Neetu Kapoor (also known as Neetu Singh or Harneet Kaur to some), the heartthrob of the ’70s, the unobtrusive scene-stealer, is all about joie de vivre. When she started her career as a popular child actor who starred in more than 50 films over the span of a decade, no one would have thought that this was just phased one of her acting journey.
Now in her late 60s, Kapoor seems to come on her own, heroically bouncing back from the heartbreaking death of her life partner two years ago. Kapoor is the new darling of the paparazzi, with her friendly smile, a comment here, an advice there for the waiting cameramen, she continues to win hearts.
Baby Sonia- the superstar
She was born on July 8, 1958, in a Jatt Sikh family in Delhi and was the only daughter of Rajee Kaur and Darshan Singh. From Delhi, the family moved to Peddar Road in Mumbai where she attended Hill Grange High School. After she lost her father at a young age, she was inducted into the industry as a child artist- Baby Sonia, making her debut with T Prakash Rao’s princely romance Suraj (1966) starring Rajendra Kumar and Vyjayanthimala. Story goes that the angelic girl was noticed by Vyjayanthimala who suggested her name to the director.
She went on to play the role of Roopa in the comedy Dus Lakh (1966). The turning point in her career as a child actor was when she played the double role of twins who reunite their estranged parents in the Mala Sinha-Biswajeet starrer Do Kaliyaan (1968). Composer Ravi and Sahir Ludhianvi’s ode to children, “Bachche mann ke sachche” which was picturised on Neetu Kapoor in the film, is still played during events on Children’s Day. Supposedly, young Rishi used to bunk school to watch Do Kaliyaan. Her other films as child actor were Waris (1969) and Pavitra Paapi (1970).
The child heroine comes of age
At the age of 15, Kapoor made her debut as a leading lady in Rickshawala (1973) opposite Randhir Kapoor. But unfortunately the film flopped. Soon enough her role in Nasir Hussain’s Yaadon Ki Baarat (1973), due to the dance number “Lekar hum deewana dil” with Tariq Hussain by RD Burman, catapulted her to super stardom.
In the 1970s, she starred with her future brother-in-law Randhir Kapoor in films like Heeralal Pannalal, Bhala Manus, Kasme Vaade and Dhongee. She also worked alongside her future husband’s uncle Shashi Kapoor in Deewaar, Shankar Dada, Ek Aur Ek Gyarah and Kala Patthar. With Rajesh Khanna, she acted in the action-comedy film Maha Chor, the thriller Chakravyuha and the Punjabi film Sawa Lakh Se Ek Ladaun.
She seemed at ease with Jeetendra, Rishi’s close friend, and it was evident in films like Dharam Veer, Priyatama and Chorni in which the two shared space on the screen. She paired with another heartthrob of her era – Vinod Khanna in films The Burning Train and Raj Mahal. With Amitabh Bachchan she worked in the musical Yaarana, the drama Adalat and the thriller The Great Gambler. Since the actor was quite young when she was romancing these leading men on the silver screen, Bachchan reportedly pulled her leg once, saying, “You say “I love you” on screen so often. Do you even understand its meaning?”
A jodi for life
But life had other plans for her, it pushed her towards Rishi Kapoor. When actor Dimple Kapadia quit films and his life in order to marry Rajesh Khanna, Neetu Kapoor had walked in as a replacement in film where she was to work with Rishi Kapoor and eventually became a permanent fixture in his life later.
Given her no starry attitude, she was the fave of filmmakers and co-stars. It is interesting that male stars, who were friends with Rishi, felt protective about his “girlfriend”. Also, the non-competitive star that Neetu Kapoor was, she was never perceived as a threat by her female co-stars. In fact, it is said that she went on to share a close rapport with Rekha who even shared her exotic make-up secrets with her.
When you think Neetu Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor automatically comes to mind. This endearing couple starred together in around 12 films including Zehreela Insaan, Khel Khel Mein, Rafoo Chakkar, Kabhie Kabhie, Doosra Aadmi, Amar Akbar Anthony, Jhoota Kahin Ka and Dhan Daulat. They both shared the same energy which was youthful and bubbly. It was difficult to separate their reel chemistry from their real life romance.
The 1974 film Zehreela Insaan is supposedly the starting point of the Rishi-Neetu relationship. But its said that sometime later, when he went to Paris for the shoot of the film Barood (1976), Rishi began to miss her company. Reportedly, Rishi sent her a telegram saying, “Ye Sikhni badi yaad aati hai.”
