Unlike his contemporaries Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapur is not nearly celebrated as much as his work would have you believe. The man was an integral - and eager - participant of the alternative cinema movement which began on celluloid but culminated on television. An NSD alumnus, Pankaj was thrown out of the National School of Drama Repertory Company when he worked in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). He not only played Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal, but since Ben Kingsley didn’t speak any Hindi, became the voice of Gandhi in the Hindi version. It was his friend Om who suggested he meet Shyam Benegal, the patron saint of “art film” actors those days, who needed a fresh face to play a school teacher in his new film Aarohan (1982) about sharecroppers in West Bengal and how they were exploited. The film begins with a rare five-and-a-half-minute sequence where Om Puri addresses the audience directly, setting the context for the theme of the film and introducing the cast members one by one. Thus, the very introduction of this actor called Pankaj Kapur was done by breaking the fourth wall, an indication of things to come.
Pankaj Kapur went on to feature in various roles which not only challenged his histrionic abilities, but introduced discerning audiences to whole new experiences. And he managed to do this in the 80s, which is often derided as the period when Indian cinema was experiencing severe drought. But this creative famine sprouted a veritable golden age of television, where creators were given a free hand to push the proverbial envelope as far as their faculties allowed. Many a talented actor flourished during this grand experiment, Pankaj Kapur being one of them. With Pankaj Parashar’s serial Karamchand he first tasted widespread popularity and continued to shine in shows like Neem Ka Ped, Zabaan Sambhal Ke, Bharat Ek Khoj, and eventually experienced another bout of primetime stardom by playing Musaddi Lal in Office Office. On the cinema front, unlike many of his colleagues, Pankaj managed to sustain a certain level of quality in his choice of roles. From Tarneja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro to the evil juror in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, from Dr Dipankar in Ek Doctor ki Maut which earned him his second National Award, to Abbaji in Maqbool which got him his third National Award, Pankaj Kapur kept blazing a trail. This piece would attempt to draw attention to three of his roles that this columnist believes deserves more attention.
Pankaj was barely thirty-one when he was asked to play Amrita Singh’s father, the wobbly, portly Kallumal Koyelewaala. He was no stranger to playing old men. Even in his twenties, Pankaj often sported grey hair on the stage. He had also just played a sexagenarian on Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, also directed by Basu Chatterjee. In Kallumal Koyelewaala, Basu had offered Pankaj a dash at comedy, which he had briefly toyed with in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The film was based on Om Prakash Sharma’s book Dhadkanein, in which he describes Kallumal in this fashion -
‘Aiye aapko Kallumal se milayen. Kad saade char feet. Ji haan, saade char feet. Ausat kad se bahut chhota kad, hum usey piddi kehte hain. Rang saanwla, badan gol issliye tanik betuka thha. Shiksha chhati fail.’
Pankaj added his own idiosyncrasies to the role. His Kallumal mumbles to himself as he walks, and when his wife and daughter break into a fight, he applauds every retort of the daughter by shaking his head and saying, ‘Aaha...aha....Wah! Wah!’ as if responding to a classic music recital. Neither his wife (Bharati Achrekar) nor his daughter (Amrita Singh) pays any heed to his outbursts. When his wife blames it all on him for spoiling their daughter with an education, Kallumal retorts,
“Mujhe toh tumne bina maa-baap ke samajh rakkha hai na! Jab chaha jhaad diya? Himmat ho toh ussko jhaado, jisne ye kasoor kiya!”
”Kisne kiya hai kasoor?”, asks the wife.
"Indira Gandhi ne kiya hai! Pakdogi usey? Ussi ne kaha hai auraton ko padhaane ke liye!” pat comes the reply.
Pankaj brought to this role a blend of slapstick and naturalistic humour which he would perfect in the years to come. While his gesticulations were dramatic, his retorts and the way he spoke to himself resonated with the kind of banter one would often encounter on the streets.
