I've been thinking a lot about a lot of performers, performances and performance styles. It's always been an interest, but the passing of Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor on consecutive days, last week, has made me think about this complaint often levelled against the Academy Awards: that the serious kind of acting is (almost) always considered the better kind of acting. Let's take two actors generally considered gods of their craft. Marlon Brando won an Oscar for On the Waterfront. His superb comedic performance in The Freshman wasn't even nominated. Meryl Streep won an Oscar for The Iron Lady. The air and sunlight she infused into the screwball shenanigans of It's Complicated wasn't even considered. (The Devil Wears Prada, at least, fetched her a nomination.)
Awards — whether the Oscars or our own — are hardly definitive benchmarks for the quality of a performance. There are exceptions, of course. Sridevi won a Filmfare Award for both flavours of acting, for clowning around in ChaalBaaz and for her dramatic work in Lamhe. But the rapturous reminiscences of Irrfan versus the "yeah, he was good in a few films" write-ups of Rishi Kapoor have made me wonder if we conflate the weightiness/worthiness of the film with the weight/worth of a performance.
I'll make it clear, right away, that this is not an absolute comparison of the two actors, both personal favourites — because the general flavour of their careers is apple (good for you, one a day keeps the doctor away) and ice cream (lots of sugar, spoils teeth, but oh that feeling when you savour it). But I just read a 1998 interview with Manisha Koirala, where she said, "I know a Meryl Streep can't be a Lucille Ball." Exactly.
Drag this statement to the present day, and you might ask if an Irrfan could do what a Rishi Kapoor did so effortlessly. And he may well have. One of my favourite "surprise performances" in Hindi cinema is the one delivered by Kay Kay Menon in Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. I still remember my initial shock, followed by the explosion of joy, when he broke out in the Sajna ji song sequence. I had slotted him as a Serious Actor™. He'd been in Black Friday. He'd been in Sarkar, for which he was nominated for a Filmfare Award for Best Performance in a Negative Role. And here he was, doing a… Rishi Kapoor. Damn!
The only comparison I wish to make between the careers of Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor is that the former was a great actor in a series of great movies, while the latter was a great actor in a series of light entertainers, "minor films", with the occasional great movie thrown in. (Yes, I think Amar Akbar Anthony is a Great Movie™, but feel free to disagree.)
Now, the question: So what is a Great Movie™? Increasingly, what's considered award-worthy and good is a film made with a Westernised sensibility, a Westernised scrupulousness in all departments: à la carte, as opposed to a stuff-your-face, free-for-all buffet. Hollywood abandoned the musical in the 1970s, when times changed, attitudes changed, and people couldn't accept people bursting into song. If a musical was made, it had to be ironic, serious. It had to be about something more than two people being in love. It had to be like the ones made by Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz) or Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart. It's taken us a few decades, but we seem to have moved in the same direction: except that I'd substitute "musicals" with the "navarasa film".
We still make them. As audiences, we still lap them up. But when it comes to awards and recognition, a Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy will always be taken more seriously than a Ranveer Singh in Simmba, where he gave one of the most committed "navarasa performances" I've seen. Look, I'm not feeling sorry for Ranveer Singh, or Rishi Kapoor, for that matter. They got audience love, which is the purest kind of love a "star" can get. But would they have also gotten more critical love had they followed Irrfan's career trajectory? Again, this is not a comparison. Because one of my favourite "surprise performances" is the one delivered by Irrfan in Jazbaa, where he showed he could deliver Salim-Javed era masala punchlines with the panache one normally associates with the Rishi Kapoor era.
But the performance is a footnote in his career when it should be a highlight. The fact that Irrfan could be a great actor in resolutely un-great movies is what made him so valuable a performer. The fact that he could pull off un-Westernised character arcs in resolutely un-Westernised films — good or bad — is also something that should be celebrated. I adore Irrfan in The Lunchbox, but Jazbaa is what seals the deal for me. What! He can do that and this? That's where you go "Wow!"
In other words, I think we need to separate the weightiness/worthiness of a film from the weight/worth of a performance. Imagine: Fred Astaire got a single Oscar nomination — of all films, for The Towering freaking Inferno. I would like to see Brando have a go at The Band Wagon, or Silk Stockings. The Great Actor™ gave it a go with the film adaptation of one of the biggest Broadway hits, Guys and Dolls, and it wasn't half-bad… but it only proved that being able to pull off A Streetcar Named Desire didn't mean you could be a convincing "song-and-dance actor".
And that is a thing. It's still a thing in Indian cinema, where the "navarasa film" — and thus, the "navarasa performance", song and dance and comic shtick and tears and anger and all — hasn't gone out of fashion. So two things, here: we need to recognise the Indian style of filmmaking/acting as much as the Westernised version. And we need to recognise that spontaneous light acting that brings us joy is no lesser than the carefully calibrated heavy-duty dramatic performance that makes us search our souls. It's not the weight that matters. It's the way.