Rishi Kapoor Irrfan Khan
Bollywood Rishi Irrfan Image Credit: Supplied


  • In their death, the two actors managed to unite a fractious, terrified nation of currently manifold divisions into a common grief.
  • All of India were fans of the two actors, both felled by cancer, and we were united in our shared grief.

India lost two actors in quick succession. Irrfan Khan, 53, the first real crossover actor we had, and Rishi Kapoor, 67, scion of the Kapoor family and the first “young” heartthrob of Hindi cinema, who later morphed into an amazingly versatile actor in his second innings.

The loss during lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic was grievous. It felt totally personal -- like losing a well-loved member of the family.

In their death, the two actors managed to unite a fractious, terrified nation of currently manifold divisions into a common grief. All of India were fans of the two actors, both felled by cancer, and we were united in our shared grief.

The outpouring of emotion of a nation drained by coronavirus and divided in myriad ways spoke of the unity that once was India.

And Irrfan Khan’s last words were magical -- Khan asked people to be kind to each other; to make each other happy. I have had the privilege of interviewing Khan, and even in the rushed noisy space of film promotions where back-to-back interviews are the norm, he was different. Khan was thoughtful, extremely bright and had a glint in his eyes whenever he thought you had understood the point he was trying to make. Those hooded eyes would twinkle and you felt good that a connection had been made with a person whose good opinion you valued.

Mesmerising actors

The ease with which he inhabited his roles was almost like the way one slips into an old, soft, comfortable T-shirt. Khan vanished and only the character remained, communicating through liquid gesture and those haunting eyes: Maqbool, The Lunchbox, The Namesake, Haider, Life of Pi, Salaam Bombay and The Warrior in no particular order.

Khan loved acting and the camera loved him. When he was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour two years ago, I remember feeling miserable and yet sure that he would conquer the disease. That he succumbed speaks of human frailty, which Khan showcased again and again, dissolving in his performances.

Memorably, Naseeruddin Shah, a brilliant actor himself, had once said of Khan that when he shared acting space with him, he felt as though he was western classical music composer Antonio Salieri in the presence of sublime genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Khan was effortless in life and in acting.

Equally effortless was Kapoor: A fine actor on-screen and an absolutely politically incorrect person off-screen. Being the son of Raj Kapoor, who was launched in the super-hit Bobby helmed by his father, Kapoor was extremely proud of his family and prickly towards the world. Kapoor had a sense of humour, saying about himself once: “Kapoors are known for blue eyes and Black Label. I didn’t get the blues eyes, but the Black Label is part of me.”

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He had a fairytale romance with his co-star Neetu Singh, whom he later married. The couple went through several rough passages, and yet the love and understanding were palpable. Singh spent a year in New York with him during his battle with cancer. Their son Ranbir Kapoor, a superstar in his own right, and daughter Riddhima (who lives in New Delhi and because of the lockdown couldn’t make it to Mumbai for the funeral) made up a lovely family picture.

Kapoor had just come into his own as an actor, saying that directors were finally giving him roles he was excited about and where he truly pushed the envelope as an actor. Some of these films include Mulk, D Day - where he co-starred with Irrfan - and Agneepath, where he did a terrific chilling turn as a gangster. Kapoor was thrilled that his acting chops were being stretched after years of playing a romantic hero in a sweater with the obligatory dance turn. And what a fine dancer Kapoor was, especially with then girlfriend Neetu Singh in Khel Khel Mein, Doosra Aadmi and Kabhi Kabhie.

He made it look so easy. Ranbir Kapoor once told me in an interview that while he was very private, his father was the exact opposite. “I get scared of what he says on Twitter.” That was Rishi Kapoor - making no bones about his views, often getting into hot water and yet like the proverbial hero, he always emerged unscathed.

Miserable in lockdown, I feel that cinema, which all Indians are crazy about, still has the potential to unite us. To show us that we can be better human beings. And learn to be kind to each other. Thank you for the movies Mr Khan and Mr Kapoor … you will be missed.

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