Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Pankaj Kapur and the Cult of 'Karamchand'

Thirty years ago, Karamchand made carrots cool and investigating cooler. Even today, the show-and the character-has found no equal on Indian television. Meet Pankaj Kapur, the actor behind the character

Kunal Purandare
Published: Feb 13, 2015 06:42:07 AM IST
Updated: Feb 13, 2015 09:16:01 PM IST
Pankaj Kapur and the Cult of 'Karamchand'
Image: Joshua Navalkar

A giant film poster with Kurosawa written in capital letters stares at you in a small room with marble flooring. The walls need a fresh coat of paint. A wooden teapoy is stacked with several spiral-bound files. The adjacent passage leads to another room where a shelf is adorned with multiple trophies and awards. Here, too, there are files which caress a framed poster of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

We are at Pankaj Kapur’s modest sixth-floor office off Yari Road in suburban Mumbai. The actor, who has essayed some of the most unforgettable roles in theatre, television and movies, is busy with a meeting in another room. But he stays true to his reputation of being punctual and greets us at 1.30 pm, as promised. Just as he prepares for his roles, Kapur, 60, has rehearsed for this interview too. “I have got two shirts, one in a light shade and the other darker; tell me, which one do you want me to wear?” he asks Joshua Navalkar, our photographer. Without much ado, he changes into a dark blue shirt and asks his make-up man to do minimal touch-up on his face that sports an untrimmed beard. “Sorry, I cannot remove it. It’s for a role,” he says.

Intrigued at the number of files lying in his office, we ask Kapur if those are scripts. “Yes, many of which have been rejected by me. I respect everyone’s work though, which is why I haven’t discarded them. Surprisingly, no one has bothered to take them back,” he guffaws. Do they also include stories written by him? “No. I keep those in my drawer,” he says.

Unfortunately, though, there is little chance—yet—of any of those scripts being for the small screen.

Unfortunate because anyone who watched TV in the 1980s would know this: That, even as his work in films is lauded today, Kapur’s indomitable ability as an actor was established decades ago through his television work.

And Karamchand, which completes 30 years since it first aired on Doordarshan in 1985, is the undisputed stand-out. Kapur, who played the title role of the canny detective, accorded the character and, in turn, the show, cult status. In his 30-year journey as an actor, it would rank among his most definitive work. And also serve as a reminder of a time when the small screen was a window to real talent. It was the golden era for Indian TV. And Kapur, one of its shining stars.

The son of a retired college principal from Ludhiana, Kapur says becoming an actor was an intuitive feeling. After completing class XII, he enrolled himself in Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD) for a three-year diploma course with a specialisation in acting. (“I did not do engineering. I don’t know how it’s all over the internet,” he shrugs.)

In just three months, under the aegis of NSD director Ebrahim Alkazi, he learnt the nuances of acting, theatre and filmmaking. However, despite his talent, there was no red carpet welcome for the diminutive actor when he came to Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1983. Kapur stayed in a rented apartment in Andheri and sought out quality work to satiate his hunger as an actor. But his initial foray into theatre “drove him into a shell” as some actors did not turn up on the day of the show because they got work in television. “That put me off completely because I was very passionate and ethical about theatre, and committed to it,” he tells ForbesLife India.

Though he had made his film debut as Pyarelal (Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary) in Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, he was unhappy with the lacklustre roles being offered to him thereafter. “There was practically no role for me in mainstream cinema. I was reduced to being the hero’s friend, the heroine’s brother or the villain’s sidekick. In parallel cinema, there was good work on offer, but you could get one film in two years which was not enough to sustain [me] in a city like Bombay,” recalls Kapur.

Television, however, was beginning to make an impact, and there was a gamut of interesting roles to choose from. Consider that filmmakers like Sai Paranjpye, Kundan Shah and Ramesh Sippy had taken to the medium. Kapur saw the opportunity and did not let it slip away. “There were a variety of roles up for grabs and that is the only reason I did television then. It was enriching for me as an actor. I felt I was finally being able to do justice to what I stand for as an actor and as a person,” he says.

