Rishi Kapoor faced the camera longer than Irrfan Khan’s total age and yet the two supremely talented actors, who died within a day of each other in Mumbai, and that too due to cancer defined the essential character of Hindi cinema, popularly known globally as Bollywood.
Kapoor with his seemingly spontaneous, on the fly style of acting and Khan with his erudite silences and finely calibrated facial and body movements, offers a striking contrast. In a sense, the fact that both succeeded so handsomely at their respective crafts was a tribute to the eclectic nature of Hindi cinema. Amitabh Bachchan once told this writer that Kapoor was the most spontaneous actor he had worked with and, while shooting with him, he had to be on his guard, looking from the corner of his eyes what Kapoor might do.
Kapoor said during an interview in 1986 when he was very much in the thick of his popular cinema style of acting unlike in the last decade or so when he shifted gears to a more experimental one, that he “just got up and acted.” In that, he was like his father, the legendary Raj Kapoor who in the early part of his career, especially during the era when he was making his first film ‘Barsaat’ and also working on Mehboob Khan’s ‘Andaz’, both in 1949, was said to be as spontaneous. Dilip Kumar, another giant of Hindi cinema, used to marvel at how Raj Kapoor resting on a bench, tired from shooting ‘Barsaat’ while waiting for his shot for ‘Andaz’, would get up, splash some water on his face and give a perfect shot.
Khan, on the other hand, was a personification of a minimalist approach to acting, unafraid of silences. He was acutely aware but never even remotely self-conscious that he was working in a medium where people could see him, often more than hear him. He knew unlike any of his contemporaries with the possible exceptions of Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui that there was much more to be had by having as little as possible.
Irrfan Khan employed his entire body to represent a character and took his time. He was never in a hurry to make an impact. He intoned in a way that was essential and not acquired. He was never assertive but always assured. He was not there to exhibit but express.
In their own unique ways, both Rishi Kapoor, 67, and Irrfan Khan, 53, bookended the craft of acting for Hindi cinema. In some ways, it was more demanding for Kapoor because of the expectations of the box office as well as the obsession to guard his image in the first three decades of his career. Khan, on the other hand, rose from consistently good work on television for the first decade and half of his career starting in 1986.
Kapoor was relatively short but boyishly good looking, not to mention a scion of India’s first movie family of the Kapoors, consisting of the patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor and his three sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, all three massive stars in their own right. Khan was a rangy six-footer from a family with no connection at all in the movie industry, hailing from a village called Tonk in Rajasthan.
It is unquestionable that doors did open for Rishi Kapoor because of who he was and they were often shut tight for Khan. However, both men put in a great deal of work in their own success.
In Khan’s passing at age 53, cinema everywhere has lost an artist of greatly untapped or underused talent despite having done 151 movies and TV series, including some big-ticket Hollywood ones. He clearly had a much more exciting international career ahead, apart from his work in Hindi cinema.
In scene after scene, movie after movie and TV series after TV series if there was one defining characteristic of Khan’s career it was extraordinary ability to articulate silences. He was perhaps the only actor of his generation who may not have needed any words to convey what he wanted to convey—a tilt of his face, a sideways glance of his eyes, a parting of his lips, an ever so slight annoyance or a hint of a smile they were all tools in his box that he used to chisel an outstanding career.
There are so many scenes from his career where Khan engaged in the slightest of movement to project the deepest of emotion. Be it in Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’, where he plays an unusually lugubrious Indian professor in New York, Ashoke, or Roohdar in Vishal Bharadwaj’s ‘Haider’ or Maqbool in again Bhardwaj’s ‘Maqbool’, or Sajan Fernandes in Ritesh Batra’s ‘The Lunchbox’ or Pi Patel in Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ or a police inspector in Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or Captain in Michael Winterbottom’s ‘A Mighty Heart’, or Paan Singh Tomar in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s ‘Paan Singh Tomar’, the list is long where Khan paced his portrayal in a way that only he could for a combination of factors, including perhaps his natural disposition as an understated man. If you are remembering him today, I suggest you watch any of these movies for him.
