"The connections we make in the course of a life – may be that’s what heaven is,” said Fred Rogers.
It’s reassuring to be told this because the talents I am going to write about have connected with millions, including me, before their demise. They have drawn laughs and tears, made us appreciate their art and become an inseparable part of our memories.
The first casualty of the grim reaper this year was 1950s teardrop, actress Nimmi (February 18, 1933 — March 25, 2020). I met Nimmi for the first time during my six-month-long vacation post my ISC exams through the matinee shows I saw of old black and white films (Barsaat, Amar, Udan Khatola). Despite being pitted against the Venus of Hindi cinema, Madhubala, in Amar, Nimmi held her own with her waifish charm, unruly hair and wide, expressive eyes.
Years later, I remember descending on the retired actress’ Worli bungalow without prior intimation and Nimmi shooing me away because she was frying bhajiyas and was in no state to receive me. But we met the next day by appointment and she was grace personified. The olde world charmer said with ada: ‘There is poetry in Mumbai’s ocean.’
The hugely talented Irrfan Khan had no appointment with death at such a young age, but cancer caught up with him (January 6, 1967 — April 29, 2020). I have interviewed Irrfan Khan for a daily newspaper and his frankspeak held me as captive as his performances in Namesake, The Lunch Box, Piku, Hindi Medium. His enormous eyes were amongst the most eloquent I have seen onscreen.
Just one day after Irrfan’s demise, news of the death of Rishi Kapoor (September 4, 1952 — April 30, 2020) started… and so did the tears again. My wife, Anita’s, favourite star couple was Rishi-Neetu, and she was palpably upset. So was I. I could write a book on Rishi Kapoor.
My first impression of him was of a bear with a sore paw, but over repeated interactions I became very fond of him. Ironically, my first interview with him was his tribute to his father Raj Kapoor, who had just passed away then. I had spoken to his brothers Randhir and Rajiv already but had to chase Rishi... typically, once he committed, he spoke beautifully from the heart.
For me, Basu Chatterjee (January 10, 1927 — June 4, 2020) was the RK Laxman of the big screen. He made hilarious ‘common-man’ comedies on a shoestring budget, (Chhoti Si Baat, Shaukeen, Baaton Baaton Mein) but was equally adept at drama (Rajnigandha, Swami). His Chhoti Si Baat song Achanak yeh mann kissike jaane ke baad, kare phir uski yaad, triggered many memories of the bespectacled director. I can never forget watching the shooting of Sheesha (Mithun-Moon Moon Sen). The AD pointed out, “Dada, this actor didn’t give the right expression in the shot, why aren’t you asking for a retake?” and Basu replied, poker-faced, “Because she can’t better her first take, ever.”
Like crores of others, I didn’t need to know Sushant Singh Rajput (January 21, 1986 — June 14, 2020) personally to feel the tragedy of his loss. Sushant (Pavitra Rishta) and my nephew Mishal Raheja (Laagi Tujhse Lagan) were once competing with each other for the best male performance award, and I was rooting for my nephew but could also concede the contender’s strengths. So much potential lies snuffed.
Though Jagdeep (March 29, 1939 — July 8, 2020) has become synonymous with Soorma Bhopali of Sholay, he shone like a bulb even as a teenager playing a savvy shoe-polish boy in Do Bigha Zameen. His son Javed Jaffrey reminisces, “Jagdeep was very deep. I said this as a joke but it is true. He was a spiritual person and a socialist. Dad lived on the streets of Mumbai post-Partition, sold soap and went hungry at times. He did films for survival. Since he had no father figure, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan became the influential figures in his life.”
I owe my sole interview of Kumkum (April 22, 1934 — July 28, 2020) to Ashutosh Gowariker. I casually mentioned that I would like to interview the nimble-footed former actress and he took me by surprise by revealing that she was his neighbour and gave me her telephone number. Kumkum shared a treasure trove of stories about her long career and about Guru Dutt, the renowned director who discovered her dancing skills with Aar Paar.
Director Nishikant Kamat (June 7, 1970 — August 17, 2020) won my attention with Dombivli Fast and Drishyam. According to Sandeep Kulkarni, a close associate, he was “an excellent storyteller-editor who visualised his films with great clarity before shooting them and employed a technique called skip bleach very effectively.”
My friends and I paid a virtual tribute to the sonorous singer, SP Balasubramaniam (June 4, 1946 — September 25, 2020) by singing his songs like Sach mere yaar hai (Saagar) and Mere jeevan saathi, pyar kiye jaa, jawani deewani (a whacky ditty from Ek Duuje Ke Liye written entirely as an amalgam of film titles).
I had interviewed Oscar-winning costume stylist, Bhanu Athaiya (April 28, 1929 — October 15, 2020) for a trilogy of screenplay books I was writing on Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Chaudhvi Ka Chand and Kaagaz Ke Phool. I asked her an avalanche of questions; I was pleasantly surprised she didn’t give me a ‘dressing’ down.
In Satyajit Ray classics like Charulata, I have admired actor Soumitra Chatterjee (January 19, 1935 — November 15, 2020), but for my author friend Munmun Ghosh he has been an idol since her college days. “He sweetly gave me his autograph. He was the thinking person’s favourite — handsome, dignified and refined. A literary figure, a stage and film actor, his career was a series of milestones.”
(Dinesh Raheja is an Indian author, columnist, TV scriptwriter and film historian. In 2017 he initiated The Dinesh Raheja Workshop in which he teaches Bollywood aspirants everything related to the media.)