Irrfan Khan & Rishi Kapoor’s Death: Twinkle, twinkle, heavenly stars….

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By Nazarul Islam, Edited by Adam Rizvi, TIO: How do we stop grieving the unfortunate demise of the subcontinent’s two greatest film stars? The passing of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor within a span of a single day—has set up an unexpected, but instructive contrast. My first response to the news of Rishi’s passing was just ‘Bobby!’ For my cohort, that film was an adolescent rite of passage, inseparable from our nostalgia for a pimpled youth and what passed for animal spirits in Indira’s India. Irrfan’s (that’s how he liked to write his name) death made me think of his great performance in Maqbool.
Bollywood film actors Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor
This was Vishal Bharadwaj’s first and best Shakespeare adaptation. Macbeth met The Godfather in Bombay and spawned a strange and wonderful film. To watch Irrfan shine amongst arguably the most gifted cast of actors assembled in a Hindi film this century—Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor, and Tabu — was to know that we were, potentially, in the presence of greatness.
There were thirty years between Bobby and Maqbool—but what really set them apart was the durable distinction between a runaway hit and a critically praised but commercially unsuccessful film. The thought of Bobby and the young Rishi Kapoor was like a flashback to a time when I seemed to have watched the film with everyone I knew because everyone I knew had watched that film. It was a moonshot moment: how old were you when you first saw Bobby? This isn’t a question that can reasonably be asked of any of Irrfan Khan’s films, a wonderful actor though he was.
One way to respond to this difference is to shrug and say that’s the way it is, that only exceptional figures like Marlon Brando and Dilip Kumar manage to combine massive stardom and great virtuosity. Box-office blockbusters have an audience and a place in popular culture that arthouse films and crossover movies of the sort that came Irrfan’s way generally don’t. Except that this isn’t an explanation; it’s a truism that begs the question why? Irrfan himself, for all his international success, didn’t condescend to Bombay’s cinema.
He objected to ‘Bollywood’ because the term suggested that his film industry was derivative of Hollywood. He insisted that Bombay’s films had a distinct personality derived from the flamboyant, over-the-top extravagance of Parsi theatre. He recognized that commercial cinema connected an actor to mass audiences in a way that less formulaic films often didn’t and that the connection was important for actorly fulfillment. Irrfan’s early death is a tragedy because he died just when the business of feature film-making made it possible for a great actor like him to become a real star.
Irrfan’s cinematic ancestor within the Bombay film industry was Naseeruddin Shah whose career prefigured his in many ways. Naseeruddin Shah is three years older than Rishi Kapoor, but his career began at roughly the same time in very different circumstances. Like Irrfan, Naseer is a professionally trained actor, although he studied acting at the Film Institute while Irrfan learned his craft as a theatre actor in the National School of Drama.
Both of them were actors that the popular film press described as unconventional, which basically meant that they weren’t good looking in the way that heroes were meant to be. This would normally have condemned an actor in Bombay to a lifetime of character parts but Naseeruddin was that strange new beast, the hero of the hatke film, a star in the new firmament of the ‘parallel’ cinema.
Irrfan Khan with wife Sutapa Sikdar
He entered films at exactly the time that this new cinema had been conjured into existence via government subsidies. A new Realism that would never have seen the light of day under the ruthless commercial logic of Bombay cinema became possible thanks to public funding. Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, and many others produced both a body of interesting work and a new pantheon of actors.
Irrfan served a harder apprenticeship in the swamp-world of commercial television drama. Both men became famous acting in relatively inexpensive films produced and directed by film-makers whose sensibilities diverged from the masala mainstream. It is not a secret that both Naseeruddin Shah and Irrfan Khan aspired to stardom in mainstream cinema.
Rishi Kapoor’s Funeral
They felt confined at times by the stereotypes that straitjacketed commercial movies and the small horizons of the art film. Both of them achieved a measure of commercial success and economic security by acting in Western films.
But the crucial difference in their careers was that by the time the multiplex redefined Bombay cinema, Naseeruddin Shah was fifty years old while Irrfan Khan was closer to thirty. The multiplex made it financially possible to make interesting, non-generic films on small budgets. Film-makers didn’t have to live with the impossible pressure of filling single screen halls with films designed to pull in everybody. This fragmentation of the audience made it possible for film-makers to make relatively small films for relatively small profits which, in turn, allowed them to write screenplays and stories that the old system would have guillotined.
Irrfan Khan made the kind of impact he did on Indian and global audiences because he came of age as an actor at a time when films could be watched in a variety of ways: in multiplexes, on television, streamed, or downloaded on demand. He eventually had a more hospitable professional environment in his prime than Naseeruddin Shah did because before the multiplex and the dawn of the digital era there were few crossover films: there was the commercial film industry and there was a parallel cinema and never the twain did meet.
Funeral of Irrfan Khan being taken by family & Friends
Film-makers like Mira Nair, Vishal Bharadwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Riteish Batra, Dibakar Banerjee, and Danny Boyle were rarer than unicorns till the turn of the century.
In an interview late in life, Rishi Kapoor has confessed that he didn’t study his parts, that he wasn’t a Method actor, that acting for him had meant—on the spot improvisation on the studio floor. Like many mainstream stars, he had unselfconscious confidence in his capacity to carry off his parts, a swagger rooted in his standing as a star. Irrfan Khan’s career, on the other hand, was built on anxiety: he knew that he would have to be twice as good and twice as prepped as the scions of Bombay’s film industry just to become visible.
Irrfan Khan
Both Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor left before their time but Irrfan’s is the greater loss because Rishi Kapoor’s career, his lifework, was more or less done. Irrfan Khan, who was younger than the Khan triumvirate, had come into his own over the last decade.
With his hard-won international reputation, a firm footing in the better class of Bombay’s mainstream offerings, and the opportunities created by streaming-platforms-turned-production-houses like Netflix, the world was potentially his oyster.
If an uninspired oddball like Johnny Depp could become box-office gold with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, era-defining success was a real possibility for someone as fiercely focused and gifted as Irrfan. By the time he died, he was Somebody; but he could have been a contender.
Rest In Peace Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor. Thank you both for having touched so many lives…across the far ends of our planet.

Nazarul Islam

Nazarul Islam

The author is a former Educator, based in Chicago (USA).

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