Text by: Vanya Lochan
“Hi! I’m here to share something that makes Sharmaji Namkeen a very special movie. Yeh simple movie liye khaas sirf isliye nahin hai kyunki ye Papa ki last movie hai [the film is special to me not only because it is Papa’s last film]but dad really believed the story.
The camera zooms in on Ranbir Kapoor in a dimly lit living room setting as he opens his father’s posthumous latest film, Sharmaji Namkeen, as he sat casually on a couch with one leg tucked under the other, addressing the audience as if he were a guest in his home. He’s here to tell us that in a very rare moment, Paresh Rawal stepped in to play the same role as Rishi Kapoor. The informal address that follows matches the simulated familiarity between us and “real-life” versions of movie stars, including the Kapoors, that has become an intrinsic part of the evolving fan-celebrity dynamic, especially since the rise of paparazzi and social media culture over the past decade. More recently, in the weeks leading up to Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s wedding, we’ve seen several of these clips go viral: Neetu Kapoor and Riddhima Kapoor Sahni indulgently answering questions about the wedding venue; or the groom hugging Bhatt just hours after their nuptials, in front of the photographers lined up outside.
“Kehte hain na [they say]the show must go on,” he continues with a wistful smile as he refreshes our collective memory, recalling his grandfather Raj Kapoor’s 1970 film. mera naam joker, which had solidified the phrase (making it even commonplace) in the consciousness of Hindi-speaking audiences. “So, present ek aakhri baar, [for the last time] Rishi Kapoor urf aap sabke pyaare [aka your beloved] Chintui in and as Sharmaji Namkeen. Please enjoy the movie.
The Kapoors have had a long date with the Indian media and the voyeuristic gaze of moviegoers, but this type of bait colors a curious about SharmajiBollywood’s relationship with its audience, the nature of which seems as natural as air but which, in fact, has been rooted and systematized through more than a century of Bollywood’s existence as an endogamous industry. There are only a few cinematic dynasties like the Kapoors that have normalized the family nature of celebrity culture as it is — and actors are acutely aware of how they exist in the public imagination thanks to that.
In 2009, Amitabh Bachchan was also “introduced” by Jaya Bachchan as she announced the opening credits of Paa with his characteristic naive behavior. The reason for her presence although she plays no role in the picture was explained by director R. Balki. Statement 2019: “Everyone [her son and husband] was involved in the project, so I thought why not ask Jayai to do the opening credits.
Sharmaji‘s director, Hitesh Bhatia, spoke to me on the phone about the emotional involvement of Rishi Kapoor’s son, echoing Balki’s sentiments of 13 years ago: “There was no better person to do convey the message “. He also talked about how, as a filmmaker, he felt it was up to him to set the right context for audiences, especially those watching it overseas or long after release. He wanted to bring the viewer into the experience with a familiar face. “[I]It’s an experimental solution to an urgent need caused by an unfortunate incident that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he said, referring to Rishi Kapoor’s untimely death in 2020 after a battle with leukemia. “I just wanted to do the legend justice.”
Considered (currently) simply as an essential recourse in the context of Bollywood, this casting of two actors in the same role has already been experimented with by certain foreign filmmakers. Film by Luis Buñuel from 1977 This obscure object of desire (This Obscure Object of Desire), for example, saw Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina starring as Conchita and was noticed as “a brilliant surreal ploy that disturbs and shocks the viewer throughout […].” Critics and scholars have marveled at the brilliance of the audience seeing two faces but the other characters perceiving only one, thus establishing “an ironic distance between viewer and protagonist”.
Bhatia may not have attempted to create a surreal world on screen, but Sharmaji is still a pivotal moment in the Indian viewer’s narrative for changing audience expectations, a litmus test for what can be presented without question – and perhaps a prototype for a new Bollywood conceit? We are certainly accustomed to melodrama and have also been conditioned to set aside critical awareness in the face of other unlikely scenarios like, for example, the reverse of Sharmaji’s casting: the dual role. Rishi Kapoor and Rawal also touched on it – in Raja (1975) and Andaz Apna Apna (1994), respectively. (Incidentally, Ranbir Kapoor will be playing both father and son in the upcoming Shamshera).
Thus, Ranbir Kapoor’s direct address message is also based on guaranteeing the understanding of the Indian public – a reminder that we can expand the capacity that has allowed us to accept Paresh Rawal as both Teja and Ram Gopal, and Rishi Kapoor as Raaja and Ram to welcome them each as Sharmaji. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that critics have either chosen to gloss over the noticeable difference, citing the fact of that difference as fatal rather than jarring, or hailed the film as something of a miracle. Yet all without providing the perspective on the viewer, as if this unconventional film would have been so easily received and loved without the late actor’s fame.
