& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Remembering Rishi Kapoor

To write about Rishi Kapoor in the past tense is incredibly sad.

As an actor, Rishi Kapoor was an institution. His legacy will last as long as there is cinema. 

But he was more than just an actor. In the last decade or so he had become a social media influencer, a twitter aficionado.

This blog post, however, is only about Rishi Kapoor the film star who although he came from a privileged background, thrived in a highly competitive environment for four decades because of his immense talent.

There are already a number of excellent obituaries about Rishi Kapoor; many written by people who knew him personally and met him frequently; mine is probably not going to match those either in erudition or depth. 

This blog post is just my tribute to an actor who will always remain an integral part of my adolescence and youth. I didn't know him personally. I didn't meet him, ever. 

To the generation that became interested and aware of the tremendous appeal of popular Hindi cinema in the 1970s – he was and will always remain a lodestar. Rishi Kapoor was that young, reckless romantic, willing to risk everything for love, and who almost always nearly lost everything but got the girl.

By the 1970s, the dreams of a post-independence India were in tatters. There was a rising anger at the system, captured brilliantly by Amitabh Bachchan’s smouldering rage. Rishi Kapoor gave the audience welcome relief from that overwrought and essentially futile fury.

Right from his debut as a lead actor in Bobby (1973), where he was the personification of young love with its all its doe eyed innocence, Rishi Kapoor captured our hearts by his competent skills as an actor. 

He was a despondent, hopeless lover in Laila Majnu (1976), as a crossdresser in Rafoo Chakkar (1975), as a carefree quawaal in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), and a dafli-player in love with a mute dancer in Sargam (1979) – my favourite Rishi Kapoor film.

All his films from that era are equally well-remembered for their songs.

Rishi Kapoor redefined the song and dance routine that is a staple of Hindi cinema, and although never acknowledged as a great dancer, he knew how to set fire to the dancefloor with his moves.

Although he showed his versatility in every role he played, he was not offered challenging roles, till rather late in his career. The one notable exception was Doosra Admi (1977), where Rishi Kapoor played a young, ambitious man focused on his career and falling in love with an older colleague. His portrayal was bold, mature, but deliberately underplayed. He didn’t let Rakhee, a consummate, top-of-the-line actor of that era, overshadow him.  

In the 1980s, Rishi Kapoor signed up for a whole bunch of utterly unforgettable films. But he did give his fans Karz (1980), a reincarnated revenge saga based on the Reincarnation of Peter Proud; remembered today for its unmatched energy.

Prem Rog (1982), his second film as the male lead after Bobby that his father directed, saw Rishi Kapoor again give a subdued performance. Just as Bobby was centered around Dimple Kapadia, Prem Rog was focused on Padmini Kolhapure. 

Then, came Sagar (1985), the film that relaunched Dimple Kapadia. Rishi Kapoor could have easily been eclipsed by the much-acclaimed Kamal Hasan, but he held his own effortlessly.

I'm sure, he knew his worth as an actor, and would have been full of remorse that he didn't get good roles in his prime. But he didn’t believe in wasting his time waiting for good roles. He made good with whatever came his way, and never flinched from accepting roles that would probably have been rejected by other actors. 

He eagerly accepted roles that played second fiddle to the woman lead in films. Nagin (1986) with Sridevi was a monstrously bad film but was undeniably a monstrous hit. He was equally at ease being the second male lead. All his films with Amitabh Bachchan – Kabhie Kabhie (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Naseeb (1981), Coolie (1983), were hugely successful and remain endearing even today. Some, such as Ajooba (1991), were colossal flops, but that had little to do with Rishi Kapoor.

Another trend that marks his career is that despite a string of flops (inevitable, considering he did on an average three to four films a year) every few years, he would turn in a mega success. So, after a protracted lean phase in the late 1980s, he delivered a huge hit in Chandni (1989). 

He will forever hold the record of having launched the careers of pretty young things into movies, and he did that with aplomb, wearing multicoloured cardigans.

The 1990s were not too different from the previous decade. He continued to work in utterly forgettable films but also gave us Bol Radha Bol (1992), which succeeded as much because of him as for Juhi Chawla; Deewana (1992) which succeeded because of Shah Rukh Khan; and Damini (1993), which Sunny Deol’s biceps propelled to eternal fame.

Then, after a lean phase, he turned to character roles, and entered what was perhaps the most interesting phase of his career. He was liberated from ensuring a film's success. He could now focus on his performance.

He brought an indescribable insouciance to his role as a father who preferred to pursue his dreams as a photographer rather than be a responsible dad in Hum Tum (2004), you couldn't obviously like him for the way he treated his wife, but you still weren't willing to dislike him. 

He was wasted as Kajol's dad in Fanaa (2006).

He was nominated for the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of a film producer in Luck by Chance (2009). Delhi 6 (2009) and Love Aaj Kal (2009) again saw him at his subdued best; in both the films he played an aging lover, who having lived it up in his younger days, is unable to comprehend the restrained ardour of the younger generation.

And then, came Do Dooni Char (2010), a story set in lower middle-class Delhi, for which he won the Filmfare best actor; his second after Bobby. He took everyone by surprise with his portrayal of an amiable and yet vicious Bombay bhai in the remake of Agneepath (2012). It was a performance that got under the skin of the audience – it was hair raising, and riveting. 

