In less than a day last week, Bollywood lost two of its stalwarts, Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor. That they passed away amidst worldwide Caronavirus pandemic made it sadder invoking sorrow and sympathy. Nostalgia engulfed home-stuck celebrities and cine-goers, patricians and plebeians, flooding media, mainstream as well as the social one.

One tired question was not asked: “Was it Carona?” It was well known that both were cancer survivors back after being treated in the United States. Although prevailing conventional wisdom in these unconventional times is that older people, already afflicted with one ailment or the other, are more prone to contracting Carona – Covid-19. But in India it has been the 20-50 age-group.

Bollywood’s list of cancer patients/survivors currently includes Manisha Koirala 49, who has returned to the screen. If age is any consideration, Irrfan was young at 54, with more performances in store to put him alongside Indian cinema’s all-time greats. Rishi at 67 was enjoying blazing new trails in his second career.

Rishi, the teenage debutante of Bobby (1973) was a key link between the ‘old’ Bollywood — Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor-Ashok Kumar — and the new one, of the Khannas. There was also the ‘new wave” cinema that threw up Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and the like. The ‘chocolate’ hero survived Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man.”    

Cancer is a killer. Precisely two years ago, Vinod Khanna had succumbed. Like Rajesh Khanna, Bollywood’s “first superstar” who too died of cancer in 2012, Vinod strode the Bollywood scene in the 1970s. He had graduated to doing   character roles and as a lawmaker, was also a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government. He had fallen off the radar till his photo in hospital garb, looking gaunt, apparently taken by a fellow-inmate or a visitor, hit the media.

One of Rajesh Khanna’s most memorable roles was in and as ‘Anand’ (1971). Smiling his winsome smile he hid his agony instead of being overwhelmed by cancer, poking fun at “lymphosecoma of the intestine”. The last line was an ode to life amidst pain: “Anand maraa nahin; Anand martey nahin” (Anand is not dead – Anands do not die.) This was a significant departure from the suffering protagonist, staggering with eyes half-closed, do-gooding till the end, winning audience sympathy.

A social media post in the wake of Irrfan/Rishi deaths lists so many marquee names suffering from one complication or the other and offers a thought. Well-off, these stars hit the gym even before they debut, eat special diet and work hard to maintain their physique. They live well. They go abroad to relax and get the best treatment money can buy. What they can get is not available to the common man. Yet, they suffer like any ordinary being and go when their time comes, leaving their fans in tears. Disease and pain are great levelers.

Covid-19 has made everyone feel more vulnerable than ever. In  Bollywood’s Morani family, after twin sisters/actors Shaza and Zoa, filmmaker father Karim has tested positive.  Kajol and her daughter Nysa and actor Purab Kohli have also tested positive.

Singer Kanika Kapoor triggered panic in March. On returning from Britain, she recorded music in a Mumbai studio and then moved to Lucknow to socialise with the VIPs. Dozens were tested till to the relief of everyone, all tested negative.

National leaders have not been spared. Boris Johnson caused worries, not just across Britain. Even his critics and Brexit opponents were anxious when he was in the ICU. That his partner bore him a son even as he valiantly returned to 10, Downing Street, made it more poignant. Much older but sturdier Narendra Modi is doing well. An enthusiast reveals on the social media that the yoga-regular PM has never taken sick leave.        

Bollywood appears to have responded well and fast, surprisingly, without waiting for a political diktat. A post on the Filmfare web site  lists five ways in which the Coronavirus has affected Bollywood.

All cinema theatres are closed. All indoor and outdoor shootings are off. Paparazzi are out-of-job since the stars are strictly indoors. Very few attended the two funerals.  Several film releases including Sooryavanshi, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar stand postponed. Some Award Nites are cancelled. There’s no way Bollywood can shoot crowd scenes, anywhere.

Pre-closure releases Baaghi 3 and Angrezi Medium have suffered. The latter was Irrfan’s latest. Like Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah, viewers’ sentiment could revive it if lockdown ends early. That seems unlikely.

Lockdown is complete and like other film-making centres, Mumbai remains in Covid-19’s “red zone.” All this means losses in man/days, gate-money revenue, ad earnings and services worth billions. With the overall economy in doldrums and production jeopardized, the impact on entertainment business, public’s ability and inclination to spend on it and perhaps, the utility of the stars we adore remains uncertain.       

Not all jobs lost may return. Covid-19 is changing basic norms that may stay substantially, if not fully. It has already forced us to work from home, to go digital in business and banking, to keep fit without gym and outdoor sports and to shop and be entertained without visiting malls.

The irony of empty roads that can’t be traversed and clear skies but no flying, cannot be lost. How much of the present can be retained and how much of the past shall remain relevant is uncertain.

Yet, on a different note altogether, I am tempted to explore the past and wonder: can Bollywood make a disaster film on Covid-19? 

There is not much to go by. Of man-made disasters, Burning Train (1980) showed journey of a brake-failed passenger train. Kaala Patthar (1979) sought to reenact mining disaster at Chasnala Colliery. Multi-starrers, they were essentially entertainers, with some serious moments.

In Aman (1980), a rare health-related disaster film, the mandatory entertainment quotient was high with love songs. It highlighted perils of a nuclear disaster Japan has suffered. But that came only in the second half. Even then, alas, the focus shifted from nuclear radiation to the dead hero’s journey back home.  

To be fair, the hero saving fishermen caught in a nuclear zone was not about disaster, but about suffering that radiation victims endure and long-term damage caused by atomic weapons. This anti-war film featured a rare cameo by Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell. To its credit, Aman did not treat disaster as an amoral affliction.

Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) took political/ideological route while India was still under the British rule. It was about an Indian doctor’s role in Chinese resistance to Japanese invasion during the World War II. It was filmed immediately after that war.

Producing, directing and playing the doctor, V Shantaram enacted a real-life story of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis who responds to appeal by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose to join the medical mission. While other Indians return sick, Kotnis, married to Chinese assistant, continues and eventually dies of epilepsy.

Kotnis’ sacrifice and Shantaram’s film have been India’s strongest bridge to Sino-Indian relations, winning praise from Mao Dzedong to Hu Jintao. Till she died in 2005, Guo Qinglan, the real Mrs Kotnis, was unique to the cultural ties between the two distrusting neighbours. The glow endured despite the numerous fluctuations, including the 1962 conflict. Alas, old memories are fading.

Wuhan figured in Kotnis’ journey — the same Wuhan where Modi met President Xi Jinping in 2018 — the same that is supposed to be the cradle of Covid-19. Described as heavenly then, the world now calls it hell. 

After 9/11 happened spiking Islam-phobia, Bollywood produced My Name is Khan. Does it really need a disaster like Covid-19 to make its presence felt?


Mahendra Ved is a veteran journalist who has served with the Times of India, Hindustan Times and United News of India. The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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