The last week of April delivered two back-to-back blows. After the tragic news about actor Irrfan Khan succumbing to the neuroendocrine tumour, which he has been fighting since 2018, the news about Rishi Kapoor’s death followed the very next day.
Irrfan Khan’s rise as an actor has all the elements of a Bollywood rags-to-riches potboiler whereas the twinkly-eyed charmer called Rishi Kapoor, as the grandson of the Bollywood patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor and son of the legendary showman Raj Kapoor, was a de-facto star.
When Raj Kapoor decided to launch his adolescent son Rishi Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker (1970), he would not have expected him to bring anything less than top honours. The boy won the national award for the best child artiste that year at the age of 18 but the film did not do well. Three years later, when his father cast him as a hero in the teenage romance Bobby (1973), the next star from the Kapoor family was born. Nurturing the talent in the family and spectacularly launching their careers had been a tradition in the Kapoor family, thanks to Raj Kapoor who was the ‘king of Bollywood’ as a producer, writer, director and superstar who used to deliver back-to-back blockbusters.
Irrfan, who became the face of Indian cinema in the eyes of cinephiles across the world, was neither born in a privileged background, not his surname had any connection to the leading Khan trio. In a TV interview, director Mira Nair had recollected how she had spotted Irrfan for a tiny role in her Salaam Bombay! (1988). Mira Nair, who was on the lookout for actors who could perform the roles of street children in the film, had gone to the prestigious National School of Drama in Delhi in search of actors. She was led to the basement where a theatre workshop was underway. Mira wrote in her remembrance how Irrfan stood out among all the participants: “He’s so tall and gangly and angular — like a praying mantis. And of course, he had this extraordinary face. He was only 18, but he still had a craggy face and those hooded eyes. The interesting thing was that he was very keenly focused. He was acutely observant and very open, not filled with any kind of big attitude.”
Mira recollects that she had asked Irrfan to leave the school and travel with her to Bombay to stay with the team for the next few months, to which he readily agreed. Over the course of the rehearsals for the film, Mira discovered that Irrfan was unusually tall compared to the rest of the gang, which was supposed to be a group of malnourished street children. He had to settle for a tiny role of a letter writer in the film, but their friendship endured longer. Mira kept her promise of casting Irrfan in a bigger role after several years when she made The Namesake based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel by the same name. Irrfan was cast as Ashoke Ganguly, the head of a Bengali family, a role that Irrfan assimilated and rendered in different flavours in front of the camera, mixing the accent and mannerisms of Jhumpa Lahiri’s librarian father whom he had met briefly and a Bengali caterer who was part of the production. The director was given a choice as to which version of Ashoke Ganguly she wanted to use in the film!
Several big and small roles came Irrfan’s way before he started out on this dream-like journey of acclaimed roles in Hindi and international productions but the actor had the foresight not to lose focus of what he had set out to do in films. Between his debut year 1988 and the year in which Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil and Vishal Bharadwaj’s Macbeth adaptation Maqbool released, Irrfan had to undergo 15 years of struggle. Haasil earned him his first big award of his career, the Filmfare award for the best villain. Irrfan Khan left a lasting imprint on the minds of cinephiles with Lunchbox (2013), Haider (2014), Piku (2015), and Talvar (2015). He became India's ambassador in Hollywood with his supporting roles in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Life of Pi (2012), Jurassic World (2015), and Inferno (2016), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and New York (2009).
Irrfan has been brilliant in Piku as the driver who delivers some truths to Piku as he ferries the constipated father, suffering daughter and their domestic worker from Delhi to their ancestral home in Kolkata. Without Irrfan’s unique touches to the exchanges between the widower Saajan and Ila in Lunchbox and the quirky banters of Vyogi in Qareeb Qareeb Single, they wouldn’t have become what they are.
From playing the hero and the nice guys, Rishi changed track to discover his niche, that of an unconventional old man, in his second coming by playing the role of a pimp in Agneepath in 2012. Several meaty roles followed. Kapoor earned applause for his role as the grandfather obsessed with scantily clad girls in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (2016) and for Muslim patriarch forced to prove his patriotism when his son turns out to be a terrorist in Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk.
Irrfan had great respect for Rishi Kapoor and had this astute observation about Rishi’s second coming in which he proved to be much more than just a star born with a silver spoon or a heartthrob. The Rishi-Irrfan duo had starred together in the underworld drama D-Day in 2013 — Rishi was cast as the don modelled on Dawood Ibrahim while Irrfan was cast as an undercover RAW agent responsible for nabbing the don and bringing him back to the country. After the film, Irrfan had said that he never thought he had it in him to be a Rishi Kapoor. “He is hot liquid. He has worked on cultivating his craft so well and he is one of those stars you never have enough of, even if he is doing the same thing, movie after movie. I think that’s what makes his second innings so spectacular. He doesn’t have to be a star anymore, so he is having a blast being an actor.”
The NSD boy who idolized Naseeruddin Shah never took his immense admiration beyond inspiration for the performances. Naseeruddi Shah had once said that he was glad that Irrfan did not try to become another Naseeruddin Shah, and discovered his own identity. What the world cinema will miss is an actor who can condense pages of dialogues into a single look, an expression or a line. Back in 2001, director Asif Kapadia who had directed him in The Warrior had called Irrfan as the Indian Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, Gary Oldman or Vincent Gallo. “He can do anything he wants. I look forward to seeing him fly,” Kapadia had said. Nearly two decades down the line, he indeed flew high in the world of cinema, transcending barriers of nationality, colour, ethnicity and accent: as a truly international star who can be cast in a variety of different roles without a second thought. No wonder, he was seen alongside Deepika Padukone and Tabu to Tom Hanks, Natalie Portman and the rebellious Iranian-French actress Golshifteh Farahani on the screen and red carpet around the world. In a moving tribute posted on Instagram, Farahani called him a walking poetry. “Your eyes are closed now. But even then you could see through the eyes within. You could listen more than anyone else, and smile more than anyone else.”
Fans posted the spiritualistic dialogues of Irrfan Khan from Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in which he played a central character: "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye." When it comes to life, there is never a right time say good bye. If there’s a heaven, the don and the secret agent of D-Day must be raising a toast for the good times they had under the arc-lights and for the performances that they left behind for us to re-watch in awe.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)