Two stars of the Hindi film industry passed away within a day of each other last week. Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor were both doyens of Bollywood – the first was a self-made thespian, the second the cute scion of the biggest dynasty of the industry.
Both were great actors. They have been memorialised variously and well over the past few days. This piece is not to memorialise them, but rather to try interrogate the parameters of memorialising dead stars.
The sixteenth-century French writer Montaigne, in his essay Of Friendship, made it incumbent on the friend to memorialise his deceased companion. It was an act of duty, or even debt owed to the deceased comrade. But what happens when we try remember deceased stars? What kind of a relationship does the fan have to the actor? Was Irrfan, who for most practical purposes dropped his surname Khan, more like a friend to his fans than the dynast Rishi Kapoor?
In his critical essay on fan bhakti, Madhava Prasad compares the fan’s relationship to his idol to that of a religious bhakt to his god. It is also a relationship of power, where the idol gains soft power through the multitude of his fans. The fans feel empowered by following their idol. The death of such a star is a matter of great grief for the fan, and the fan may be understood to wish to memorialise and commemorate the star as best as they can – hagiographically, as nothing short of a real-life god.
No wonder that in India we are known to have temples dedicated to film stars. Deaths of movie stars such as MG Ramachandran in 1987 are known to have resulted into violence through the outpouring of the collective grief of the community of fans. Such fans, of course, tolerate no criticism of their idols.
But what about those who may appreciate actors of other famous personalities with some critical distance? How should they remember the dead – both immediately at the time of the demise or later? Should criticism of the deceased be permissible, and should it be made at the point of death, or should one be kind to the dead and their relatives and friends?
Soon after Rishi Kapoor’s death, an old article did the rounds on social media that reminded us of his casteism and misogyny. This connects to the larger debate of what to do with the art of the enfant terrible artist. When accused of harassment, bad behaviour and worse, does one abandon their art completely?
Should anything change after death? The dead star gave joy to millions when alive, while remaining as bigoted as your average colony uncle. Should we stick on to the praise or the calumny, or throw in the latter as a caveat to temper the first? Should we let dead dogs lie, or speak no ill of the dead, or forget the pleasure a man brought into the world, and focus on the morality he did not rectify?
With Irrfan, the matter is even more subtle or tricky. There does not seem to be anything to hold against his character, although some Muslims have said he was not Muslim enough, while some Hindus have expressed joy at his death, using India’s ever-favourite cricketing metaphors, that another wicket is down. Yet none of this is substantial criticism, and certainly not of the same political order. Most memorials of Irrfan have been exceedingly positive, with many fondly remembering his performances in films such as the eponymous novel-adaptation The Namesake and the Macbeth-remake Maqbool.
It is to Irrfan’s credit that he starred in these and other film adaptations of literature, such as Life of Pi. I imply that this indicates a certain finesse of the actor that he is the choice of directors seeking to make what is conventionally understood as high-brow cinema. However, when I read friends on social media waxing eloquent about his performances, particularly in Maqbool and The Namesake, and watched the films on two consecutive nights under the ongoing lockdown, I couldn’t but beg to slightly differ.
In Maqbool, it was the young Tabu who stole the show from Irrfan. The pair, who complemented each other wonderfully, also paired up in The Namesake, but here it was only Irrfan who captured all screens. Even his absence spoke loudly. Was it simply the difference of the roles assigned in the two films? Are Lady Macbeth and Ashok simply the more powerful characters, and these two actors good and secure enough to know when to take the back seat? Or was it so that Irrfan climbed a steep learning curve fast in the years separating the two films? Maqbool was an excellent performance, but perhaps surpassed by his costar, while Ashok was his tour de force?
In death, more than in life, is it at all okay to make such criticisms, subtle or blatant? Perhaps one should be able to speak of the ills or even just the shortcomings along with the good and the superlatives. All memorials, especially those not by friends or fans, may not be hagiographic. Perhaps, nor should they be damning pieces of criticism, sending the artist to hell for their discretions. Perhaps they should admit the humanity of the stars alongside their immense talent, filled with their shortcomings and achievements. Perhaps we should remember stars also as men and women, who gave us joy, and had their faults.
Maaz Bin Bilal has a PhD on the politics of friendship in EM Forster’s work. He is the author of Ghazalnama and the translator of The Sixth River. He teaches literary studies at Jindal Global University.