Pankaj Kapur and the Cult of 'Karamchand'
Image: Joshua Navalkar
Tube star: Pankaj Kapur became a household name with successful shows like Neem Ka Ped, Kab Tak Pukaru, Phatichar, Office Office and Zabaan Sambhal Ke

Over the next two decades, Kapur’s decision to experiment with believable characters on television paid rich dividends. He became a household name with successful shows like Neem Ka Ped, Kab Tak Pukaru, Phatichar, Office Office and Zabaan Sambhal Ke. But it really was his portrayal of the carrot-chewing Karamchand that left an indelible mark on the audiences. “Karamchand hit the roof as far as the popularity charts were concerned. It was fresh and innovative. Very few people know that we made only 39 episodes because we did not want to be repetitive and air the show for the sake of running it,” he says.

A little-known fact: Kapur landed the role of Karamchand only because the show’s director, Pankaj Parashar, had a tiff with actor Alok Nath, who was supposed to play the lead. “I was doing a pilot project for Doordarshan when Alok had an argument with me and said I could not replace him since he was selected by the channel,” says Parashar. “That’s how Pankaj Kapur entered the picture. I had not seen him, but he was a legend at Prithvi [Theatre] where we would all hang out together. He was hailed as the next Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah.”

The first few episodes of the first-of-its-kind detective series were a disaster as people found it hard to accept the new concept, the out-of-the-box ideas and the flying cameras. “Pankaj Kapur was not Salman Khan either. In fact, he was shorter than Susmita Mukherjee [who played Karamchand’s secretary Kitty],” recalls Parashar. Kapur even cried, says the director, and wondered how his decision could go wrong.

However, he was proven right. Eventually. The audiences learnt to love Karamchand and Kitty’s antics, and film industry veterans, too, showered rich praise on the show. “The likes of Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar appreciated our efforts. Manoj Kumar was very supportive, Kamal Haasan would call and Kishore Kumar said he wanted to work with me. Saeed Mirza said you have created history,” says Parashar, who went on to direct films like Jalwa and Chaalbaaz.

Had it not been for the overwhelming love of the fans, Karamchand would have ended after 26 episodes because director Parashar, who had already shot for Jalwa, had quit. However, Doordarshan received 10,000-odd fan letters, says Parashar, that compelled them to go on with the show. That’s when the channel requested him to direct 13 more episodes.  

A gold medallist from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Parashar believes that Karamchand did not belong to anyone in particular. It was a combination of some fine talents. He particularly praises the “hungry” Pankaj Kapur for his commitment to the series.

“I would be on the sets at 9 am for a 10.30 am shift, but Pankaj would reach at 8.30 am and wait right till the end. At times, he would memorise 8-9 pages of dialogues and deliver the lines at one go. Susmita was fabulous too and did not try to grab attention,” Parashar says.

It was serendipity, it seems, that brought these people together for the series. Consider that Mukherjee would have lost out on the role for the same reason that Alok Nath did—for offending Parashar, whom she addresses as “PP”.

Parashar was rehearsing for a play with Kapur when he was looking for an actor to play the role of Kitty. At that time, he was sporting a new hairstyle which, Mukherjee told him, made him look like a cabbage. “I could have even called him a cauliflower then,” Mukherjee tells ForbesLife India. But “PP” didn’t see the humour and refused to cast her in Karamchand. Kapur convinced Mukherjee to apologise to Parashar, and ensured that they forged one of the most memorable partnerships on Indian TV.

Incidentally, Kapur was Mukherjee’s acting teacher at NSD. She says he deserves a lot of credit for helping her create the character of the sharp yet batty secretary, Kitty. “PK [referring to Pankaj Kapur] had a lot more experience in the medium and guided me along the way. It was very easy working with him. We were more like colleagues and were as afraid of the stage as anyone else. There was no aura associated with him then. We did the show out of pure passion. It was spontaneous and we had a lot of fun,” she says.

