Shorts In The Dark

How deaths of Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor affected their fans differently

They were icons for all seasons.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  4-minute read |   03-05-2020
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Just the other day, I was speaking to an award-winning indie film director. I mentioned seeing a couple of Kartik Aaryan films, to which he responded, 'I don't have time for Bolly monkeys.' He's the kind of director who now feels 'numbed' by Irrfan's death. The deaths of both Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor have affected their fans differently. In many ways, Kapoor was the original Bolly monkey, dancing and singing, hit after hit after hit. For my parents' generation, born around the time of Independence, Kapoor's death reminds of them of their own mortality, the numbered days. Irrfan, a trained actor from NSD, inspired a different cohort. For those exasperated by the mindlessness of Hindi cinema, and its uncomplaining acceptance of its role as an adjunct to the Great Indian Wedding, Irrfan was someone they looked up to, a creative lodestar in a galaxy of inflatable dolls.

Childhood heroes

We grew up listening to stories about the Kapoors. While I helped my mother with kitchen chores, she filled me in with details, including the rankling story that Neetu Singh didn't act after she got married. This upset me no end since I was a bigger Neetu fan at that age than any of the Kapoors. Doordarshan's Sunday movie slot played an important role in bringing us up to speed with the filmography of the Kapoor khandan, with at least two out of four in a month featuring an actor from the clan.

Through Vividh Bharati, we heard all the old songs from Bobby. State broadcasting played a vital role in maintaining pop culture continuity. Kapoor meanwhile was still very much active, Chandni being the big hit of my generation. I was in middle school and Kapoor, the boy from Bobby my mother had told me about, was still playing the college kid romancing girls amongst pine trees in baggy sweaters. When two actors leave us within such a short span, it's difficult to resist the temptation to compare the career trajectories and styles, especially when the two, between them, encapsulate the fundamental currents of Hindi cinema. One is dynastic, getting his break as a child actor in his father's Mera Naam Joker.

The other, Irrfan, struggles his way into the industry, languishing for a long time in the twilight world of television serials. One is known for dialoguebaazi and overwrought emotion; the other for his understated dialogue delivery and no-frills realistic portrayals. One is a mass entertainer; the other a serious actor. One has the Punjabi chikna chehra that is the industry gold standard for 'good-looking', the other is not conventionally good-looking, whatever that means; ask Bollywood. The phrase we used in Allahabad growing up was 'face ka cut.' It was Allahabad that provided the unusual landscape for Irrfan's breakthrough film that brought him to the public eye. Tigmanshu Dhulia's Haasil, shot on location in Allahabad, started Irrfan on a most unlikely journey in Hindi cinema as well as international projects, both commercial and indie. Irrfan was the only actor one remembered in Life of Pi, a film otherwise submerged in a phalanx of special effects.

Mature roles

I saw Mira Nair's The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name, in Dehradun's Prabhat Theatre, an iconic single-screen. Irrfan was a fully formed actor by then, comfortable in his own skin, with a distinctive style, which, like all distinctive styles had the drawback of becoming slightly repetitive. I also felt that Irrfan wasn't that great at comic roles, though he did okay in Hindi Medium and its sequel Angrezi Medium. He was best off doing highly sensitive and layered portrayals, or roles that required him to explore shades of the diabolical while exuding a weightless gravitas. Prabhat Cinema, where I watched The Namesake, was supposed to close its doors on March 30 this year. And what was the film they were going to screen last? Bobby, of course - it had originally had an unbroken run of twentyfive weeks, a record of sorts. I was planning on attending that screening. And then the coronavirus spoiled the farewell party. As we all got obsessed with our own mortality, the deaths of the two Hindi film greats reminded harried Indians that the coronavirus is an upstart; the title of the Big C still rests with cancer.

The legacies

Rishi Kapoor's achievement has been the ability to constantly reinvent, from romantic hero and multi-starrers, to serious roles like in Mulk and the jovial grandpa in Kapoor and Sons, where his character happily smokes joints with his grandsons. At one point the grandsons wonder: 'Pata nahin Dadu itna acha maal kahan se latey hain.' Dadu is full of beans. He calls an iPad an iPapad, and fondly reminisces his youth when he went to watch Mandakini bathe under a waterfall in Ram Teri Ganga Maili fourteen times. In our society, cinema plays an important role in defining changing currents, and what's acceptable or not. Our cinema both mirrors society and shows the way forward. It provides a nation with a sense of past and present. In this lively competitive business -part fiction, part fact, the two actors have more than written themselves into India's glorious cinematic history.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: DailyOh! Why Irrfan 'turned down' Christopher Nolan’s offer, to the tumour he fought 


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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