Pankaj Kapur, who completed three decades in film last year, could lay claim to being the finest character actor working in Hindi cinema today. It’s unlikely he’d ever do that though. Only an actor with scant ego could have graduated from the National School of Drama, worked with directors like Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen, won two National Awards – and also done TV shows like Phillips Top 10. The trick is to accept film Kapur and TV Kapur as the same person, to appreciate that the humour he brings to stalking a goat in the 1997 film Rui Ka Bojh isn’t that far removed from his tirades as the teacher in the sitcom Zabaan Sambhaal Ke. If Kapur’s long stint in TV – which has run parallel to his movie career since he started playing detective Karamchand in 1985 – has proved anything, it’s that the actor has a gift for comedy that’s rarely been exploited on the big screen. It’s possible that Vishal Bharadwaj, who gave him two of his finest roles in Maqbool and The Blue Umbrella, might have tapped that vein in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. The film stars Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma, and reunites Kapur with Shabana Azmi. To mark its release this fortnight, we look back at our five favourite Pankaj Kapur performances.
JAANE BHI DO YAARO (1983)
It isn’t so far-fetched to suggest that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro might have come apart at the seams if Tarneja hadn’t been a convincing villain. Certainly, Kapur is the only cast member who suppresses the temptation to go over the top (save for his explosive entry in the Mahabharata scene – no actor could have resisted that). His corrupt builder is neat, logical, even-voiced; and in a film as all -out crazy as this one, he sticks out. His villainy is vulpine – he has the same smile as the wolf in the old Warner Bros cartoons. You might not think of him first or second or even fifth when recalling the movie, but try imagining it without him.
Aditya Bhattacharya’s film won Kapur his first National Award, for Best Supporting Actor. If Aamir Khan was an exposed nerve as a young man driven half-crazy by his desire to avenge his girlfriend’s molestation (it must have been especially startling for audiences who’d just seen him in the sunny Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak), Kapur was the film’s dark heart. (He plays a police officer who coaches Khan in the ways of vigilante justice.) There are two remarkable moments involving his character. The first is when Khan realises that Kapur was an eye-witness to the assault and confronts him. The shorter Kapur physically dominates the younger actor, repeatedly entering his space and yanking him around. The second is a long monologue Kapur delivers as he confronts the perpetrators of the crime, his voice shaking with suppressed rage and self-disgust.
EK DOCTOR KI MAUT (1990)
Ek Doctor Ki Maut is often pointed to as the Pankaj Kapur performance to see. Kapur plays a doctor whose obsession with finding a cure for leprosy causes him to neglect everything else in his life, including his long-suffering wife, played by Shabana Azmi. Kapur – perhaps realising the possibilities inherent in the role – responded with one of his most explosive performances. His character is always erupting – with joy, scorn, anger, disbelief. He’s not a likeable man, and to his credit, Kapur never attempts a last-innings bid for redemption. But redemption arrives nevertheless, in a quietly distressing scene by the ocean, with Azmi consoling her sick, dejected partner.
Even if the day came when we couldn’t remember a single thing about Vishal Bharadwaj’s masterly adaptation of Macbeth, we still wouldn’t be able to get Abba Ji’s voice out of our heads. Every bit as memorable as Anthony Hopkins’ hiss in The Silence of the Lambs or Amitabh Bachchan’s growl inAgneepath, Kapur’s throat-grazing monotone is perfect for Abba Ji, an underworld don with otherworldly menace. Kapur plays Duncan to Irrfan Khan’s Macbeth and Tabu’s Lady Macbeth, and though everyone’s in top form, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Kapur when he’s part of the scene. Apart from garnering him a second Supporting Actor National Award, Maqbool was responsible for introducing Kapur to a generation who hadn’t seen him in his ’80s parallel cinema heydey.
Kapur’s portrayal of Pandit Chaturvedi in Bhavna Talwar’s Dharm is a masterpiece of minimalist acting. Dead eyes, expressionless voice, face like a mask: Kapur suggests a man so fixed in his ways he might as well have left the realm of the living. Which makes it all the more astonishing when the spell lifts. A young boy orphaned at the pandit’s doorstep is taken in by his wife. The holy man, dismissive at first, gradually warms to the child. When we finally see him smile, it’s a revelation; when he laughs, it’s nothing short of a miracle.