While not speaking poorly of the dead may be considered a custom more honored in its breach than its observance, one would hope that at least twenty-four hours would elapse before one starts pulling down the legacy of a much-loved artist, after all if you have nothing good to say about someone better not to say anything, at least for a few days. Alas we live in difficult times, and no sooner had the death of Kader Khan, or as he is known Kader-sahaab, had sunk in, that we get to see the words “cheap roles”, “eminently forgettable” in an article in one of the vanguards of Indian web journalism.
The irony behind those who ask people to recognize their privilege and check it at the door is that they are unable to do it themselves. Kader Khan did not write nor perform for the perfumed patricians that constitute the Hindi film industry’s core audience, because only they are privileged to be able to afford the steep entrance and popcorn costs of today’s multiplexes, whose frame of references are Netflix-HBO, American-tropes-inspired stand-up comedy routines, the wisdom of memes, accessible and affordable broadband, and the concomitant benefits of a post-liberalization lifestyle.
Kader Khan existed in a different time, and his crowd were the subaltern, the unwashed, the factory workers and the wage laborers . And as this crowd was gradually pushed away to the periphery, because the business of Bollywood changed, so was Kader Khan. He ended the last few of his years on the fringes, mostly forgotten, recognized sporadically based on his appearances in some old movie playing on Zee Gold, the throw-away “Hey isn’t that the guy from….”, his legacy largely unrecognized, if not scoffed at.
So here is a bit of throwback.
Once upon a time, just as there are music tracks, there used to be dialogue tracks, sold in conjunction and sometimes separately from the music track. Performers performed these dialogues in front of crowds mimicking the mannerisms of the actor who had delivered it in the original film, a commercially viable form of entertainment at a time when one just couldn’t go to Youtube to watch a favorite sequence or superpose themselves in it through a Tiktok video.
Dialogue was king and Kader Khan was the king of dialogue.
After Salim and Javed broke up, Kader Khan pretty much wrote all the dialogues for Amitabh Bachchan, the theater-thumping chawanni-phenking lines that firmly established the angry young man in the Indian psyche.
Amar Akbar Anthony. Muqaddar ka Sikander. Naseeb. Suhaag. Do Aur Do Paanch. Lawaaris. Coolie. Satte Pe Satta. And did I forget anything? Yes. Agneepath.
And if being the voice of Amitabh was not enough to retire on, then Kader Khan went ahead and became the voice of the single-screen phenomenon of the 90s.
Kader Khan’s style was street. In days when censor boards were more intrusive, and one just could not string together gaalis as they do now on Netflix or Amazon Prime, Kader crystallized the essence of “tapori shaanabaazi”, filtered it through his deep knowledge of Urdu, and created a cinematic lingo that was uniquely distinctive– long sentences of adjectives one after another, short crisp take-downs, intelligent wordplay, and these dialogs when delivered by a generation of actors who knew how to deliver, the Bachchans and the Govindas and the Mithuns, created the experience of what single-screen cinema was, audience participation through whistles and the ceaseless clatter of coins, and clinging to this, a cottage industry of dialogue cassettes and mohalla duplicate shows.
Which brings me to Kader Khan, the performer. The man could not just write, but also dish it out too. His comic chemistry with Govinda, at its acme in the sensational Dulhe Raja, was a vital part of the legend of Govinda, and that is attested to by the fact that once Govinda and David Dhawan tried moving beyond the Kader Khans and Shakti Kapoors, they lost the essence of what had once made them successful. Kader Khan wasn’t just a reliable second fiddle, he could carry it off himself too, and two of my favorite roles of his, in very different genres, which shows he was also not one-note when it came to onscreen presence, was his larger-than-life villainous turn, in the criminally underappreciated Angaar, and, perhaps his most successful independent role, as one half of a father-son conman duo, in the riotously low-brow funny Baap Numbri Beta Dus Numbri.
Performer. Writer. A maker of stars. That’s how I shall remember him.
Khuda hafiz, Kader-sahaab.