Tag Archives: obituary

A Cup of Tea With Papa

I met Neelu’s Papa just once, two or three years ago.  I went to her home for a meeting we’d planned. It wasn’t Neelu who opened the door, but a trim gray-haired gentleman.  “Neelu had to step out unexpectedly to pick up her daughter,” he told me, “she asked me to tell you she’d be back in a few minutes.  I’m Neelu’s father,” he introduced himself, as he ushered me into their living room, “please come in and sit down.” He offered me a cup of tea and insisted on sitting and chatting with me until Neelu returned home; telling me about his son, daughter, grandchildren, and how he spent time traveling back and forth between Mumbai and California to be with each of them. In those fifteen short minutes, I got a sense of the man and his love for his family.

Neelu’s Papa died late last month in Mumbai, a victim of COVID-19. I watched as she did her very best to ensure that her father received the best possible care; driven to do the best she could, and distraught and helpless at not being able to travel halfway around the world to be with him, hold his hand, and be there for and with him, in the way she so desperately wanted. 

Neelu could not have dialed up a better day for a prayer ceremony and remembrance for her beloved Papa. It was crisp and sunny in her backyard as she and her family performed the traditional Hindu rituals sitting around the Havan Kund, as the prayers and shlokas invoking eternal peace for the departed soul were expertly chanted and rituals orchestrated and explained by a learned priest dialing in remotely from New Jersey. Fifty-plus relatives, friends, and colleagues of the family watched remotely on Zoom from locations across California, the US, and India. It was a surreal experience – this improbable juxtaposition of ancient Vedic rituals, many thousand years old, with a fledgling technology that enabled far-flung, somber, and grieving onlookers to hold hands in remembrance and prayer in a single virtual room.

The final prayer was complete. Then came the eulogies and the sharing of memories, tears, and laughter; in a trickle that soon became an outpouring of emotion. A picture emerged of Papa and the man he was. A loving father, grandfather, friend, neighbor, and mentor. The adopted ‘uncle’ of many.  A loving, caring father who sacrificed a lot in his own life in order to give his children the education and grounding that would carry them to successful professional careers.  A man who helped look after the grandchildren he loved deeply – a love that was reciprocated by them manyfold. A man who never forgot someone’s birthday or anniversary; who always made time to reach out to people, meet them, talk to them, and inquire about their wellbeing. Invariably over a cup of tea, as evidenced by the number of people who, in their reminiscences, talked about chai with Papa ji!  A simple, decent, hardworking, loving caring soul. One whose loss reverberates through many households, cities, and countries; his influence and memories carved indelibly in the hearts and minds of so many. 

I am blessed and fortunate to be among those whose path through life crossed with his. It is, however, my loss that I did not have the good fortune to share a few more cups of tea with Papa.

We have lost yet another treasured soul to the illness that this scourge, monstrous Coronavirus has inflicted on humanity.  Each death has shattered the lives of so many.  As I write this piece, more than 1.2 million lives have been lost to COVID-19 worldwide – with more than 230,000 of those in the US – staggeringly large numbers that fail to describe, or even begin to measure the impact of their loss on all their loved ones.  How many more stories like Papa’s remain to be told? 

We can all collectively heal as a community, as a nation, and as members of the human race by sharing our memories of these departed souls. Each one of them must be cherished and treasured. We can live our lives better by celebrating theirs and passing on to those that follow the life lessons they taught us.

Neelu’s Papa, we will all miss you!


Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. He is also a columnist for India Currents.

The Powerful Dancing Legacy of Saroj Khan

Sarojji, you were a legend and one of a kind. A heartfelt salute for countless moments of cinematic joy and moves; for making a mark as a female choreographer in Hindi cinema – despite the odds stacked against you.

Saroj Khan’s life and 60 plus years of career were defined by her natural talent and love for dance – she transformed into an ethereal being when she put her dancing shoes on. A classic rags to riches story, her professional and personal journey was filled with pure love, dedication, hard work, passion, and candor.

While her aptitude for dance gave her everything, it also took a lot away. Sexism, exploitation, struggles, barriers… she didn’t let any of that stop her. Over the years, she worked with a variety and generations of stars from Sridevi and Dharmendra to Shahid Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai.

Saroj was born in 1948. Her parents, affected by partition, had fled from a wealthy existence in Pakistan to poverty in India, hoping to build a new life. At three years of age, she entered the film industry as a child actor, fending for her family, when her mother discovered her love for dancing by accident. To avoid the stigma of working in films, her name was changed from Nirmala Nagpal to Saroj.

At 8-9 years, Saroj had outlived her career as a young actor and turned to background dancing for a living. She had no formal training but picked up dance movements easily and quickly. In those years, as a group dancer, she identified herself as Anglo-Indian, had short hair, and mainly did Western styles of dancing –  jive, rock and roll, and acrobatics.

Her transition to Indian dancing was difficult. Western dancers were looked down upon by the classical-bent dance veterans. Nevertheless, she turned a chance to work with B Sohanlal into an opportunity, when she was called to perform acrobatics (Spot Saroj in video below at 1:42-1:441:52-1:58 and 2:04-2:16)  as a group dancer in Vyjayantimala’s version of Eeena Meena Dika from Aasha.

