To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die – Thomas Campbell.

Two people who couldn’t have been more different. Two stars who epitomised two starkly different eras and styles. Yet, two of a kind. The two star-actors I have always admired.

Rishi Kapoor was in many ways “to the manor born”, hailing from a family that has been around 88 of the 107 years of Indian cinema. In many ways he typified the Hindi film hero, what we now fondly term “70s retro”: changing colourful jerseys in a beat, serenading the loveliest of ladies to the strains of some of the most enduring songs ever filmed.

As he so endearingly admitted in his autobiography, in the first half of his career he was seldom called upon to challenge himself as an actor. That was not entirely true of course – as everyone who has been part of cinema knows how difficult it is to “sing and dance around the trees”. It would take his oeuvre of films in the new millennium for people to start talking about him as someone more than the brilliant romance icon that he was. Yet, his early film Zehreela Insaan, remade from the Kannada arthouse classic Naagarahaavu, had provided glimpses of him as an actor that filmmakers of the era failed to explore.

Interestingly enough, Rishi Kapoor’s second coming as an actor coincided with the arrival of Irrfan Khan on the scene as one of the country’s finest performers. I first watched an Irrfan film way back in 2001 at the opening of the London Film Festival. I didn’t even know his name at the time and yet at the premiere screening of Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, what I took back from the visually stunning film were the actor’s eyes.

I would meet him again in Venice – I was there with with Abar Aranye, Goutam Ghosh’s sequel to Aranyer Din Ratri, and Irrfan was there with Vishal’s Maqbool, again a paean to those hauntingly eloquent eyes that would enchant generations of cine goers. Given his natural reticence, it would be years before I realised how fluently he spoke Bengali – when I called to congratulate him on his performance in The Namesake. Though he was a man of few words, there was something magical about his presence, both in real life and on screen, that instantly captured your imagination.

Different and yet alike

No two actors could be more different in their approaches to the craft. Rishi embraced his characters with such vivacity and enthusiasm that it was impossible to resist his charm.

When he bursts onto the screen in Hum Tum singing “Main shayar toh nahin”, you instantly surrender yourself to his joie de vivre and smile along with him. He literally owns the scene. In that moment, despite myself I felt my attention wavering from Saif to Rishi.

Rishi turned the corner in 2012 with his menacing and ruthless Rauf Lala in Agneepath. His follow-up act in D-Day with his rose-tinted glasses as Goldman was pure gold. Incidentally, Irrfan was the field agent in the same film, a perfect foil to Rishi’s evil villain.

Rishi believed in the king-size moment, without going over the top. You just have to watch him feed off Amitabh Bachchan in 102 Not Out to realise that on his day he could beat any actor hollow. For me, Mulk is his most memorable film. A nuanced and balanced portrayal of a retired Muslim lawyer countering Islamophobia. His words “Aaj jo hum faisla kar rahein hain, woh hamaare kal ka faisla karega” will always remain relevant. In the hands of someone less aware, this ran the risk of playing to the gallery. But with Rishi, even as you are aware that he is cherishing every moment of this challenging role, you also know that this actor will not give in to the temptation of “overacting”. Such was his control on his craft.

Insider, outsider

Rishi was not an insecure actor. He had the generosity in letting his co-actors inhabit a scene. Luck by Chance, Love Aaj Kal, Do Dooni Chaar, Kapoor and Sons and many others are proof enough. As an actor, Rishi understood the integrity of the scene as a whole, allowing his co-stars the space without overwhelming them with his star persona.

On the other hand, Irrfan was a master of the understated. His deadpan amused demeanour and his casual throwaway delivery were in direct contrast to Rishi’s. And yet, he was as effective. He was king of the small gesture – a raised eyebrow, a smirk, a look in his intriguing eyes that you could never wholly interpret. All of this lent him a mystique that haunted the viewer long after the screens dimmed, leaving the audience wanting more. You went back just to see what you might have missed the first time.

What gave his acting an edge, to my mind, is the feeling that he hid more than he revealed. A kind of absent-mindedness, as if he’s both present and not present. I looked forward to his multi-dimensional performances.

One was a rank outsider to the world of cinema who made it on his own steam with no family connections in the industry and the other belonging to the royalty of Hindi filmdom. One gregarious, the other reticent. Rishi was always in the news with his social media engagements, the fearlessness with which he expressed his opinions – on his food and drink preferences, on communal and nationalist issues even when they went against the popular discourse. Irrfan engaged more on a personal plane with his characteristic wry humour, even in difficult times.

Two of my beloved actors and stars, both on the cusp of greater glories, both gone ahead of time, both leaving behind not only their personal families but also their extended families of film lovers and fans. Two entirely unexpected deaths on two consecutive days in the middle of such unprecedented and worrying times.

There wasn’t even an opportunity to say goodbye. The passing of Rishi and Irrfan – how does one even commit that phrase into writing – leaves me devastated. At this moment, I cannot begin to contemplate the enormous void that these magnificent actors have left behind. Who can possibly fill the gap? Do we even want to fill the gap?

Also read:

Life itself: Rishi Kapoor (1952-2020) embodied romance and an irrepressible spirit

Irrfan (1967-2020): A powerhouse talent gone too soon