A few years ago, Irrfan Khan added an extra `R’ to his name, probably for luck. He perhaps felt the need for the benevolence of Lady Luck, unlike say Rishi Kapoor whose family almost owned the `R’ series and Lady Luck was like the presiding deity at their studios. Well, not all the time, but you get the drift.
The world of cinema – it would be a travesty to restrict these two fine actors into that space that goes by the crass name of Bollywood – is poorer this week. Irrfan and Rishi were easily among the most effortless of acting talent once the director screamed `Action’.
In fact, Irrfan was almost as if an extension of the real on reel. Emoting with his eyes, his ability to convey a mood, an emotion just by looking away, was par excellence. Rishi on the other hand, was indeed the Mera Naam Joker (junior) – the Joker in the pack who packed a punch even as Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and the like held sway as the leading man in multi-starrers. In fact, the fact that he starred in so many multi-starrers playing the second hero, showed Rishi was not one of those insecure actors.
It is easy to label and put the two departed souls, lost to cancer in quick succession, in straitjacketed compartments. One the Bollywood star, the other who struggled his way to become a name. That would be undermining Rishi’s struggle. As his Twitter bio earlier said, “born to a Superstar dad”, Rishi’s initial struggle was to prove himself as a worthy successor to the Raj Kapoor legacy. Add to that, the heft of the superstardom of uncles Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor and even brother Randhir Kapoor to an extent. That Rishi carved out his own space, the romantic hero with liberal help from Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kapoor and RD Burman, showed that he was no flash in the Bobby pan and bore the weight of the Kapoor name very well.
Irrfan exemplified where talent can take you if backed by conviction and the right storytellers. If Irrfan was part of the scene, even without much to do, he could be a scene-stealer as Bachchan and Deepika Padukone in `Piku’ would testify. His accessory was neither a 6-pack nor an ability to dance but the ease with which he became the character. Be it in `Paan Singh Tomar’ or as the CBI officer in `Talvar’ or the officegoer in `Lunchbox’.
Irrfan’s voice was not baritone of the Bachchan variety but his murmurs that worked in jugalbandi with his eye movements, were a director and filmgoer’s delight. He often was cast in roles as someone clever, oversmart with a sharp tongue and sense of humour. He brought to such roles his unique brand of swagger – I call it the Irrfan swagger – it made you fall in love with this National School of Drama product even more.
Rishi was not a swagger kind. But put him in a song and the Kapoor magic would work overtime. What eyes were to Irrfan, the smile was to Rishi. Chintu, as he was called, defined romance in Hindi cinema in the 1970 and 80s to a large extent, pairing successfully with Neetu Singh and then with a long list of debutant heroines. That he was naturally endowed with young looks helped even when he was romancing a much younger Sridevi or a Divya Bharati or a Juhi Chawla and yes, those colorful sweaters were Rishi’s contribution to winterwear fashion.
In the 21st century, Rishi made a fairly impressive transition into character roles in movies like `Mulk’, `Delhi 6′ and `Rajma Chawal’. The roles helped him prove he did not need to run around trees in a garden to prove his worth at the box office. In 2018, `102 Not Out’ united Rishi Kapoor with Bachchan, this time as his son. Understandable when Bachchan tweeted, he is “destroyed” having lost his younger brother and son of many movies.
In the Hindi film industry, the Kapoor khandaan and the Khandom are two big brandnames. While Rishi was a leading light of the former, Irrfan was never a member of the Khan club. Perhaps rightfully so, he did not need that club membership. He in fact, stopped using the `Khan’ surname some years ago.
Rishi and Irrfan also shared screen space in a movie, incidentally titled `D-Day’. In this 2013 action thriller, Rishi played India’s most wanted D-Company gangleader while Irrfan was cast as a RAW agent. A cruel twist of irony that in that reel role, Irrfan is killed just before Rishi’s character is shot dead.
In real life, in two hospitals in Mumbai this week, Cancer pulled the trigger.