Saroj changed her appearance from an Anglo-Indian to Indian to learn from Sohanlal, it marked her big break, and she became a part of his troupe, first as a group dancer and later as an assistant. At 13 years of age, she married her 38-year-old mentor, who had shaped her as a dancer. He was married with children but she was unaware and much in love. At 14, she gave birth to their first child. Her association with him lasted 5 odd years in which she learnt the finer aspects of dance and also discovered her knack for choreography. When he was away for a song shootingPL Santoshi (Rajkumar Santoshi’s father) inspired her to choreograph Nigahen Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai for Dil Hi To Hai.

When Sohanlal refused to give their child his name, she walked out. It was the start of a long struggle but also finding her own feet as a solo professional. “I wanted to live my life as I wanted to live, without him,” she had said at a Ted Talk event. Those were big words from a young teenage mother, who also had to break professional ties with her ex-husband. Despite what happened, she continued to respect him and remained grateful for the learnings and livelihood. Not a justification but it gives context to her controversial casting couch comments in 2018. After the break-up, she went back to working as a group dancer and assistant choreographer for other lead choreographers. She was a good talent to hire, she could be the proxy lead whenever needed, without the money or credit.

Accolades and fame were still elusive despite support from actress Sadhana who gave her a break as a choreographer in her directorial venture Geeta Mera Naam (1974)Her talent wasn’t enough, she was still stuck. “I worked very hard – day and night – but I was not popular. Nobody accepted me as a choreographer, as I was female. That time, the rule was that only men can be choreographers or dance masters, as they were called then,” she recalled.

The road to A-grade success began with the Hema Malini-Dharmendra starrer Pratigya (1975) but the journey to popularity was still slow. Around that time, she also remarried second husband Sardar Roshan Khan and took some years off to focus on her family. She returned with Raj Babbar’s debut movie Jazbaat (1980) and this time the path was smoother. She was accepted whole-heartedly as a choreographer in the industry. Top directors like Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mani Ratnam lined up.

Saroj was also known for her penchant for perfection and had a temper to unleash on anyone who didn’t meet her high levels. Though she loved actors who knew their dance, she also enjoyed guiding non-dancers like Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, and Sunny Deol. Actors had to rehearse before they arrived on set. Madhuri rehearsed Ek Do Teen for over two weeks. Saroj demanded that Sanjay must rehearse Tamma Tamma (Thanedaar) as a signing condition. He did. She added a touch of femininity to Hrithik’s steps in Bumbro (Mission Kashmir).

Kareena fondly remembers Saroj telling her, “Perrr nahin chala saktiii to kam se kam face to chalaa!” (if you can’t work your feet, at least work your face!).

Saroj was hired to train Madhuri, who had done a few movies but hadn’t succeeded as a lead heroine yet. It won’t be an exaggeration to say Madhuri owes her success to Saroj Khan.  Ek Do Teen handed her stardom and a career on the platter. Ek Do Teen was out there and fun compared to the classic and subtle beauty of Oh RamjiMadhuri aced both.

There was a marked difference in Madhuri’s persona on screen post the Saroj influence. The oomph, confidence, and attitude that Madhuri imbibed in both her acting and dance performances were unmistakable learnings from Sarojji.

Saroj had a long association with Sridevi as well, whom she considered her daughter. There is no doubt that her partnership with Madhuri was more fruitful commercially but some of her most refined and creative pieces were with Sridevi.

They created wonders in the cult classic Mr. India with Hawa Hawai. I remember watching it in a seedy Mumbai theatre and being blown away. It was one of those surreal cinematic experiences where your senses are shot and the only way to get over it was to watch the movie many times over.

Ek Do Teen brought other achievements for Saroj. She bumped up her price, benefiting her assistants, and made sure choreography was valued for its true worth. She was proud of the students she gave the industry. Her unavailability propelled two of her assistants into success. She requested prodigy Ahmed Khan to choreograph Ramgopal Verma’s Rangeela (1995) which won him a Filmfare award for Rangeela Re. Farah Khan stepped in to do Pehla Nasha when she couldn’t adjust her dates for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992).

Sarojji‘s style was a stamp, she dominated the 90s and left her impact well into the 2000s.

Not that Saroj Khan needed awards to prove her worth but hopefully they were sweet revenge for having to stay under the radar for decades despite her formidable talent. Portrayed with dignity and grace, her women could still be sensual and defiant within the traditional mold. As Kareena said aptly in her tribute to Sarojji: dance and expression will never be the same for us actors. I would add Hindi cinema to that. It’s an end of an era. Or perhaps, many eras.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.

Rishi Kapoor, 67, Dies; A Sparkly Hero Whose Spirit Stayed Young

The Internet exploded as news of the death of veteran actor Rishi Kapoor blistered on iPhones. The news moved swiftly from Amitabh Bachchan’s tweet. It was carried on waves of Whatsapp messages across oceans. Just as Californians were getting ready for bed, horror and disbelief jolted them.