That notwithstanding he had a terrific comic timing as had he so brilliant dramatic peaks. Here was an actor so naturally calibrated and edited. I could be wrong but sometimes I wonder whether film editors had to do much at all when it came to Khan because he seemed to so tightly edited himself.
More often than not, Khan had the expression of a man on the verge of doing or saying something consequential but never really did it fully. That severe economy of his performances left his audience both wanting more and oddly satisfied.
Despite this view, I believe that Khan’s inordinate artistry was never quite used to the extent that it could be. It is from that point of view that I feel life played a cruel hand on him. Another two decades as a working actor and he would have gone down as one of the greatest actors of all time. Although his filmography is reasonably robust, it does not do him enough justice. However, within what he was given even early on what an astonishing measure he gave of himself.
Rishi Kapoor’s trajectory was very different, beginning his life in front of the camera when he was barely three with his father’s home production of ‘Shri 420’. People often forget that fact. That was followed by Raj Kapoor’s failed magnum opus ‘Mera Naam Joker’ in 1970 and the blockbuster Bobby,1973, Rishi Kapoor’s first feature film as a leading star. The film also launched Dimple Kapadia.
Rishi Kapoor was quite easily the very essential embodiment of a Hindi movie star. He had intrinsic ease with stardom in that he was not particularly enamoured of it. His huge stardom sat quite lightly on him. His boyish good looks enhanced by his pinchable cheeks with nature rouge and decades of having been a top star gave Rishi Kapoor a unique personality within India’s film industry. That he was an effortless actor only accentuated his formidable reputation.
It was clear to anyone who saw any of those three movies that film acting for Rishi Kapoor was inherited. One simply could not imagine him in any other role. “At one point much later in life I may have liked to be a serious journalist but a career other than the movies never really crossed my mind ever,” Kapoor told me during an interview in 1986.
Given his natural charisma, a flair for spontaneity, and easy dance movements it was hardly surprising that he went on to become Hindi cinema’s most enduring romantic hero, apart from Rajesh Khanna. Throughout his career, Kapoor was blessed with opportunities of lip-syncing some of the biggest hit songs of the last 50 years. That is an important factor for a quintessential Hindi movie star because one cannot find any star of that standing who did not have a large number of hit songs to back his career up.
In contrast, one would be hard-pressed to find even a handful of songs from Irrfan Khan’s filmography. And yet he has been repeatedly hailed not just at home in India but even in Hollywood as one of the finest actors of his generation.
Being an intelligent actor, Rishi Kapoor recognized that he needed to change tack in the latter part of his career and began doing so sometime over the last decade and a half. In movies such as Habib Faisal’s ‘Do Dooni Char’, Karan Malhotra’s ‘Agneepath’, Maneesh Sharma’s ‘Shudh Desi Romance’, Shakoon Batra’s ‘Kapoor & Sons’, Umesh Shukla’s ‘102 Not Out’, Nandita Das’s ‘Manto’ and Anubhav Sinha’s ‘Mulk’ he portrayed characters that would have been unthinkable for him at the height of his popularity in the 1970s and 80s. In a broad sense perhaps Rishi Kapoor saw actorly possibilities as so sharply defined by Irrfan Khan.
Of course, the two remained very different kinds of actors until the end. What also set Khan apart was his very successful transition into international cinema, something Rishi Kapoor never really pursued. However, within Hindi and Indian cinema, generally, the two men leave behind such a rich albeit – often diametrically – opposite bodies of work that would be a great reference point for the future generation of actors.
— Mayank Chhaya
(The writer is a Chicago-based journalist, author and filmmaker. He can be contacted at email@example.com)
(This article has been reproduced here in arrangement with the South Asia Monitor. It can be accessed at https://southasiamonitor.org)