Pankaj Kapoor has turned 68 today. The versatile star is known for his performances in films like Maqbool, Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Happi and many others.

Call it a wild coincidence. But all the three films that have brought father Pankaj and son Shahid Kapoor together have been thundering flops: Shaandaar, Shahid’s biggest flop and a rare turnip in Alia Bhatt’s career, co-starred father and son Pankaj and Shahid though not as father and son.

Mausam in which Pankaj directed his son was the second biggest disaster of Shahid’s career. Again in the recent Jersey Pankaj played his real son’s cricket coach. Needless to say, Jersey bombed, and no, the sequel New Jersey is not happening.

Tell this feeble joke to Pankaj and he laughs uproariously. Pankaj Kapoor, one of the great living actors of Indian cinema, has shown a vivid comic streak in the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Raam Jaane. In the film, Pankaj was named Pannu Technicolour. This is not surprising if we consider Shah Rukh was called Raam Jaane.

Pankaj Kapoor’s finest performance in Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut featured him as a brilliant real-life doctor struggling against red-tapism and cynicism is contained in a dreadfully boring film. It takes herculean skills to make such an interesting story so dull and lifeless. But Bengali director Tapan Sinha managed the miracle.

Directors should not make films in a language they don’t understand. Tapan Sinha’s Hindi films Zindagi Zindagi and Ek Doctor Ki Maut are proof it. This one survived solely on the basis of PK’s National award-winning performance. As Dr Dipankar Roy, the actor imparted a life so lived into the character it felt like a documentary. Shabana Azmi as his supportive wife was also excellent. Decades later the pair came together in Vishal Bhardwaj’s awful Matru Ke Bijli Ka Mandola to remind us of how good they were together in their earlier film. At a time when civilization is gripped by a pandemic this gritty story of a doctor struggling to establish the genuineness of his vaccination against leprosy has acquired a renewed relevance.

Recalls Pankaj, “This film became my calling card into festival fame. Did I enjoy the reputation of a serious actor? Not really. I enjoyed lighthearted roles, like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Office Office and Karamchand.”

In Basu Chatterjee’s Kamla Ki Maut, Pankaj gave yet another outstanding performance. He played Sudhakar an over-sexed white-collar charlatan who develops a sexual relationship with a string of women, one of them played by Supriya Pathak who later became PK’s wife. This is a fearless performance filled with moral suppression and raging hormones.

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, playing Tabu’s ageing unforgiving husband Pankaj was a revelation. His expressions of steely revenge melt into displays of utter compassion for his enchanting wife. Kapur corroborates Bollywood’s myopic disregard for its truly outstanding performers. Maqbool transports us to a threshold of pain and redemption hitherto unknown to Hindi cinema. Because this is Shakespeare’s Macbeth trans-located to Mumbai’s underworld, and because Bhardwaj has selected a dream cast to portray his nightmarish world of crime and retribution, Maqbool takes its emotional content to new heights.

From a jealous husband to a rabid reformed rightwinger in Bhavna Talwar’s Dharm, Pankaj’s Pandit Chaturvedi is a potbellied, bare-torsoed symbol of religiosity who could easily have become a parody in lesser hands. The debutant director’s penetrating take on how grim is the grass in the land of the divine and the crass, wouldn’t have worked were it not for Pankaj Kapoor in the central role. As the head priest caught in a terrible dilemma that questions his entire ethos and commitment to society and religion, Kapoor ceases to be an actor once the camera switches on.

But it is Happi that Pankaj Kapoor would be most remembered by. This is a film that will go down in history as India’s only genuine tribute to the genius of Charlie Chaplin. Doing the homage, never an impersonation, the great Pankaj Kapoor immerses himself in the character of the capricious naïve pure-hearted Happi, a chawl dweller who is the brunt of ridicule in an Iranian club where he sings and does stand-up comedy to eke out a living. He is fairly ridiculous. But happy when humoured. The sequences in the smoky club find Pankaj Kapoor at the peak of puckishness.

Pankaj Kapoor constructs a Chaplin-esque pathos in Mumbai’s bustling chawls where callousness is a way of life. If you can’t cope, you perish. Or otherwise, you become the Joker. More than a portrait of a rapidly mutating metropolitan environment Happi shows us how cruel human beings can be to someone who is not uncorrupted enough to understand when he is being mocked. The sequence where the club gets Happi drunk and watches him perform a silly dance is heartbreaking. Pankaj Kapoor’s Happi is what Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker becomes when left to be annihilated by his own desolation.

Pankaj Kapoor’s oeuvre is not as extended as it should be. He should be doing a lot more work than he is. Somehow he was never allowed to take centre stage. In Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Pankaj should have played Gandhi. Instead, he ended up only dubbing for Kingsley for the Hindi version of Gandhi.

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By akagami