, and the chartbusters performed by Rishi with Neetu Singh, whom he had finally proposed to after a stint of shooting for Kabhi Kabhie in Kashmir. He had left for another shoot, and had telegrammed her, “Sikhni bahut yaad aati hai.”
The play’s end was an issue. Rishi was insistent that Neetu should emerge as the “better and more sensible person” than him. We were still to rewrite the finale even as the rehearsals started in right earnest, mostly on the NCPA premises to cut costs. Rishi would exult that the entire Kapoor clan would attend its premiere.
After a round of auditions the upcoming actor Amol Parashar and theatre artiste Kumud Misha, were approached to portray the young and the older Rishi Kapoor respectively. Sajeel Parekh was finalised as the understudy of the young Rishi Kapoor. Theatre actor Nishi Doshi was to enact Neetu Singh. Veteran stage actor Pheroza Mody was firmed as Sayeh’s mother Mrs Mistry.
Stage actor Danesh Irani (not to be confused with Boman Irani’s son) would spark up the rehearsals as secretary Ghanshyam. Theatre and ad film actor, Karan Desai, in a cameo as a balladeer, would have the team in tears with his rendition of the Paul Anka song, It’s Time to Cry.
The casting of Sayeh Mistry wasn’t simple: the then still-to-debut Student of the Year heroine Tara Sutaria wasn’t quite sure, making us zero into model-and-actor Kaizeen Irani.
The project was backed with conviction by critic Deepa Gehlot, who was then in charge of the theatre department of NCPA.
Then came the crunch, besides the Rs 15 lakhs sanctioned for the project, no sponsors could be located for extra funds of at least double that amount. With an inadequate budget, a musical with elaborate sets, music, mood lighting, choreography and chorus dancers would have at best, resulted in a tacky product. There was no option but to pull out.
Undaunted, Rishi Kapoor introduced me to an executive of an event management company, who claimed that sufficient funds would be released by the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Anandiben Patel, who wished the play to premiere at their annual cultural festival in Baroda. Fair enough but not quite, the CM was replaced suddenly by the central government before she could sign the contract.
A meeting was set up with a corporate honcho who heard out the script, praised it to the high heavens and suggested that the play should incorporate laser technology and VFX effects. After that extravagant suggestion, he didn’t get back. Neither did I.
Filmmaker Abhishek Kapoor asked me to mail him the script, he felt it could make a wonderful biopic, and Whatsapp-d that he was loving it. Not a single word after that.
Rishi Kapoor’s persistent question would be, “So when is the play happening?” adding, “I could fund it, you know.” “Not done,” I would retort. “If it happens, it will on its own merit.”
Perhaps it just wasn’t commercially viable, perhaps it just didn’t have enough merit, hence the play was placed on the backburner. There were other fruitless meetings with theatre backers, each wanting to know if Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh Kapoor would play their own roles on stage. And could Ranbir Kapoor possibly put in a “guest appearance” to enhance the star value?
Obviously, theatre has its own insurmountable hazards – bring a star or stars on stage – and the producer would be in the gravy. Or else the project could be financially dicey. Rishi would still prod me to negotiate with his contacts. No progress.
Rishi Kapoor, during his end-days, after being treated for cancer in New York, and back – full of beans as ever – kept berating me, “You can’t give up so easily, you loser.” That I was. Clearly, I had failed an actor whom I considered my closest friend in Bollywood, an area where genuine friendships are rarer than miracles.
His last words to me were, “Just come over for dinner. I have some ideas to get you a decent budget.” That dinner wasn’t to be. His health had taken a turn for the worse, he was rushed to hospital and he passed away at the age of 67 on 30 April, 2020.
And I am sure he would have called up this year on 28 September, “You’ve missed out on the date of the play again, you’re much too laidback man. Never give up.”
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