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The Storm has Passed

December 2002
The Storm has Passed

Neetu adores Dudley. Rishi does too. Clearly, Dudley is a Very Important Person in the Kapoor household. As I peer down the curve of the staircase, Dudley intercepts me. In a trice, Neetu rushes out. Dudley and she wantonly throw themselves into a great big hug against the backdrop of misty French windows veiling a verdant lawn, like in a Karan Johar movie. Dudley?s pugnacious expression dissolves into smug bliss. Neetu glances up at me, laughs, ?Come on in!?

Neetu stuns. You might well ask, when was she not attractive, with that sunburst smile and bubbly sexuality? But reinvented as a slender 50 kgs, 5?6??, she exudes classic chic. ?The day I engaged a personal trainer, my life changed!? she reveals.

Daughter Ridhima enters, snow-complexioned, straight-backed and dainty as a porcelain figurine. She has just left STAR TV after a three-month stint during which none of her colleagues suspected who she really was.

Rishi is at the computer in the adjacent dining area. ?Be with you in a sec?. My fingers curling around a chilled Diet Coke, I look around. Despite the mandatory crystal and silver gracing the coffee table, the lounge looks lived-in, comfortable.

The house, Krishna-Raj as it is called, absolutely reflects the family. An eclectic taste in decor but no extremism. It?s a reflection of Neetu?s warmth and Rishi?s fastidious taste.

The children, 21-year-old Ridhima and 19-year-old Ranbir are back home now. But for the four years that Ridhima was in London, and Ranbir was at the College of Visual Arts in the US, how did the parents face the empty house? Neetu admits, ?I missed them like hell. Especially since, during that time, I wasn?t on speaking terms with Chintu (Rishi). Do you know why he loves Dudley? It?s because of Dudley that I started talking to him again! We had to communicate to bring him up together!

Chintu decides to join us. As soon as his eyes meet Dudley?s who had been shut out in the verhandah, he orders that he be let in. ?And now, are you going to ask me odd questions about my marriage in front of my children??

To every question, he replies belligerently, ?I don?t remember.? Yours was a fairy-tale wedding, I say, braving another path, but after the sho-sha died and the bulbs stopped flashing, what was it really like for you? He stares at me. ?I don?t remember. DON?T EMBARASS ME, YAAR! ?We are just two normal people, we have to cope with problems like any other couple.? There can be no doubt whatsoever after fifteen minutes with Chintu on his own territory, that he is quite the little Napoleon.

Blue jeans and T-shirt tucked in hardly present a flattering silhouette and, in these times, fat at fifty is not cute, it?s a health hazard. And yet, the aura has endured. Rishi Kapoor has the compelling presence of a man who is used to commanding, not negotiating; a man who considers himself blessed.

?But I didn?t complete my education and today, I see the difference between the lack of a good education and its advantages.? He elaborates, ?It gives you confidence.?

No Second Chances

Ranbir saunters in. Tall, and cool with the workouts in evidence under his tee shirt. Chintu continues, ?That?s why I insisted on Ranbir qualifying before stepping into the industry. He must have something to fall back on. Hamara zamana aur tha. We were given chance after chance. Does a newcomer have that luxury today? Besides, these boys have to contend with the powerful electronic media. My advice is, it?s not as easy as it looks. Even if you do attain stardom in your first film, are you equipped to handle it? I turned positively obnoxious after Bobby. And when the flops follow, the frustration makes one a bigger monster. That?s why I want Ranbir to wait for another 3-4 years.?

What does Ranbir want? He doesn?t open his mouth much in front of his father, just as Chintu dared not before Raj Kapoor. ?I?m glad he?s studied filmmaking,? Chintu butts in and adds that Ranbir?s short films ?are good, considering his age. But he needs to apply experience to knowledge. Still, it?s up to him. I remember my dad telling me very clearly after Bobby, ?now you?re on your own. If you want my guidance I?m there for you, but that?s about it?.?

Ranbir seems okay with his Dad?s pragmatism. He says of his stint in the US, ?The faculty was excellent. The way the teachers interact with students is something you don?t get here.? It was the first time he?d winged out of the family nest and he agrees with his father?s view that taking responsibility is what separates the men from the boys.

Rishi is now showing signs of restlessness and asks to be excused. He steps out of the French windows quickly, without even a backward glance. Neetu smiles, ?He?s not romantic at all in real life. She adds that most people, even family and friends turn to her when they want anything conveyed to Chintu because they?re terrified of having their heads chewed off. Fortunately for Chintu, his wife?s head is screwed on tight. I have yet to meet another woman with such amazing sensibility. ?That?s because I saw life in the raw from a very early age,? she says quietly.

Loss of Innocence

She was just five when she was led into the studios. And she continued working throughout childhood... puberty.... teens.....right until she reached 21 and accepted the first proposal that came her way. Rishi Kapoor was her Prince Charles, the Kapoors were like royalty; they ushered her into the upper echelons of society. ?I knew the family I was marrying into was way up there. In comparison, I felt like an upstart. So I molded myself. I did everything to please my husband and my in-laws.?