Parashar points out that Karamchand was no Mughal-e-Azam but, he says, it made his career. Mukherjee says it earned them the kind of adulation that even film stars did not enjoy in those days. “We were not wealthy, but we were stars. We did not have cars or mobiles, but when we went to buy vegetables, we were recognised,” she says, adding that people would even point to her mother’s residence in Delhi and say, “That’s Kitty’s house.”

Pankaj Kapur and the Cult of 'Karamchand'

Kapur, meanwhile, did what he liked to do best. And as much of it as possible. Alongside television, he did some iconic work in films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Khamosh, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Raakh (which won him the National Award for Best Supporting Actor), Ek Doctor Ki Maut (National Award, Special Jury Award) and Roja.

And as television changed, Kapur’s choice of the acting medium started to centre more around cinema. He has since worked with directors like Vishal Bhardwaj (Maqbool in 2003 for which he won the National Award for Best Supporting Actor) and Homi Adajania (Finding Fanny in 2014). “They write interesting stories and, therefore, unusual characters. To work with such directors is a challenge on one hand and a pleasure on the other,” says Kapur. He has worked with several first-time directors and says, “I am open to working with anyone as long as I like what is being offered.”

Television, too, is an option, but Kapur hopes that the industry introspects and improves its content. “Today’s television is like the South Indian mainstream movies of the 1970s, if you look at it in terms of décor, lighting and characters. They have their own internal awards and everything has been reduced to Best Bhabhi and Best Maa,” he says. “Channels should not only look at the yearly balance sheet, but also at the balance sheet of creativity. The stories they tell must come closer to life. Experiment with forms and content… it might make you feel better and mature. And you may realise that something like this can actually work. It’s just a matter of taking a decision. Think long term. The tide can turn now; there is never a dearth of characters.”

Though he has seen the best and worst of all mediums, Kapur is still as hungry as the NSD graduate who came to Mumbai over three decades ago. Greed, he says, is endless. “I am desirous of doing more and more challenging work. I am still in the process of learning.”  More direction is also on the agenda despite the debacle of his last venture Mausam starring son Shahid Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor. “I do not blame anyone for it. I think we erred in its length and were in a hurry to release it,” he admits. Kapur also hopes to get back to theatre. “I’d like to test if I am fit to do theatre. It requires a lot of stamina and presence of mind. Your reflexes have to be in shape and I might have to train my voice before I get on stage. The desire is there,” he says.

Parashar, meanwhile, says he’s often toyed with the idea of turning Karamchand into a film. However, that remains just a thought for now, he concedes.

But how would Karamchand, even a film version, be received by today’s iPad, WhatsApp and PS4 generation? Would it be able to embrace the carrot-toting whimsical detective that Kapur had made his own? After all, he isn’t the typical actor-hero with a tall frame, a chocolate-boy face and a sculpted physique. Instead, he has an enviable body of work and a humility to match. And also a certain legacy. Son Shahid Kapoor has emerged as one of the most promising actors in Bollywood and his recent performance in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider has only underscored his worth. Proud father Kapur rates him among the most talented young actors along with Ranbir Kapoor. He is also amused that people still call him if they want to cast Shahid.

Daughter Sanah, who has studied acting at New York’s Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, is a part of Kapur’s upcoming film Shaandaar, which also stars Shahid. She was selected on her own merit, he says, without the makers (Vikas Bahl and Anurag Kashyap) knowing whose daughter she was. Kapur’s other son Ruhaan, too, is gearing up for a career in cinema.

As we wind up the interview, Kapur poses for some photos in his office. He even advises the photographer on lighting. “This office needs to be refurbished. I plan to paint it soon,” he says.

He likes it here more than in his house which is just a few buildings away. “There is a sense of purpose if you know you have to go to office every day,” he says.

We then head to his 13th floor residence for a final photograph. On the way, we discuss the controversy surrounding Aamir Khan’s recent film PK, Kapur’s views on awards and box-office successes. He chooses to walk the short distance with us. At the end of a patient shoot and a long afternoon, he says, “Thank you, my pleasure.” He stole our line. And that is the sign of a very fine actor.

(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
  • Ameya

    Great Article. Hope you guys pull out a few more such articles of the STARS of the Indian New Wave.

    on Feb 17, 2015