By Rahul Puri
It’s been an awful couple of days for the Indian film industry. Crippled by this dreadful pandemic, the fraternity was hit by the loss of two irreplaceable legends, who passed away within hours of each other. With that, they left us too many memories to cherish forever and moments that will forever be cemented in cinema and history.
Irffan Khan and Rishi Kapoor both fought strong battles with their illnesses. Both were out of the country for a lot of the last two years getting treatments to ensure that they could continue to do what they truly loved - act. Both were hugely talented performers, and the double shock of their loss has left the entire country reeling in grief. But it also has given us time to think of what they meant to us all and why the loss felt so personal to many, even though millions had never met them or didn’t know them.
Rishiji, or Chintuji as he was lovingly known, was the Mumbai industry thoroughbred. A Kapoor born and raised, his first film as a hero 'Bobby' (he made his debut in Mera Naam Joker) showed that he would be a polished performer, but his innocence, charm and enthusiasm singlehandedly breathed new life into the Hindi film business. Here was India’s first ‘chocolate boy’ hero who was as young as the girls who flocked to theatres to see him, and made us all root for him whatever situation he was in. Some of his biggest hits were part of the large multi-starrers that the 70s were known for, yet even in films like Amar Akbar Anthony, Yaadon Ki Baraat, Kabhie Kabhie and others, he more than held his own, giving us characters and portrayals which we easily fell in love with and kept us coming back again and again.
We will never forget the songs he was part of. Karz, a solo starrer of his in the time of Amitabh dominance, proved a hit and became a cult classic thanks to its amazing songs that has stood the test of time throughout generations. Even today, the younger generation know Monty and Akbar, and were as crushed by his departure as their parents. The last few years of his career have been some of his best. Kapoor and Sons, Mulk and even a villainous turn in films like Agneepath and D Day showed that Rishi ji was more than just a one trick pony and displayed his talent more than ever before. One of my favourites of his films is Do Dooni Chaar in which Kapoor stole the show with his brilliant performance. Clearly, his second innings was as amazing as his first, and his experience and nuance as an actor was brought into sharp focus by today’s filmmakers who still built film projects around his prowess.
In almost complete contrast is the rise of Irrfan Khan. An outsider to the Mumbai industry, Irrfan struggled quite a bit to make his mark but left impressions with his powerful performances. However, it wasn’t until Asif Kapadia’s film ‘The Warrior’ which gave him national and international recognition. That film was where Hollywood began to notice his intense performances and he would come back in his career to use this well. He followed this up with Maqbool where he played the perfect Indian Macbeth winning rave reviews for his portrayal of a complex character.
He was a rare breed, striking the balance between commercial and meaningful cinema perfectly. Films like The Namesake, Life of Pi, Life in a Metro and Paan Singh Tomar - all helped him create a wonderful repertoire of movies that could be enjoyed by a wide audience and gave him the chance to play diverse characters. Hollywood came knocking - Jurassic World, The Jungle Book, The Amazing Spider-Man, all only built on his popularity. He began to work in top Hindi films as well - Piku, Talwar, Qarib Qarib Single and Hindi Medium, all lifted him into the arena of the very best we had to offer.
Both had in common their passion for films and their outspokenness. Never ones to be shy of speaking their minds, they often commented on things related to films in India as well as issues that they felt important. Their passing, so close to each perhaps, shows that whatever we may say about the film business, talent and professionalism is what keeps you in the limelight. Despite their obvious differences in how they came into films, this perhaps made them kindred spirits. Humble and generous, giving and wise, they have inspired generations of us and will, through the legacy they have left behind, continue to do so, long after these two very bad days.