Updated: May 21, 2020
In the span of a brief, shattering, head-spinning 48 hours, India and the world lost two great actors, both to cancer, that hateful, spiteful, vengeful, inexorable emperor of maladies. First Irrfan Khan and then Rishi Kapoor. It was like a one-two punch to the gut from a seasoned boxer. Barely had one had any time to absorb the news of the passing of a 53 year old Irrfan, in the prime of his professional career, when the next day we got the news of 67 year old Rishi, who had reinvented himself from Chintu 1.0 to Lovable Curmudgeon 2.0, moving on to the great theater in the sky.
They couldn't have been more different in their acting styles, their screen personas, their oeuvre. (You can watch them talk about themselves in these short clips, Irrfan here and Rishi here) One was all about method, cerebral, but with a quirky sense of humor, starring in movies of a dizzying variety, both Hindi and English. The other was a born natural, blessed with the DNA of India's cinematic First Family, intuitive, romantic, the eternal lover, trapped in those movies for decades till he accepted his age and morphed into doing amazing roles of villains and old men that one's imagination, conditioned by time, couldn't initially comprehend him being capable of. Irrfan gave us Maqbool (2003), The Namesake (2007), Paan Singh Tomar (2012), and The Lunchbox (2013). Rishi gave us Rafoo Chakkar (1975), Sargam (1979), Yeh Vaada Raha (1982) and Bol Radha Bol (1992). Irrfan was the mature friend you chose to come into your life when you were an adult, Rishi was that childhood friend with whom you have a lifelong bond, warts and all, regardless of distance and time.
For those of us who came of cinema watching age in the 70s and 80s, if Amitabh Bachchan was the towering angry young man with the uber cool presence who we wanted to be when with the guys, then Rishi Kapoor was the fun-loving, wise-cracking, impishly smiling, amazing dancer with innate rhythm lover boy that we aspired to be in front of the girls. I vividly remember, at the end of a school trip to South India, watching Hum Kisise Kum Naheen in a movie theater in Chennai of all places, then Madras, and the viscerally Hindi-hating audience, not being able to help themselves go nuts in the aisles during the dance competition song sequence - RD Burman's music and Rishi's dance moves, a potent brew in movie after movie. Similarly, I recall watching mesmerized and answering his clarion call "kya tumney kabhi kisisey pyaar kiya" in Karz (1980) on a rainy June night, windshield wipers furiously going, at the drive-in theater in Bombay. He was the embodiment of the shayar and qawwali singer from Purdah hai in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) to the title track in Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977). From the lover in Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Doosra Aadmi (1976), Saagar (1985) - boy did we envy him in the red hot Jaane do na song, poolside with Dimple Kapadia - and Chandni (1989), we watched his metamorphosis to the evil kaajal eyed Rauf Lala in the new Agneepath (2012) and as Dawood Ibrahim in D-Day (2013), which was the only film he and Irrfan did together, to the naughty grandpa in Kapoor and Sons (2016), the grumpy senior citizen son to an even more impossibly old father in 102 Not out (2018) and the Muslim patriarch struggling to save his family name from prejudice in the searing Mulk (2018).
Just when we thought this year couldn't get any worse, with more Americans dying of the virus in 2 months than did in the entire Vietnam War in 2 decades, came this double blow to the world of cinema and movie lovers everywhere. Of course the mass deaths are way worse, but unfortunately, as Stalin said "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic". You experience the loss of these men on a personal level because there are so many memories tied to watching their work. But this too shall pass. Remember their smiles, Irrfan's wry and crinkly eyed, Rishi's mischievous and expansive.
"Hai agar dushman zamaana gham nahin,
Koi aaye koi, hum kisise kum nahin"
April 30, 2020