The Hollywood actress Rosalind Russell once described acting as the act of ‘standing up naked and turning around very slowly’. For decades, critics and viewers have tried to deduce what Russell might have meant. Maybe she was referring to just how uninhibited an actor has to become or simply point to the small measure of shame and embarrassment that an actor must marry to inherit the promise of fame. Or perhaps Russell understood that acting was calibrated farce where dignity of the moment had to still somehow be rescued from the indignity of being naked in front of the world’s eyes.
Kemmu has grown up under the shadow of art and politics. His great grandfather, the Kashmiri playwright Moti Lal Kemmu, was central to the survival of the valley’s theatrical traditions that once faced the threat of insurgency and political unrest. Born to a Kashmiri family Kemmu landed his first role as a child actor in the popular tv series Gul Gulshan Gulfam (1991). The Kashmir-set Doordarshan drama was a hit, partly because it was mainland India’s first fictional tour of a politically obscure corner of the country. Kemmu soon featured in his first film with Mahesh Bhatt’s Sir (1993). Later that year he appeared in the feel-good comedy Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke establishing him as reliable child actor. This reputation was further enhanced with the blockbuster Raja Hindustani (1994), where Kemmu played Rajnikant, the outspoken protégé of the lead (Aamir Khan).
Despite having aced lightweight roles it was with Mahesh Bhatt’s sensitive and tense film Zakhm that Kemmu delivered a performance that indicated at a future full of promise. Playing a young Ajay, Kemmu captured the poignancy of a child wrecked by social and religious stigma with astounding maturity. Rarely had child actors in Indian cinema been asked to handle such material up until that point. Kemmu’s nerveless shouldering of a role that probably demanded as much resilience as it demanded craft was evidence, pretty early, that he was meant to go places. Kemmu’s full debut as a lead would come with Kalyug (2005), a tragic, issue-oriented film that unearthed the gruesome underbelly of an illegal porn ring. It came at a time when leaked MMSes made prime time headlines.
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Kemmu’s career, though chequered and erratic in its flow is filled with fascinating roles that most A-listers would dare not attempt. Moreover, Kemmu has always come across as an alternative to the brooding, adept male lead of Hindi cinema. Be it the Gautam of Dhol, the Laxman of Golmaal, Silsila of Madhur Bhandarkar’s likeable Traffic Signal or the unforgettable Hardik of Go Goa Gone, Kemmu has played men who command varying levels of knowledge and conviction, but never absolute. They merge with their surroundings, rather than have the surroundings merge with them as is the case with most male leads. Kemmu pointed to the underachiever archetype a decade before he became the protagonist of the common Hindi blockbuster through the likes of Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurana. Today’s lightweight comedies are anchored by characters that Kemmu probed and teased a decade ago but is yet to get credit for. His stop-and-start filmography is a sorry tale of the industry’s inability to tap into talent that has been around since double roles and ‘punar janams’ were acceptable.
Lootcase obviously plays to a template. It is a comedy of errors and manners propelled by all-round incompetence and lunacy. But it isn’t any less enjoyable, the same way Dhamaal (2007), despite its childishness remains a family bonanza we love returning to again and again. The gates that streaming has opened tend to give the impression that everything must now come from the other side. Where language is harsh and people cannot not brood. Lootcase on the other hand indulges in quirks and buffoonery and lands in that sweet spot that is above slapstick. All because its actors commit and its lead happily plays second fiddle to everyone’s machismo. Even in its chaotic climax Nandan answers the question, ‘tu kiska admi hai’ with, ‘main Lata (wife) ka admi hun’. It’s Kemmu’s moment.
A film like Lootcase perhaps deserved the theatre because it would have regaled cinema-going families, a culture that is fast declining, anyway. On a streaming platform, especially during a pandemic, it serves as a welcome treat of something light and fun, even if familiar and templated. It is also a bittersweet reminder of the way Kemmu has aged in front of us, his potential having been around long enough for us to assume nothing can become it now. It still can, and it should.