Many had seen Chintu Baba, their Ryan O’Neil, in his launch movie Bobby, a teenage love story. The parents had relived the Nargis-Raj Kapoor romance; the boys had swooned over the virginal heroine in schoolgirl clothing, while the chocolate hero, with scarfs as long as his pedigree, had stolen hearts of girls. Forever, the GTS bike he rode in the movie became as iconic as the hippie Volkswagen was.

The actor struggled to grow up. His impish tweets kept him forever in Chintu mode.

“Worked very hard to get Rishi Kapoor back as my name! Parents must never nickname a child. I never did,” he tweeted.

Then Chef Floyd Cardoz immortalized the Chintu name. Bombay Canteen named a whole menu Chintu. After a culinary career spanning 27 years in New York, celebrated chef Floyd Cardoz had made his restaurant debut in Mumbai, the city of his birth, with The Bombay Canteen. Chintus, or tasting size portions were circulated as the guests waited for their tables. Here guests could order a Chintu portion of crisp, thinly sliced fried lotus stem chips seasoned with salt and amchur, or the Chintu desi devilled eggs.

Rishi was seen sampling the menu at the Canteen and at the Paowala in New York, both restaurants of great renown and belonging to Floyd Cardoz.

The Chef and he had more than one thing in common, they both loved food, and they both flitted between New York, where Rishi was undergoing cancer treatment, and Mumbai.

The Chef was on his way from Mumbai to New York when he felt uncomfortable. He checked himself into a hospital in New York. He was diagnosed with Coronavirus and died there on March 24th, 2020. He was 59.

After the news of the Chef’s death, Rishi Kapoor tweeted. “RIP. Floyd Cardoz. Will cherish the meal you made for us at your restaurant.”

A month later, on April 30th, Chintu baba aka Rishi Kapoor complained of difficulty in breathing. He passed away in Mumbai. He had returned from New York in September.

The Chintus are still being served at Bombay Canteen.

Spirited, vibrant, sweet, and delightful, Chintu you always left a sparkly taste in our mouths.

Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.

Irrfan, Because He Liked the Sound of the Extra R

Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan was studying for his MA degree when he won a scholarship to study at the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi in 1984. The young man from Tonk, Rajasthan had a single R in his name. He was Irfan.

In 2012, he changed the spelling of his name and became Irrfan Khan. Khan had recently received the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honor for his contribution to the field of arts. He had garnered the National Film Award for Best Actor in the 60th National Film Awards 2012.

He said he liked the sound of the extra “r” in his name.

His first offer out of drama school seemed a plump one. He was a final year student at NSD in 1988 when Mira Nair chose him for a role in Salaam Bombay. We never saw him in Salaam Bombay because his role was edited out in the final film.

Slowly Irrfan unfurled across our screens, an unlikely hero. He did not seem to have sex appeal. He spoke casually on screen, as if he was seated beside you and was not a celluloid dream weaver, whispering comments into your ear as a fellow audience member. As he caught one’s attention more and more, the audience hungered to go to the movies with him.

About him, Danny Boyle said, “he has an instinctive way of finding the “moral center” of any character, so that in Slumdog, we believe the policeman might actually conclude that Jamal is innocent. Boyle compares him to an athlete who can execute the same move perfectly over and over. “It’s beautiful to watch.”

His stride into Hollywood did not make a splash like Priyanka Chopra’s. He casually sauntered across the continents and when we saw him in Life of Pi we were not surprised at all.

“Why do Hollywood filmmakers always pick Irrfan Khan for their movies? Why don’t they pick SRK, Salman Khan, or Amir Khan even, being the biggest of Bollywood?” asked Dipesh Doshi an avid moviegoer.

He just remains terribly interesting.

His appeal as a fellow audience member may explain the respect with which the media has honored his request to give him privacy while he sorts out his medical issue. He commands their respect sure but the real deal is that they love him as a brother.

His wife reassured his fellow travelers on the celluloid journey.

“My best friend and my partner is a ‘warrior’ he is fighting every obstacle with tremendous grace and beauty. I apologize for not answering calls msgs, but I want all of you to know I am truly humbled indebted forever for the wishes prayers and concern from all over the world. I am grateful to God and my partner for making me a warrior too. I am at present focused on the strategies of the battlefield which I have to conquer.

 

It wasn’t and isn’t and is not going to be easy but the hope ignited by the magnitude of family, friends, and fans of Irrfan has made me only optimistic and almost sure of the victory.

 

I know curiosity germinates from concern but let’s turn our curiosity from what it is to what it should be. Let’s change the leaf.

 

Let’s not waste our precious energies to only know what it is and just pray to make it what it should be.

 

My humble request to all of you is to concentrate on the song of life, to dance of life to victory.

 

My family will soon join in this dance of life.

 

Thank you all from the bottom of our heart.

 

Sutapa irrfan babil ayaan.”

The return of Irrfan with the two RRs was awaited. You never came back. We waited. The last farewell in Angrezi Medium still hurts. Irfan Khan passed away on April 29, 2020, after being admitted to the ICU for a colon infection.

Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.


This article was originally published on March 12, 2018.