Three years after Chameli ki Shaadi, Pankaj got the part for which he grabbed his first National Award. It was an intense role fuming with rage, Pankaj Kapur’s very own Travis Bickle. In Aditya Bhattacharya’s Raakh (1989), a youth named Aamir Hussain (Aamir Khan) from a dystopian future city watches helplessly as his girlfriend is raped by gangster Karmali and his goons. As he spirals into depression, unable to process this trauma, he comes in touch with inspector PK who is looking for a way to crush Karmali but cannot even touch him while staying within the bounds of law. PK and Aamir join hands to demolish the mobster, and the body count starts piling up.
Sitting in his office on a sultry afternoon being interviewed for my book on cult films, Pankaj reminisced, “I was looking for work of a certain kind...of a different kind than the regular stuff that was happening in the mainstream at that time. We were doing a certain kind of plays in Bombay at that time and I think Aditya happened to see one such play—Woyzeck, which sort of fascinated him and he photographed it...apparently at the same time, he was writing this script and that’s how he approached me and said that there’s a part in this film. I was open to any kind of ideas and interesting work that was happening... and I think if I remember rightly, he and I also happened to work together in a film called Mandi…‘What was more important for me, was that there was somebody who, being part of the system, had problems with it but felt really helpless at the hands of the system....who was a kind of a conscientious cop who wanted to do things, but was unable to do because of the system in which he was trapped.”
Inspector PK, suspended for his behaviour, does not know what to do with the anger rising deep within him because he was unable to do anything to stop the evil Karmali. He lives alone in an apartment as dark and messy as his persona. His loneliness, his paranoia and anger come out in bursts and he goes on a rampage, either going at his stuff with a bat or tearing through the city on his bike. Like Bickle, he has a self-righteous obsession to “clean the streets” which gnaws at him. But being a man of the law, he cannot take it into his own hands. Finding Aamir was like catharsis for him. PK passes on his rage to this young man, channelising his trauma, and transforming him into a killing machine. The intense actor inside Pankaj Kapur is given free rein in Raakh, allowing him to do what he does best. It was he who suggested the noirish voice-over (of Aamir) which begins and ends the film.
Anil Chaudhary, Pankaj’s classmate at NSD, wrote and directed a satire called Phatichar for Doordarshan, India’s national broadcaster, in the early 90s. Rarely has anything so loony, satirical and self-referential ever been made in India. The kind of meta humour one would find many years later in the MCEU film Deadpool, was present in Phatichar in generous amounts. But it was also social and political satire of the highest order.
In the show, writer Ajit Vachhani (played by actor Ajit Vachhani) has been commissioned to write the biography of a publishing tycoon (Pankaj Kapur) who began his life as a poor but perceptive young man. Vachhani starts writing the book, but the character who he “brings to life” runs away from the pages.
This naive character who embraces the name “Phatichar” (Pankaj Kapur) finds his home inside a concrete pipe, wears his heart on his sleeve and often says the darnedest things, landing himself in trouble. Pankaj delivers stark social commentary while being laugh-out-loud funny. There is a moment where Phatichar gets into a “duel of sweats” with a hotel owner who refuses to feed him and his friends. The man flicks a bead of sweat from his face, but when Phatichar responds in kind, the hotel owner is drenched in a huge splash. In another episode, Phatichar goes in search of “Gareebi ki rekha” (poverty line) and when he bumps into a woman called Rekha entering a lift, he urges her not to ever go up. In a particularly poignant episode, Phatichar is asked to entertain people because a famous singer has failed to turn up, and our man goes on to perform the “hansi raag”, an uncontrollable bout of laughter accompanied by tabla and other musical instruments. The show starts off with a warning, “Phatichar is a fictitious character. Any resemblance to Pankaj Kapur is regretted.”
Pankaj is an actor of exceptional talent and virtuosity, but he also matches it with impeccable wit and a taste for the absurd. Even in otherwise unremarkable films like Ram Jaane and Shaandaar, he managed to do things an average actor can’t even fathom. He recently turned novelist with Dopehri, the story of an old woman named Amma Bi in a lonely Lucknow haveli, and how she hears footsteps of people who don’t exist. One wonders if Amma Bi, much like, Phatichar has wandered out of the pages and into the world.