Immortalized in Celluloid: Remembering Rishi Kapoor & Irrfan Khan

By Shivani Tripathi

Cinema recently witnessed the devastating losses of two iconic and beloved actors, Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan. Rishi Kapoor belonged to the Kapoor dynasty, often described as the First Family of Hindi films, and was best known for his roles in commercial classics. Irrfan Khan came from a family that ran a small business in Rajasthan, with no connections to moviemaking, and was famous for offbeat roles in Hindi movies and American blockbusters. While their backgrounds were different, they were alike in that they entertained and moved millions of moviegoers with their performances.

Khan's feature film journey began in 1988 with Salaam Bombay but he was noticed by a greater audience when he played lead roles in the early 2000s. He was legitimately lauded for the title roles of Maqbool and Paan Singh Tomar, as Ashok Ganguly from The Namesake and as Roohdaar from Haider, but Khan also worked in numerous masala potboilers from the Bollywood kitchen such as Kasoor, Hisss and Thank You, to name a few. Many of the commercial films he starred in, including Hollywood hits such as Jurassic World, were no masterpieces but Khan's work was more than paisa vasool or money's worth.

Khan also effortlessly balanced being an actor in Indian and American cinema with his work, rather than a public relations team, speak for him. He carried his fame as if it was inconsequential, perhaps because he gave it no weight. Tall and self-assured on screen and perceived as approachable in real life made Khan an unlikely sex symbol as he didn't have the love ballads or biceps often associated with the modern Bollywood hero. He would always shine and provide a glimmer of hope that world-class acting talent exists in the “leave your brain at home" Hindi movies popular during first decade of the 2000s. Khan was also witnessing box office success like never before. His 2017 release Hindi Medium was praised by critics and eventually became one of Indian cinema's most commercially successful films by performing especially well in China. For me, the passing of Irrfan Khan meant losing precious opportunities to be in awe of watching nothing short of onscreen sorcery. How can someone change the mood of a scene so easily with a simple pause, or a tilt of the head? Who knew measured dialogue delivery with the voice deepening at different junctures could leave an audience spellbound?

Rishi Kapoor's loss felt very different to me. It felt far more personal. How can someone I've known ever since childhood, who has entertained my family while making us feel closer to our roots, pass away so suddenly? His almost half-century long career as a protagonist began in 1970's Mera Naam Joker and he starred in at least one film almost every year until 2019's The Body. As a child I remember VHS copies of Nagina, Yeh Vaada Raha, Karz and Coolie provided hours of family time at home and Kapoor continued to be gainfully employed as I was growing up. As long as I can remember I have been familiar with one of the most defining aspects of Rishi Kapoor's popularity and stardom: his songs.

My family's vinyl record collection includes Bobby, Laila Majnu, Kabhi Kabhie and Hum Kisisie Kum Nahin which we would enjoy at home, and audio cassettes of Chandni, Henna, Deewana and Bol Radha Bol would play in the family car. And onscreen he would do justice to the tunes he was given. A recent eulogy by his colleague Amitabh Bachchan brought further attention to a talent essential for a leading man in Hindi cinema, but what very few possessed: the ability to naturally lip sync. With this gift he became the gentleman romancing damsels in wondrous locales. The women in my family didn't swoon over the young Rishi Kapoor, who with his youthful exuberance and mischievous smile captured hearts of many including the mothers of a few of my friends who named their sons after the actor, but they certainly appreciated how Kapoor was always ready to deliver whatever the scene demanded.

In an industry infamous for making heroines props, Kapoor provided pivotal support in films where the actress was the focus with Prem Rog, Tawaif, Daraar and Damini serving as examples. His acting career can be divided in roughly two chapters, one as a leading man and the other as a character actor. Kapoor himself said his latest innings as a performer was by far his most interesting and fulfilling and audiences couldn't agree more. He was the thoughtful, mature lover in Pyaar Mein Twist, a zany film producer in Luck By Chance, the callous human trafficker in Agneepath and a delightful wedding planner in Shuddh Desi Romance. A self-professed spontaneous actor, Kapoor relied on his instincts to guide him through the filming process.

Kapoor and Khan shared a scene in the 2013 film D-Day and the two actors from different generations and journeys, with their own styles of acting, played off each other so beautifully during an important sequence. Offscreen, both men bravely fought cancer and it seemed they had successfully beaten the disease to return to fair health, as Kapoor was slated to star in the Hindi adaptation of the Hollywood film The Intern and Khan returned to work in Angrezi Medium which released in March of this year.

It appeared both actors achieved in real life what audiences crave to see on the silver screen, which is for the protagonist to overcome an insurmountable obstacle, because that is what film heroes do. And it felt both men still had many more years of cinema ahead, and we as an audience had many more hours to spend with them in theaters or in our living rooms. While they are no longer with us, through their work Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan merged their lives with ours and in turn have left an everlasting legacy.

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Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510