Good actors as good people

05 May 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IRRFAN Khan has been praised, deservedly if tardily, for his enormous acting talents after the movie star’s unscripted fall to cancer last week. Praise has been showered also on Rishi Kapoor, who died a day after Irrfan just as suddenly, for his remarkable ease before the camera.

While their approaches to the cinema were very different, neither would be a good actor had they not been agreeable men in the first place. Take any actor you like. Touch their heart. If there’s no humanism pulsating in it, they are probably not great actors. The Indian People’s Theatre Association comprised men and women who knit India’s diverse cultures into an expansive and colourful fabric. The songs that Sahir, Majrooh or Shailendra penned were rooted in strong support of India’s poor but they reached out to the toil and pain of the larger world too. Ismat Chughtai and Amrita Pritam procured front seats in the enterprise for creative women.

Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando make handy comparison. Heston earned fame and fortune with a messianic role in the1956 magnum opus, The Ten Commandments. Writing in The New York Times when the film was re-released for a brief run 30 years later, film critic Vincent Canby, however, called it “a gaudy, grandiloquent Hollywood classic” and likened Heston’s Moses to little more than “the rugged American frontiersman”. A committed right-winger, Heston died in harness as the spokesman for America’s revanchist National Rifle Association. He was a popular actor, but not a great talent in the craft. Brando, on the other hand, is revered for his peerless performances and for his activism against white racism and the abuse of Native Americans.

Take any actor you like. Touch their heart. If there’s no humanism pulsating in it, they are probably not great actors.

Kirk Douglas had little personal rapport with Brando but ideologically they were on the same humanist page. It was Douglas who rescued leftist writer Dalton Trumbo from forced anonymity after vicious McCarthyism had pushed him to write under a different name. Trumbo got his credit line back as writer with Spartacus, the story of a popular slave revolt in ancient Rome. Former American communist party chief Howard Fast wrote the novel which Douglas turned into an all-time classic.

The more established talent in Hollywood can thus be divined from its caring and liberal moorings, and this isn’t too different elsewhere, including South Asia. One knows from meeting Sri Lanka’s legendary movie actress Swarna Mallawarachchi and the late director Tissa Abeysekera that their talent flowed from their humanist instincts. So was the case with Sunny Rauniyar in Nepal.

The cultural renaissance in Bengal struck gold with Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy. Tagore’s Kabuliwala was the only story though in which Roy used a Muslim character, when that became inescapable. And yet his secular-liberal credentials were affirmed with each movie he touched without needing to include a mandatory character from any of India’s minority communities.

It was, in fact, amusing to see Roy travel to the Jewish cultural trope to promote the idea of cross-cultural and intra-religious love in Yahudi, this when there was no paucity of trans-religious romances pervading the tinsel town itself.

One can’t remember any of the trio of Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar as being underserving of Nehru’s complete affection for them. Their secular credo and off-screen relationships breached the post-Partition cultural taboos, and the new generation of men and women from cinema who have broken regressive social barriers in personal lives or role preferences should feel grateful to these forbears.

Take any remarkable actor or a movie director and there’s complete commitment to the idea of a liberal and egalitarian India. Balraj Sahni is best remembered for his role as Saleem Mirza, the browbeaten head of a Muslim family in Agra that chose to stay back in India during 1947. But Sahni would perhaps not have been the amazing Saleem Mirza in Garam Hawa had he not absorbed the essential reality of a peasant robbed of his land in Do Bigaah Zameen. Naseeruddin Shah in Manthan and Om Puri in Aakrosh experienced and reflected the catharsis of rural distress in its economic and social forms.

Irrfan Khan too bared his soul here as Paan Singh Tomar, the upright peasant compelled by fateful circumstances to become a bandit. And Rishi Kapoor was only reflecting his personal upbringing in essaying the loveable character as a beleaguered Muslim citizen in Mulk. Had his father not been nudged by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and Shailendra into a stream of consciousness that would define Raj Kapoor’s cinema, Rishi Kapoor would have perhaps struggled to defend his Muslim beard in the compelling speech in the court scene in Mulk.

The main struggle in South Asia’s monsoon-fed economies has been between the peasant and the man who is variously known as the moneylender, sahukaar or bania. After independence, Nehru and Indira Gandhi kept the lid tight on the moneylender. Nehru in particular shunned the mercantile class, and leaned towards industrial capital as the mantra to build India. It was a major departure in the management of the state. Before him every ruler including the Mughals and the British was a benefactor of the sahukaar, so much so that Emperor Aurangzeb dispatched his best generals to defend Surat after Shivaji raided the traders in Gujarat for booty he would use in the long battle with Mughal rule.

It is not insignificant that some of the most acclaimed Indian movies told stories of rural strife and struggle. There were Homi Wadia’s Sampoorna Ramayana and Zabak too, (both thronged heavily by burqa-clad women) but much of the narrative was about stolen land and crimes of usury. Do Bigah Zameen, Mother India, Naya Daur and Ganga Jamuna were outstanding samples of this. Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor carried this genetic code stoically at a time when the sahukaars have become the rulers and the peasants the stranded migrant labourers.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2020