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Speaking about her romance with Rishi she said, “Rishi Kapoor and I were just co-stars during the shoot of Zehreela Insaan, Rafoo Chakkar and Zinda Dil. He had break up with two other girls during this period. He used to tell me, how bad girls are and how they bug him. How much do they lie and force him to lie and so on. Media kept pairing us as a in love couple pair with the success of Khel Khel Mein, Rafoo Chakkar, Kabhie Kabhie and Amar Akbar Anthony. However, I guess we fell in love, much later when both of us had flops. We got closer while doing films Anjane Mein, Doosara Aadmi and Jhoota Kahin Ka which were declared disasters subsequently on their release. It was the year 1978 when the cupid struck and I actually realized, yes I should marry him. We told at our respective houses in 1979. Initially everyone was skeptical, as to whether it will work. We kept going on strong. We were offered two more films Duniya Meri Jeb Mein and Dhan Daulat. Every one in the sets including Shashi uncle, Pran and Prem Nath sahib would tease us during the shoot of these two films.”
Rishi, was also child-like, a bully, but an endearing one, had supposedly kept the 8 pm pack-up deadline for his girlfriend -Kapoor. There was this incidence, when Kapoor was shooting the song “Dhoom mache dhoom” with Yash Chopra for Kaala Patthar (1979) which was to go on till late evening, yet Yash Chopra to Bachchan, everyone ensured that she left the set early. And supposedly Kapoor didn’t even stop to change and met her boyfriend in costume.
Rishi Kapoor eventually proposed to Neetu, then Singh, in 1979, this was after they had dated her for five years. They got married in 1980. Neetu Kapoor, who had been working since childhood, was happy to settle in domestic bliss. She retired at 21.
Romance and reality not good bedfellows
After their wedding, for a few years, Rishi and Neetu, stayed with Raj Kapoor and Krishna in Chembur at the Kapoors’ family home. But after a few years when daughter Riddhima and son Ranbir were born, the couple moved to their bungalow named Krishna in Bandra.
Reality and romance have never been great friends. The Rishi-Neetu marriage reportedly went through its fair share of turmoil in the ’90s. But despite Rishi’s penchant for alcohol, his mercurial temper and his love for food (like a true Kapoor), the marriage sailed through. Neetu Kapoor was once quoted saying that Rishi was “a good husband and father” and hence everything else lost its edge eventually.
Once she was done raising her children, Neetu Kapoor made a comeback to films after 26 years opposite her husband in Love Aaj Kal (2009) and went on to star in films like Do Dooni Chaar (2010), Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) and Besharam (2013). Her come back was like a throwback treat for her fans, and the validation of her talent. In 2022, she starred opposite Anil Kapoor in Jug Jugg Jiyo, also featuring Kiara Advani and Varun Dhawan.
Her off-screen side
Few know about it but one passion apart from her family is Kapoor’s resolve to keep herself fit. In her 60s, her agility is inspiring women to lead an active and healthy life. She has been an hands-on mom to Riddhima, who is now married to Delhi-based industrialist Bharat Sahni and loves being grandmother to her grand-daughter Samara. Her bond with son Ranbir Kapoor is there for all to see. The two have held each other through the highs and lows of life.
On her becoming a mother at a very young age she had said, “I became a mother at 22. Sometimes I screamed at them when I was angry. I now understand that if a child is behaving in a different way there has to be an issue.” She also said, “ I feel one should have children at a later stage, when you are more calm.”
The new age mom
Kapoor has been living alone at her residence after husband Rishi passed away. In an interview, she said that she wants her kids to stay in touch but not meet her everyday.
She said, “I want them to be busy with their lives. I say mere dil mein raho, mere sar pe mat chadho (stay in my heart, don’t stand on my head). When Riddhima was with me for the pandemic, I was so stressed for one year because she couldn’t go back. I used to get so restless. I used to tell her Riddhima to go back, Bharat is alone. I was literally pushing her away. I like my privacy. I am used to this way of life.”
Breaking patriarchal shackles
During her son Ranbir’s wedding with Alia Bhatt she gave us both mom and mom-in-law goals and in the process shattered some taboos. One could see her and her daughter Riddhima Saini attending all the pre-wedding ceremonies like the Mehendi and Haldi rasams. It’s important because she’s a widow and in India, there is a taboo for widowed women to not be part of auspicious ceremonies especially related to wedding, but by participating in both, Kapoor made it clear that she wasn’t bothered by social stigma and being with her children during important moments in their lives mattered to her more.
If you follow her wardrobe for her son’s wedding you will see her wearing the brightest of colours and prints that are again a big no-no for widowed women. Well, in India its customary for widows to wear ‘white’ or dull colours for the rest of their lives. So, kudos to Kapoor for proving that the passing away of one’s husband doesn’t mean a woman should stop living.
Kapoor was a teen icon, one of the most loved stars in the 70s and the echo of her career still hovers around Bollywood and is cherished. Her fans have danced with her, learned to love with her and laughed their hearts out whenever she was on the big screen. No matter what decade, no matter what age, the silver screen is truly where Neetu Kapoor belongs.
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