"Anil has never been a star who commands thunderous openings. But he is perhaps the only actor who has done so many variety of characters." - Boney Kapoor
After rampaging through the nation for over a decade, the Bachchan mania was on the wane in the late 1980s. In 1988-89, his four films - 'Ganga Jamuna Saraswathi', 'Toofan', 'Jaadugar' and 'Main Azaad Hoon' - torpedoed at the turnstile on the trot. It was abundantly evident that his glory days as the 'one-man industry', as he was called, are behind him.
The frenzied media began scrambling for his successor. The man bandied about as the lead contender to the throne wasn't an archetype 'star' but was unanimously applauded for his acting chops. And when he unfurled two blockbusters - 'Tezaab' and 'Ram Lakhan' - in the space of six months in 1988-89, he seemed within the striking distance of donning the crown. His steady rise between 1985-1988 was coinciding with Bachchan's sharp fall.
However, the script didn't go the way it was envisaged. Bachchan flickered for a few more years as a leading man before taking a brief sabbatical from acting in 1992. Meanwhile the 'Khan' troika - Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh - emerged on the horizon and took over the mantle of 'superstar' from Bachchan. Anil Kapoor, on the other hand, could never attain the 'superstar' tag but kept his nose to the grindstone, frequently reinvented himself and has remained relevant even 40 years after his cinematic debut.
Anil entered in Bollywood with 'Hamare Tumhare' in 1979, in which he had a minuscule role, but it wasn't until 1985 when he gained prominence. Recommended by Javed Akhtar, he was signed by the showman Subhash Ghai to essay the role of a lawyer in 'Meri Jung'. Anil sank his teeth into the character and whipped out a stellar performance which won him lashings of laurels.
In the next three years, he cemented his reputation as a performer and saleable star with films such as 'Janbaaz', 'Karma', 'Chameli Ki Shaadi' and 'Mr India'. He pulled off distinct characters in these movies with consummate ease. The rumbustious success of 'Tezaab' and 'Ram Lakhan' in quick succession was the pinnacle of his career when he was pitched as the next No.1 after Bachchan.
Among his contemporaries in the 1980s - Jackie Shroff, Sunny Deol, Govinda and Sanjay Dutt - Anil was hailed as the most versatile and superlative actor by the critics. Manmohan Desai, the celebrated director, often used to quip, "Jackie has all the style and looks. Anil is an actor."
Anil had a good run between 1990-92 as 'Kishen Kanhaiya' and 'Beta' became big hits. The unexpected failure of Yash Chopra's much-acclaimed 'Lamhe' in 1991 was a fly in the ointment though. Though he consistently delivered hits between 1985-1992 and was also a blue-eyed boy of the media, the trade wasn't always exuberant in their assessment of him. The reason often cited was his inability to command an uproarious opening without a big director.
However, his career began to nosedive drastically after 'Beta'. 'Humlaa', 'Heer Ranjha', and 'Zindagi Ek Jua' crashed unceremoniously one after another. But the biggest jolt came in the form of extravagant 'Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja', the most expensive movie in the annals of Bollywood at the time, which was reduced to cold cinders at the Box Office.
The next few years were equally disastrous. The period between 1993-1996 was the nadir of his career when he only eked out bummers. Even the critically acclaimed '1942: A Love Story' didn't pass the muster commercially.
After licking his wounds and bouts of reflection, he made a comeback in 1997 with three successful ventures - 'Judaai', 'Deewana Mastana' and 'Virasat'. By that time, the 'Khan' troika had taken over the Box Office landscape with a slew of monumental blockbusters. His contemporaries, Sunny Deol and Govinda, too were having a terrific run at the turnstile.
At a critical juncture of his career, Anil made a decisive choice that was to stand him in good stead for the next two decades. He adroitly agreed to play second fiddle to Salman Khan in 'Biwi no.1', Aamir Khan in 'Mann' and Akshaye Khanna in 'Taal' in 1999. Though his roles were significant, he wasn't the leading light of these films. His gamble paid off handsomely as 'Biwi No.1' became a superhit and 'Taal' also did fairly well. Moreover, his roles and acting came in for huge applause from the critics and the audience alike.
In the early 2000s, his contemporaries Jackie, Sunny and Govinda stared wearing off. While Sunny couldn't break out of his action-hero image and was left with limited options as the age caught up with him, Jackie's poor selection of scripts did him in. Govinda found the going exceedingly tough without David Dhawan as the director moved to Salman and later his son Varun Dhawan.
Though Anil could no longer draw crowds in theatres as a solo lead, his ability to slip into diverse roles, pick up solid scripts, flexibility to do multi-starrers and indefatigable assiduity ensured longevity and commercial relevance.
'No Entry', 'Race', 'Welcome', and 'Total Dhamaal' are some of his ensemble-cast movies in last 15 years which emerged triumphant at Box Office. His foray into Hollywood too bore fruits as 'Slumdog Millionaire' hoovered up rich encomium across the globe.
At the age of 64, he looks younger than many actors who are in their 30s. He often breaks the Internet when he posts his pictures on social media.
It is a testimony to his discipline, diligence, acting finesse and gumption that in the long run he has outclassed all his contemporaries who in their prime were considered bigger Box Office draws than him.