She learnt how to be a perfect wife, mother, daughter-in-law, homemaker and hostess. All those years of training as an actress and obedient daughter stood her in good stead. She knew how to keep smiling through any calamity. She became a cool liar. She would do anything to keep her home intact and win the Kapoors? approval.���

?Then, one day I realized that I had no identity. I?d been obeying orders all my life, drifting, always trying to keep the peace. But that?s not how it works. You get respect only when you respect yourself. I had virtually no self-esteem. My spirit had been beaten into submission since childhood. I was going to the studios when other children went to school. Take it from me, every child artiste, here or in Hollywood, is exploited by an ambitious parent, making money on a child who doesn?t know better. It seems okay to the kids because they get a lot of attention and they haven?t a clue that they?re losing out on something far more precious ? normalcy.?

Still, like she says, she was cocooned in blissful ignorance until she was force-fed into ?growing up? at 14 with hormonal additives. Her mother didn?t like being out in the cold in the intervening years so she made sure that her daughter was launched as a heroine as quickly as it takes to spout a bosom. That horror has never quite left her. If she objected to certain embarrassingly risqu� scenes or costumes, her protests were silenced with stinging slaps. ?I had nowhere to go, nobody to call my own except my mother. The only way I could escape was through marriage. I was only too happy to marry an MCP and be told to give up working. The problem was that I?d merely changed one master for another. I was still ordered around and taken for granted. And if I had an opinion, which ran contrary to my lord and master?s, well ? I don?t have to spell out what followed. ?

The scenario for all women in the Hindi film industry is pathetically similar. The male has scant respect for women. He may have to doff his cap if she?s important to his career, but in private, even an Aishwarya Rai gets hammered by a drunken beau and keeps quiet.

To a Western mind it might seem inconceivable, but to the orthodox Indian, if the husband is a generous provider, an honest citizen and a responsible father, you would be mad to walk out. And for a woman who has only ever loved one man, the dilemma goes much deeper. A pity human relationships cannot be neatly divided into wedges and politely refused ? I?ll have only the good side.


Period of Introspection

?But I had grown since then, in more ways than one. In the process of trying to groom and mold myself I?d acquired emotional maturity too. I realized that I may not have been highly educated, but over the years I could count myself as well-read and aware.

?Besides, having seen a lot in life, I?d become even more worldly-wise. I went through so much heartburn taking on others? agonies. I?m a patient listener; I?m always there for my friends and family because I genuinely care for people. Chintu would keep warning me not to get too close to people and right enough, so many friends turned around and repaid my kindness by hurting me so badly.

?It taught me a valuable lesson. I withdrew into my own space. My kids were at college. Ranbir, Ridhima and I would meet up in chat rooms every night. I hired a personal trainer and concentrated on myself for a change. I remember her scolding me not to speak whilst on the treadmill, but I?d jabber away non-stop from the minute she entered. I was plain lonely. I had stopped talking to my husband, my mother, my friends ? all those who?d hurt me.

?It suits my mother fine to live here with us. I have never asked what she?s done with the millions I earned and she?s never offered it either. She would rather see me buried alive in this house as Mrs. Kapoor, than risk my position by rebelling. I realized that nobody was going to help me ? except my son, but it wasn?t fair to make a child take sides against a father who was a very good father. He did tick his father off a couple of times when Chintu got so high that he smashed everything in sight, but his father can never remember anything the next day. I felt so sorry for poor Ranbir who hated having to confront an innocent-faced father who just stared back in complete amnesia. I think the best solution was to get the kids out of the house until we cleaned up our act. So, that left only me. I had to help myself. ?

Striking Back

There were several options ? the obvious one being to walk out on an alcoholic wife-beater and return to films, which she straight away dismissed as flipping from the frying pan back into the fire. After much thought, she decided that what was needed was a change from within. She began by laying down a few ground rules. If her husband couldn?t communicate without a modicum of respect then she would simply ignore him. She stopped waiting on him hand and foot, no matter how loudly he wailed to her dear mama and the entire Kapoor family. ?They didn?t dare question me because they?d silently watched his behavior all these years without taking him to task. The Kapoors have a cardinal rule ? never to interfere in each other?s lives. It may be cruel sometimes, but in the long run, it?s better. And no matter what, I never ceased to be loving and respectful towards them. My rebellion was intended to improve my life, not to destroy existing relationships.?

It worked. Suddenly Rishi found himself at the mercy of indifferent servants. No more special menus, no wifey rushing to his side after a rude bellow, not even matching socks laid out and certainly no soft hands pressing his feet half the night. Suddenly, he felt very frightened and alone.

?When I look back I can safely say that there has been tremendous growth in the last two decades. For that, I must thank Mr. Rishi Kapoor. He made me the person I am today. He is so fastidious and dictatorial, that I had to keep pace with his perfectionism. I used to be petrified of putting a foot wrong. But there?s a limit to everything. Someday, somewhere, something will snap if you are pushed too far. I think it happened when I realized that I had to stop being so afraid of failing. That I owed myself too. So, in a way, it was my husband who made me realize that I was a person in my own right, a human being, not a mere puppet on a string.?���

Rishi Kapoor was fighting his own demons. An unrestrained fondness for food and drink had made him transgress all limits. It?s never easy to start losing all that you hold dear, all that you have taken for granted. An enormously talented actor, he was losing out to middle age and an expanding midriff.

His wife, along with everything else, was changing too. He admits he?s ?old-fashioned? and was confounded to see his docile, obedient wife transform. Their equations were changing. And understandably, Rishi, who was facing so many changes concurrently, became confused. But for Neetu there was no turning back from the voyage of self-discovery. It was a storm they had to weather together.

Today, she can proudly say, ?The storm has passed.? It hasn?t been easy and it won?t always be smooth sailing. But they?ll stay on course because they?ve learnt the secret of teamwork.

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