You would think that the global landscape would be indifferent to tragedy by now. When droves of quarantined funeral processions are a daily occurrence, you would think that it would be accepted as normal. And yet, it wasn’t. The loss of one Bollywood darling was followed by another: first Irfan Khan and then Rishi Kapoor. And the impact was undeniable, even as the world continued to grapple with a collective calamity.
There will be attempts to understand and appreciate why. When we are bidding so many farewells, why are two throbbing so very painfully?
There are the less forgiving rationales. Even before the health crisis, the troubles of the rich and famous carried a bit more weight. Thus, it is tempting to write the outpouring off as a manifestation of celebrity culture.
But this, rather unfairly, disregards the nature of Irfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor’s celebrity. And why, even when devastation is commonplace, their passing still elicits an emotional response. There will be rationales in abundance, so I will offer mine; it is the artist, and not the person, that we miss and mourn.
The Stories We Tell
The glamour of celluloid is deceptively charming. Burgeoning ingenues and investors alike clamour to get a taste of cinema. All in a bid to capture some of that promised ‘good life’. And if we narrow in on the journey of Irfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor, or both, we can appreciate the enchantment.
How humble beginnings metamorphosed into megastardom for Irfan Khan. How Rishi Kapoor became a national heartthrob almost overnight. And ultimately, how they conquered their respective niches, before branching out. But what made their rise so captivating? Trade analysts and businessmen attempt to chart the formula. To assess what mix of masala made the difference. What percentage of entertainment was adequate? What was the accurate ratio of drama to comedy? How many licentious dance numbers ultimately generated profitable returns?
Interesting questions, I’m sure. Except, I don’t think they’re the ones that need to be asked. When I interviewed filmmaker, and now friend, Hamza Bangash, he put the charm of cinema down to a simpler benchmark. “At the end of the day,” he said, “people just want a good story.”
Irfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor, And The Heroes Within
It has often been said that we are connected by the stories we choose to tell. Sometimes, this is offered as a vague explanation for the human experience. Other times, the explanation isn’t vague at all.
Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung assessed stories across cultures in a bid to unearth archetypes. These, according to him, were primordial images, symbols, and narratives that were universal. Essentially, Jung believed that stories were not just created by societies; but reflected a shared human experience. As, according to him, all human beings were connected to a ‘collective unconscious’. Archetypes, he argued were responsible for our personalities, and how we reacted to the world around us.
For simplicity, here is a video breaking it down.
In popular culture today, archetypes continue to dominate. We’ll see manifestations of the lover, the ruler, the jester and so forth. And, if the work of Jung and his contemporaries is considered, they resonate with us because they exist within us. Within our unconscious, we exhibit traits of one or more archetypes. We react to real world events, in lieu of these archetypes.
And we connect with actors, in part, because their careers revolve around bringing those archetypes to life.
Lessons In Desire
Since their tragic deaths, there have been heartfelt pieces written about who they were, as people. Irfan Khan was humble, hardworking and far more talented than time let him prove. Rishi Kapoor was as charming as ever, and always jovial. And, since these revelations came from people who knew them, I do not doubt that they are true. In particular, Amitabh Bachan’s vulnerable rendition of his peer’s prowess was heartbreaking.
And yet, I think it would be unfair to suggest that it is their individuality that we are mourning.
In his eccentric documentary, Slavoj Zizek observed that, “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what to desire… it tells you how to desire.”
Through their cinematic escapades, both Rishi Kapoor and Irfan Khan showed us how. When we think of them now, it is in terms of what they taught us. In Irfan Khan, we saw the underdog. The odds stacked against him, and nothing in his arsenal except for his talent. His emotive performances in movies like The Lunchbox and Piku, didn’t just showcase his ability; they cemented his story. To quote Mayukh Sen’s article in The Atlantic, he was the, “everyman who, improbably, became a star.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Rishi Kapoor’s debut as a leading man dictated his arc. The fresh-faced charmer, who would inject effervescent romance into Bollywood’s torrid love-stories. The image was so lasting, in fact, that it followed him right to the end. Despite his recent projects being experimental, and even esoteric.
Despite their varied relationships with Indian, and global cinema, Irfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor both made their respective marks. And their parting is painful, because of how their performances touched one and all.
I started this article off, by questioning why their deaths stand out in the midst of so much strife. I suppose the answer is, that artistic expression is particularly important when our spirits are most dampened.