He followed it up with another incredible performance in D-Day (2013), portraying a character that was based on Dawood Ibrahim. As the lubricious granddad in Kapoor & Sons (2016), he was unrecognizable with layers of makeup, but again won the Filmfare best supporting award. His role in Mulk (2018) won wide acclaim because he brought to life the uneasiness of India’s Muslims in a country that rapidly transformed into a Hindutva citadel.

Rishi Kapoor's passing away is a national loss. There won't be anyone like him. There can't be. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

He was my father

Meghnadurga (circa mid-1980s)

A few days back, Rajesh Macwan, a friend, sent me a few lines of my father Meghnad Bhatt’s poem about the advice that a father, who is entering the fifth decade of his life, is giving to his son, who is about to turn 25. 

But before I get into the poem, let me give a brief background. 

According to the Hindu Vedas, the four ashramas (stages) of a human being’s life are 

  • Brahmacharya (bachelorhood, student), 
  • Grihastha (householder), 
  • Vanaprashta (to give up on worldly life), 
  • and the final stage of Sannyasa (life of a mendicant, a life of renunciation). 
Vanaprashta means to enter the forest. When one enters the forest, one begins to relinquish one’s love for material possessions. Typically, that phase commences when a person enters the fifth decade. In most Indian languages, the fifties end in "Van" (51 = ekyavan, 52 = bavan, 53 = trepan, and so on). "Van" is forest. 

In Gujarati, Vanaprastha is called Vanapravesh. Also, in Gujarati, as in other Indian cultures, the advent of youth is a considered period of foolishness and clueless rebellion; it’s when a person, and especially a man, is no better than a jackass. 

The exact age when this transformation from a human to a jackass occurs is when a man turns 25-year-old.

Gujarati language has a term for it: Gaddha-pachisi. An approximate translation would be jackass 25, an age when young men are no better or worse than jackasses. A relatable reference is the contemporary popular psychological term ‘quarter life crisis’.

Now, let's get back to the couplet that Rajesh Macwan sent me. 

I have attempted to translate the poem into English. I'm not particularly good at translations, but I wanted to include the poem in this blog post which I'm posting on the 23rd death anniversary of my dad, so, please indulge me.

A simpler translation of the title of the poem that Rajesh sent me would be: 

Advice of an aging father to a young son 

But it wouldn’t capture the essence of the angst that the original title and the poem possess.

So, let’s go with the bells and whistle title: 

Advice of a Vanapravesh-aged father to a son who’s on the anvil of Gaddha-pachisi. 

I'm not sure if the improvised, hybridized (English-Gujarati) title works, and if it doesn't go back to the simpler version above. 

And now the poem’s translation

Till yesterday

The one who wore his father’s spectacles and romped around pretending to be “Pappa”

Has suddenly turned critical of bapu-cracy (gerontocracy), Mayank?

There never really was a gap between us, ever

The unasked, unanswered question that ends the poem is: "Or was there? (a generation gap).

Meghnad wrote this in 1985. He turned 50 that year and I was 23. He was at the height of his creativity. He was a successful union leader, having unionized the clerical staff of Mafatlal Group, in the heart of Bombay's corporate world - Nariman Point. 

His journalism was flourishing. He was writing for Janmabhoomi and Pravasi (edited by the redoubtable Harinder Dave). Although rather late, his first collection of poems Chhiplan was published in 1980 to good reviews, and his second collection Malajo would be published in a couple of years. During the decade, he won recognition as a poet from the Gujarati literary establishment. 

On the other hand, I was at a crossroads of my life. I didn’t want to do what I was doing – chartered accountancy, and wasn’t sure I could turn journalism (at that time my steadfast interest) into a vocation. 

He didn’t lose patience at my indecisiveness, and what in retrospect was clearly a sheer lack of purpose. 

I’ve often blogged about Meghnad here, but it has mostly been of how deeply he has influenced my thinking. I haven’t written much about him as a father. And more than a poet, a union leader, a committed leftist ideologue, he was a father.

I could fit a book of the many instances that I remember of him being a father. Today, I’ll narrate just a couple. 

On the evening of my sister’s wedding, after she had left with her husband’s family, Meghnad broke down and wept inconsolably. Nothing would make him stop. He didn’t want to stop. He cried for a long time, lying on the bed. 

My grandmother, my mother and I stood near him, gaping at each other, not knowing what to say or what to do. Later, I asked him the cause of his utter desolation, but he didn’t answer. He never talked about it ever. 

I saw my father cry only twice. The second time was when he reached Bombay from his maiden trip to the United States, a couple of years before he passed away. 

And, here's another instance of him being a dad.

I think the males in the Bhatt family have a genetic defect in the eyes. They all have to wear glasses at a young age. My father, my son and I have had to wear prescription glasses at about the same age. In my case it was in 1974, when I was 12 years old. 

We had moved to Teli Gali in Andheri a couple of years back, but my parents were still unfamiliar with the place, and they had excellent, long-nurtured relations in Kalbadevi-Princess Street area.   

So, I had my eyes tested at the Round Building (at the intersection of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street) and my glasses made at Ganko opticians (at the intersection of Old Hanuman Lane and Kalbadevi Road). 

That late afternoon, we were returning home from Ganko. I was wearing prescription glasses for the first time in my life.

It was raining and I was unaccustomed to seeing through the glasses. While descending the stairs at the Marine Lines station, I nearly slipped and would have tumbled all the way down to the platform, had Meghnad not grabbed my hand and pulled me up. 

He was angry. That was rare because he was seldom angry. But it was momentary. He pulled me to him and said in a calm tone. “We must be very careful.” A little later, when we were inside the local suburban train, he said, "We must start living in Andheri."