Article Hindi

30 years of Prem Qaidi: Karisma Kapoor’s ordinary yet memorable entry into Hindi cinema

The actress made her debut in a remake of a Telugu film. A look at her low-key launch and how her career shaped up thereafter.

Sonal Pandya

Karisma Kapoor became the first female from the Kapoor khandaan (or dynasty) to actively pursue an acting career on the big screen. All the Kapoors before her who joined the profession, from great-grandfather Prithviraj down to youngest uncle Rajiv, were males. Her aunt, Sanjana, acted in a few films like Hero Hiralal (1989) and Aranyaka (1994) before turning her attention to Prithvi theatre, a family legacy.

When the sixteen-year-old joined films, it caused a schism within the family, with her mother Babita, a former actress herself, leaving her husband and moving out with her two daughters. The young woman chose a South film remake for her debut, an unconventional choice, opposite a hero, Harish Kumar, who at 15, was younger than her.

The granddaughter of Raj Kapoor had signed a number of films when making her decision to become an actress. The first time she faced the camera was with Salman Khan for Nishchaiy (1992), but that film was released later. According to Madhu Jain in her book The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema, Karisma left Dharmendra's Barsaat (1995) which was launching his younger son, Bobby Deol, as the project kept getting delayed.

“Being from the Kapoor family, I did have the choice for a big launch,” she told the former daily tabloid Mumbai Mirror in an interview. “But Prem Qaidi offered a meaty role for a newcomer. You know, I was wearing a short wig in the film. In those days, that was very unusual.”

Karisma also fielded questions about why she was not launched by her grandfather’s banner, RK Films, which was making Henna at the time, and she said she couldn’t have been paired opposite her uncle, Rishi Kapoor, who was playing the lead.

Prem Qaidi (1991) was a remake of the Telugu film Prema Khaidi (1990), which also starred Harish Kumar opposite Malashri. The Telugu film was produced by D Rama Naidu and K Murali and directed by EVV Satyanarayana. The Hindi remake was helmed by K Murali Mohan Rao.

A few sources state that Karisma’s first film was Danga Fasad (1990) starring Jeet Upendra which came before Prem Qaidi, but it seems another actress named Karishma has been mistaken for her.

Karisma played Neelima, the daughter of a rich man (Dalip Tahil), who falls in love with his employee’s son Chandramohan (Harish Kumar). When Neelima’s father finds out about their love, he gets his lackeys to beat up Chandramohan, but somehow his father Suryanath (Bharat Bhushan) is killed instead.

Chandramohan is wrongly sentenced for his father’s murder. While in prison, he is tortured and beaten constantly until a kindly superintendent takes pity on him and tries to learn more about him. Learning about his love for Neelima, she tries to get the young lovers united.

The teenage stars of Prem Qaidi made an awkward couple and the love saga boosted Karisma’s career more than Harish’s. The former child artiste acted in a number of South films before making his debut as a lead in the Malayalam film Daisy (1988). Though he was later in films like Coolie No 1 (1995), Army (1996), and Hero No 1 (1997), he is most well-known today for starring opposite Karisma in her debut.

Jain wrote, “In Prem Qaidi she is a gawky teenager with bushy eyebrows and bad make-up. She moves like a puppet being manipulated by an inexperienced puppeteer. Her leading man, Harish, was an unknown entity in Hindi cinema. Although the film was not a total washout, unfortunately for her the buzz about the film centred around a Kapoor girl wearing a swimsuit and showing a fair amount of flesh — and that too in an insignificant film.”

“This is what I wanted to do in life — act in films,” Karisma said in the same Mumbai Mirror interview. “And in a way, I was confident of Prem Qaidi. I was hoping for the best. After the film released, I sneaked into a few theatres on the big day, just to check out the audience's reactions. I did not even wear a burqa or anything to cover my face. It was a wonderful feeling. People were clapping. I could see that people liked me. Over the weekend, the film did really well. My dad came and told me, ‘Lolo, you have made your mark.’”

After her not-so-impressive debut, the teenager quickly signed on for films opposite A-list heroes like Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn. While she didn't have much to do in her early 1990s roles except look pretty and act as the love interest in a number of hits, she had notable films like Raja Babu (1994) and the cult comedy Andaz Apna Apna (1994) under her belt.

Her collaborations with co-star Govinda in David Dhawan’s films quickly made them a household name, especially with songs like 'Sona Kitna Sona Hai', 'Main Toh Raste Se Ja Raha Tha' and 'What Is Mobile Number?'

“Karisma dances like her grand uncle Shammi Kapoor, with a touch of wildness and an exuberance that makes you feel tired just watching her gyrate,” author Jain noted. “Restraint seems to have been thrown out of the window. But like Shammi Kapoor she too was playing at being the extrovert. For both it had to be success at any cost: both had false starts in their career and lots of failures on the way before finally 'arriving'. You sense that humiliation fuelled their journey up. True grit was at work here at Karisma.”

Karisma herself admitted that in the 1990s she “worked like a horse with blinkers”. By 1996, with a new sleek makeover and a dramatic part opposite Aamir Khan in Raja Hindustani (1996), Karisma won her first Filmfare award for Best Actress. The next year, she walked away with the National award for Best Supporting Actress for Yash Chopra's Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), leaving behind her bigger co-stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit. The role of Nisha had been turned down by a number of leading actresses of that time.

20 years of Zubeidaa: Why Shyam Benegal cast Karisma Kapoor without having seen any of her films

The new millennium ushered in more dramatic roles with Fiza (2000) and Zubeidaa (2001) which raked in more awards for Karisma. By 2003, she wound up her acting commitments and married businessman Sanjay Kapur on 29 September. She took up the leading role in a television serial Karishma: A Miracle Of Destiny instead.

Ironically, the actress had dropped the 'h' from her name years ago. The new millennium also brought in a new competitor, one Karisma was happy to concede to, younger sister Kareena. She stepped away from the arclight, apart from a brief comeback with Dangerous Ishhq (2012) and occasional appearances on reality shows. Now a mother of two, Karisma has penned a self-help book called My Yummy Mummy Guide and made her web-series debut with Mentalhood.

Last year, on the 29th anniversary of Prem Qaidi, Karisma commented on how the film had changed her life. She wrote: Thank you so much for all the love... ever grateful... Hardwork, grit, determination and honesty has always paved the way for me (sic).