Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan: A tale of two thespians

In the words of Charles J. Sykes, “Life is not fair. Get used to it.”

In an early scene in the 2007 movie, Om Shanti Om, Om Prakash Makhija, one of the titular characters played by Shah Rukh Khan, engages in some pointless banter with his friend, Pappu Master played by Shreyas Talpade in the canteen of a film studio. Om is a junior artist who dreams of making it big one day. However, Pappu frankly tells him that so long as he retains his surname, stardom will remain a pipe dream and that he must adopt a more weighty surname such as “Kapoor” or “Khanna” if he wants his talent and effort to fructify. As a form of poetic justice, he is reincarnated in his next life, later on in the film as Om Kapoor, a famous actor living the luxurious life that Om Prakash had dreamt of. The entire episode could have been dismissed as light-hearted entertainment if it was not steeped in deep-rooted ascriptive prejudice which is inherent in the Hindi film industry, something that is bound to come to the fore as we mourn the demise of two celebrated cinema actors, Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan.

But let me preface it by saying that I am aware that one should not speak ill of the dead. Yet, if some larger issues are involved, it is imperative to state the facts as they are, no matter how unpleasant, rather than brush them under the carpet. So long as one doesn’t indulge in personal attacks or calumny, it can hardly be said that painting anything less than a hagiographic picture of a person would be an affront to the bereaved. After all, our flaws are what make us human.

Family Raj

It is impossible to not ignore the stark contrast in the lives of the two. Rishi Kapoor was the quintessential star kid, the son of a successful actor, producer, and director whose career was launched by his father after he dropped out of college. The film, Bobby, went on to become a blockbuster and cemented his status overnight as a romantic heartthrob. With time, he took up diverse roles and kept making on-and-off appearances on the screen long after the sun had set on his career as a “hero”.

Those who accuse the actor of being just another product of nepotism, a part and parcel of the Hindi film industry might be called green-eyed by his legions of fans. After all, quite a few star-kids failed to live up to the expectations of their parents and fans. Yet, one is compelled to ask, “Would it have been possible for Rishi Kapoor to achieve the same level of success had it not been for his privileged birth?” Indeed, it was not his fault that he was born in an illustrious family but what is truly disturbing is that that he was not averse to openly and unabashedly flaunting his upper caste and class status as is apparent from the following anecdote which has been reproduced verbatim from Shashi Tharoor’s article, “Why caste won’t disappear from India”:

‘I still remember my own discovery of caste. I was a ten-year-old representing the 6th Standard in an inter-class theatrical event at which the 8th Standard’s sketch featured “Chintu” (Rishi) Kapoor, younger son of the matinee idol and producer Raj Kapoor, later to become a successful screen heartthrob in his own right. I had acted, elocuted a humorous poem and MCed my class’s efforts to generous applause, and the younger Kapoor was either intrigued or disconcerted, for he sought me out the next morning at school.

“Tharoor,” he asked me at the head of the steps near the toilet, “what caste are you?”

I blinked my nervousness at the Great Man. “I — — I don’t know,” I stammered. My father, who never mentioned anyone’s religion, let alone caste, had not bothered to enlighten me on such matters.

“You don’t know?” the actor’s son demanded in astonishment. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Everybody knows their own caste.”

I shamefacedly confessed I didn’t.

“You mean you’re not a Brahmin or something?”

I couldn’t even avow I was a something. Chintu Kapoor never spoke to me again in school. But I went home that evening and extracted an explanation from my parents, whose eclectic liberality had left me in such ignorance. They told me, in simplified terms, about the Nairs; and so it is to Rishi Kapoor, celluloid hero of the future, that I owe my first lesson about my genealogical past.

And this is not a mere one-off incidence attributable to a schoolboy’s immaturity or naiveness. Shivani Channan in her article “Rishi Kapoor: The Casteist, Khandaani, Besharam Boy Of Bollywood” has revealed how the actor threatened and later blocked her for calling out his hypocrisy after his tweets about the significance of “merit” in the Kapoor dynasty. In the twilight years of his life, it became obvious that the Rishi Kapoor was losing it. Being a part of the privileged elite had ensured that work was available in abundance in his youth but he was clearly unable to come to terms with the fact that he had been put out to the pastures. From branding Nawazuddin Siddique as an average actor who does not have the “image” or talent to do romantic scenes, to blaming directors for his son’s flops and calling them “monkeys” and even making sexist comments about the Indian women’s cricket team, it is no surprise that yesteryear’s evergreen chocolate boy became notorious for his controversial, bizarre and offensive tweets. Probably typed in an inebriated state, he must at least be given credit for speaking his mind candidly. As they say “In Vino Veritas”.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Irrfan, on the other hand, was an outsider to the celluloid world, right from the beginning. But unlike Kangana Ranaut, he never made a fuss about it. An alumnus of the National School of Drama, he started off with a minor role in Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay” and had to struggle for nearly a decade, playing various characters in TV serials and plays before establishing himself as one of the most versatile actors in the industry and the face of Indian cinema in the west. Be it mainstream or indie, there was hardly any film in which he did not leave a mark. He did not need a publicity stunt to promote his movie. He let his work speak for itself. Quietly but confidently, he came, he saw, he conquered.

It is worth mentioning here that unlike Rishi Kapoor, Irrfan chose to drop “Khan” from his name because he wanted to be known for his work, not his caste, religion, or background. This coming from someone who became a member of a fraternity where one’s surname can make all the difference makes it even more praiseworthy.

So there you have it — with warts and all. Two tales of success. But their journeys couldn’t be more different. An extraordinarily talented man from Jaipur who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds in the dog-eat-dog world of Bollywood to become whom he aspired to be juxtaposed with someone who had it easy right from day one, merely because of his lineage. The lives of the stars of the silver screen may seem glitzy and glamorous at first, but look beyond the fake smiles and designer clothes and you will see the ugly face of inequality from which there is no escape.

Law is a noble pursuit and necessary to sustain life but poetry is what we stay alive for.