Indian film audiences stand out quite distinctly from Western theater and film audiences, largely due to its unique and conspicuous culture of celebrity worship (think havan ceremonies for actors and milk offerings made to movie posters). Fans travel to Mumbai from different parts of the country, even on limited incomes, to stand outside the bungalows of their favorite celebrities for hours and catch a glimpse of them on their balconies. Far beyond appreciation of art or popular gossip, it is about a viewer rooted in the socio-cultural and religious realities of India and matured by the country’s deeply feudal colonized past, as well as an age-old caste system that is woven into its fabric. The dynamic dictated by these components is visible in star-fan interactions, with celebrities also accepting this kind of enthusiasm and frenzied worship as predetermined in their line of work. Bhatia believes that the audience’s relationship to the character versus the actor doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. But when celebrities are seen as gods, an actor becomes much more than a performer or bearer of a character onscreen, and suspending disbelief becomes an act of faith essential to the ritual of movie-watching.
Rishi Kapoor in Police officer (1973); Ranbir Kapoor in Saawariya (2007).
Rishi Kapoor was not only a star, and neither is his son. The “first family of Indian cinema”, the Kapoors khandaan had a relationship with India longer than the country had with its independence – around 93 years, spanning four Kapoor generations (five, if we include the cameos of Prithviraj Kapoor’s father). With their roots in the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), ownership of Mumbai’s most well-known theater (Prithvi) and past ownership of a major film studio (RK Studio), much of the celebrity culture has been built and nurtured by the Kapoors – across all generations over the past century.
While Prithviraj Kapoor left an indelible mark on India’s cultural consciousness, his son Raj Kapoor carries the nickname “India’s cinema’s greatest showman”, and he celebrated newly independent India by encouraging patriotism and approaching Nehruvian idealism on screen. He was also one of the biggest soft power influencers in Soviet-Indian relations in the 1950s. The prolific actor was also a director and a regular contributor to Filmfare – the most important outlet where actors influenced the conversation around film and themselves before the telecom boom. And as Rishi Kapoor’s uncles and brothers explored comedy (Shammi Kapoor), edgy drama (Shashi Kapoor) and youthful romance (Randhir Kapoor), he became the ultimate chocolate boy, debuting in 1973 with Police officer, led by his father. His films defined the trends, moods and outlooks of rebellious young India from the turbulent 70s to the liberated and soft 90s. The film’s family navigated modern Indian history alongside the average Indian family; the Kapoors – not just stars, but superstars – have, while remaining unscathed even by blatant controversy, contributed their fair share to redefining and maintaining the nostalgic sentimentality that hits home for every generation. And Ranbir Kapoor’s takeover of the chocolatier cult – beginning with its early days, Saawariyawhich contains heavy references to his lineage (his character’s name is also Ranbir Raj) – is proof that the icon of Rishi Kapoor’s heir persists in the public imagination, making him the logical choice to introduce Sharmaji.
When it was not possible to use visual effects and prosthetics and Ranbir Kapoor completed the film as originally hoped, Bhatia made the decision to cast another actor who could match courage instead of physicality” to bring the required gravity to the screen”. Kapoor’s Sharmai is chubby and cute, reminiscent of Pixar’s Carl At the top!, while Rawal is arguably closer to the raspy Baburao of Hera Phéri.
Images courtesy: Hitesh Bhatia. Photographed by: Parnil Rajendra Vishwasrao.
During filming, Bhatia actively avoided discussing Rishi Kapoor’s scenes with Rawal, leaving the actor to address the character however he chose. “Of course, Paresh Rawal is not from North India and so he differs in mannerism and diction, but, as a director, I had to make the actor as comfortable as possible, so we went with the requirements of the role. It was a brave call for an actor to take over a film that had already been shot halfway through with another actor,” he said. Ranbir Kapoor gave his point of sight in a interview: “The kind of authenticity that he [Rawal] brings to the character and the role, I don’t think I could have brought that. I would have, but it would have been the feeling of a son finishing off a father’s work. On the phone, actor Suhail Nayyar, who plays one of Sharmaji’s sons in the film, says that “Paresh Rawal never tried to imitate Rishii.” Nayyar speaks reverently of two legends individually delivering their best performances, but he also thinks audiences are wise enough to get acclimated to double performances after the “first ten minutes of jolt”.
The viewer must reconcile these separate depictions with each other, but we enter the film prepared by Ranbir Kapoor’s emotionally resonant lead and a subconscious, intuitive desire to maintain Chintu’s vast cinematic legacy.i. We accept responsibility for recognizing the two men behind the curtain while ‘seeing’ a lone, cheerful, bespectacled figure in a brown argyle sweater, green pants and muffler, with a briefcase full of spices. and namkeen. And we do, until the end credits start rolling, with a sweet taste in the mouth.