IMO, India’s most underrated actor

IMO, India’s most underrated actor

sholay op d - IMO, India’s most underrated actor

Months before the release of Ramesh Sippy’s Shaan (1980), showbiz titans like Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra were in touch with actor Kulbhushan Kharbanda, knowing the film was set to be director Sippy’s city-slicker version of India’s biggest blockbuster—Sholay (1975), similarly scripted by Salim-Javed. 

Which it was, with a cop (Sunil Dutt) and two delightful outlaws (Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor) in a face-off with a massive villain, down to the song ‘Yamma Yamma’ for ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’, if you may!

Kharbanda, as villain Shakaal, would become the new Gabbar, surely? Only that Kharbanda somehow knew there was no reason for him to build castles in air. He even went over to Shaan’s post-premiere party at INS Vikrant, without a plus-one, and quietly left in his self-driven Fiat, without much fanfare. 

His hunch was right. A reason the film bombed then, according to writer Javed Akhtar, was he didn’t give Shakaal a memorable stock-phrase for public recall—something he rectified with a similar villain in Mr India (1987): “Mogambo khush hua!” 

This is ironic, given the T-shirt I’ve put on to meet Kharbanda has the caricature of bald Shakaal in it, with a semi-iconic line: “Ab apki kya khatir ki jaye?” 

Kharbanda didn’t realise, until I brought my T-shirt to his notice, at his sprawling bungalow in Pune, that he says, “belongs to his wife, a minor royal, who’d bought this family inheritance from her brother.” 
Behind us was a gigantic portrait of Kharbanda as Raja Puran Singh, that was a prop in Lagaan (2001), which director Ashutosh Gowariker gifted him. 

Over nearly 50 years, Kharbanda, 77, has been part of every cinematic movement possible—parallel cinema (Godhuli, Chakra), critically acclaimed plus popular (Arth, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander), hardcore commercial (Jaanbaaz, Joshilaay), TV (Bharat Ek Khoj, Deewar), ‘single-screen massy’ (Coolie No. 1, Border), ‘multiplex’ (Earth, Monsoon Wedding), OTT (Mirzapur, A Suitable Boy)—just name it.

In my opinion, he is India’s most underrated actor; we’ve decidedly taken his screen presence for granted, chiefly because he has. A delightfully reluctant interviewee, he tells me he hasn’t watched 90 per cent of his work: “The chef doesn’t devour his own food!” Not true for Shaan though, he’s seen that twice.

Lately, veteran lawyer Shanti Bhushan (also India’s former law minister) has been calling him up regularly—totally impressed, watching him in Guilty Minds (2022), where he plays a character inspired by Bhushan. It’s a great series, co-directed by Bhushan’s daughter, Shefali. “Arre, apne dekhi hai? (you’ve seen that too),” Kharbanda responds. He’s not mocking.

Naturally gifted as a stage performer, Kharbanda refused admission to National School of Drama, because he’d hung around depressed actors enough—living off tea, cigarettes on borrowed money—around Delhi’s Mandi House. That’s not what he wanted. 

Only that a paid job with regular salary he eventually landed was with an English theatre company in Delhi, doing backstage work. Theatre-guru Barry John was his young colleague. He moved to similar employment in (then) Calcutta, and continued to perform when these theatre companies did plays in Hindi, chiefly for grants, which was rare. Life seemed set. 

In the mid ’70s, when director Shyam Benegal’s office called him to audition for Nishant (1975), he saw no point in such a long (train) journey, and only went because they offered him a flight ticket—a luxury then. 

The journey thereafter, as Kharbanda describes it, was a “long party”—with a retinue of house helps in a sea-facing Marine Drive place, that a benefactor had provided for a lot of filmmaking aspirants, at zero rent. 

Many FTII folk, including Om Puri later, stayed at this bachelor’s mansion. The drinking and chilling rarely stopped. Kharbanda gave up drinking 25 years ago, because he had begun to rely on it to fall asleep; the quantities kept going up. 

He, of course, then moved to a Bandra apartment that he bought, because buddy Girish Karnad had bought one. He just asked Karnad to pick up the neighbouring place for him, without even seeing it! “Things have just happened to me,” he says, and is that why he doesn’t like talking about it much? 

No. Like his nickname Kul, he’s just cool like that, I figure—someone simply incapable of taking himself/his legacy seriously—too busy constantly kissing his pet parakeet, Mammo, as we speak!  

How many films has he done? “Who remembers this about character-actors; 300 or so?” His most satisfying role? “How does one answer that?” He tells me later he enjoyed Benegal’s Kalyug (1981) immensely.
Of course he has great back stories from here and there, about this and that. Like how he came up with a whistle as code for a perennially frisky husband in Kalyug. Or how writer Salim Khan finally tracked him down to cast as Shakaal. Khan had seen Kharbanda’s art house films. Benegal’s insecure producers wouldn’t part with his phone number. Sippy wanted Shakaal to be performed realistically, not over-the-top. 

Kharbanda recalls, “Everybody knows that part was lifted from a Bond villain [Blofeld]. What’s there to say? Even Sholay had tanked the first 15 days. But Shaan never resurfaced after.” 

“Imagine if it had worked, and I would’ve become like a lot of people [in showbiz] whose backs, I notice, keep straightening up further and further with success. To a point, it seems, they’ll just collapse with that straight a back… So glad, what happened.” 

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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