‘Sharmaji Namkeen’ Review: Rishi Kapoor is an absolute treat to watch in his final performance

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan 

The Spanish master filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s last directorial venture ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ is most notable for its use of two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, in the single role of the film’s female protagonist Conchita. What’s most fascinating about it is that the actresses switch roles in alternate scenes and sometimes even in the middle of scenes. Something very similar takes place in Hitesh Bhatia’s directorial ‘Sharmaji Namkeen,’ wherein the titular character of Brij Gopal Sharma— a 58-year-old widower with two children, staying in West Delhi’s Subhash Nagar—is essayed by both Rishi Kapoor and Paresh Rawal interchangeably across the film.

After Kapoor’s demise in April 2020, Rawal stepped in to play the titular role in order to complete the unfinished film. Bhatia, of course, had the option to reshoot all the scenes with Rawal but he decided to keep all the scenes he had already shot with Kapoor, perhaps because he wanted the film to be Kapoor’s swansong. After the film’s opening credits (the films is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video), Ranbir Kapoor appears to explain the creative dilemma created by his father’s demise. How does one complete the film? One option was for him to step into his father’s shoes using prosthetics. It’s an idea they toyed with but it decided against it. That’s when it was decided that Rawal would shoot the remaining scenes, resulting in two actors playing the same character in a film—a rarity in Indian cinema which Ranbir Kapoor also highlights while thanking Rawal for completing the film. ‘Sharmaji Namkeen’ also stars Juhi Chawla, Suhail Nayyar and Isha Talwar in pivotal roles. 

In his autobiography, ‘My Last Sigh,’ Buñuel, a leading figure of avant-garde surrealism, explains his decision to cast two actresses for the same part: “In 1977, in Madrid, when I was in despair after a tempestuous argument with an actress who'd brought the shooting of ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ to a halt, the producer, Serge Silberman, decided to abandon the film altogether. The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar; I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although, I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved.” It was later revealed that the actress who had caused the argument was actually Maria Schneider.

Now, a lot of people who don’t know the aforementioned reason would think that Buñuel, a master surrealist, purposefully cast two actresses in the same role. But, of course, we know better. It wasn’t something he wanted to do to begin with. In fact, it wasn’t a natural choice. It was merely a joke that he had made and it was actually the producer who pushed him to put it into action. Now, there is every possibility that Hitesh Bhatia had Buñuel and ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ in mind when he decided to go with two actors when a much easier option would have been to simple reshoot all the scenes with Rawal. Or maybe someone mentioned it to him. Here, it’s important to understand that unless the plot demands it, like say in a film like ‘Face/Off,’ it is bound to be considered a little overambitious to use two actors to play the same character in the same timeline and space.

The performances of Rishi Kapoor and Paresh Rawal have little in common. It’s actually an interesting way of looking at two sides of the same person. In ‘That Obscure Object of Desire,’ Buñuel basically highlights Conchita’s changeable nature. He uses Carole Bouquet when he wants us to see the coolly enigmatic Conchita and Angela Molina when he wants us to see the earthy, flamenco-dancing Conchita. Similarly, we see Rawal’s Sharma as someone who is confident and has self-control. Kapoor’s Sharma, on the other hand, comes across as more vulnerable of the two. It’s indeed very interesting to see the two actors’ interpretations of the same character. Both are of course wonderful in their own right. And it’s an absolute treat to watch Rishi Kapoor one last time and fall in love with him all over again.

So, basically, ‘Sharmaji Namkeen’ suddenly becomes an experimental film the moment two actors play the same character. The average Indian viewer is still not ready to suspend his/her disbelief so readily. And, perhaps, that’s the reason why it’s released on OTT and not in the theaters. Imagine who wouldn’t want to watch Rishi Kapoor on the big screen one last time? But, given the situation, the end product is clearly more suited to OTT than theatres. Hopefully, this will give rise to more such experiments in the Indian filmmaking space. After all, change is the only constant.  

A version of this review was first published at The Daily Guardian.

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