Kumud Mishra has Mastered the Art of Empathy

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Kumud Mishra has Mastered the Art of Empathy

Mishra headlines the SonyLIV series Dr. Arora, a social dramedy of sorts with a diverse spread of characters, whose (sex) lives intersect with the eponymous ‘sexologist’. The English word for that particular medical specialisation has an industrial specificity to it, which fails to do it justice. At least, it doesn’t quite capture the essence of the job like its dodgy Hindi descriptor: ‘Gupt rog visheshagya’ – an expert in ‘secret’ diseases. The kind of specialist you need to trust implicitly, because god forbid others get to know of your affliction. You might not find a more suited actor for such a part than Kumud Mishra. In retrospect, it isn’t a surprise that Dr. Arora gives Mishra time and space like never before; the show has been created by Imtiaz Ali – possibly the man who first identified Mishra’s impeccable vibe as adult-counsellor-chaperone extraordinaire, in his 2011 film Rockstar.

Surely, you remember Khatana bhai. A man as basic as the dal-chawal on his fingers or the talcum powder on his chest, who confidently bhai-splains the intricacies of love, pain and art to wannabe-protagonist Janardhan Jakhar. The romantic fallacy at the heart of Rockstar is provided and further crystalized by Mishra’s Khatana, so you can easily pin Jordan and Heer’s passionate-but-doomed journey on him. But then, he is also a companion on the ride all the way through, pulling the rockstar up from rockstar-bottom more than once. I don’t know if Ali fleshed out the gaps in Khatana’s arc in the story, but he didn’t need to. The fact that Khatana has taken responsibility for the agony on display doesn’t need to be spelled out. In his limited screen time, Kumud Mishra sells it without question, without even a first name. A wonder, then, that it has taken over a decade for Imtiaz Ali and Kumud Mishra to collaborate again, on Dr. Arora.

In retrospect, it isn’t a surprise that Dr. Arora gives Mishra time and space like never before; the show has been created by Imtiaz Ali – possibly the man who first identified Mishra’s impeccable vibe as adult-counsellor-chaperone extraordinaire, in his 2011 film Rockstar.

Here, the actor doesn’t just play oath-keeper, but gets an origin story of his own. The good doctor’s effectiveness in his professional life stems from personal trauma – his own erectile dysfunction as a young married man. The show has flashback portions featuring another actor as a young Arora – though again, Mishra’s steady silences convey that his empathetic understanding of his patients’ woes is rooted in his own experiences, thus making the flashbacks almost superfluous. This is by far his most substantial role yet; not merely in terms of dedicated screen-time, but also by virtue of the fact that he gets to rise beyond primarily serving another protagonist in the script, becoming its prime mover instead, with his own little late-stage romance on the side.

Though Rockstar was probably what put him on the map, Mishra had already displayed enough versatility by then, even in tiny roles. In the excellent 2007 film 1971 (written by fellow Mishra, Piyush) he plays an Indian PoW who heartbreakingly dies some distance short of his homeland, after a daring escape with his comrades. I almost missed him altogether in Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots (2011), where his Lynn is the culmination of the protagonist’s quest in the film. Yet, since Rockstar, Kumud Mishra’s multitude of roles have largely seen him slotted into versions of understanding father-figure.

Surprisingly enough, the director who has given Mishra the opportunity to show his complex range the most has been Anubhav Sinha – someone who is usually accused of painting his social commentaries with broad strokes. In Mulk (2018), Mishra plays the ultimate moral centre of all, as the judge hearing the terror case that anchors the film. Through the film, even though his own leanings feel suspect throughout, you almost never doubt that Judge Madhok would be fair. His monologue in the end can be criticised for its on-the-nose sermonising, but that doesn’t hamper Mishra’s own conviction in the speech that attempts to mend society’s communal fault lines.

You almost don’t even need Mishra in the scene, to feel what he must be going through – that is how much empathy his presence (and absence) radiates.

In Sinha’s Article 15, Mishra’s sub-inspector Jatav is a Dalit who has ostensibly benefitted from the system of reservations in the country. But Mishra’s body language, always a tad compressed within himself in the presence of ‘upper-caste’ folk in the room, (sometimes even when he’s out of focus, not the subject of the scene) is a sight to behold. His ‘andar ka lava’ explodes right at the end, when he satisfyingly slaps his oppressive superior played by the wicked-good Manoj Pahwa. In Sinha’s Thappad, Mishra is tasked with playing the progressive, understanding, unconditionally loving father of the woman at the centre of the storm – a man pained by the idea that his son-in-law slapped his little daughter, a sharp contrast to the kind of husband he is. You almost don’t even need Mishra in the scene, to feel what he must be going through – that is how much empathy his presence (and absence) radiates.

Over the years, Kumud Mishra has appeared in an assortment of insubstantial parts in many a middling film, which nevertheless benefitted by his presence. The odd time he gets to explore greys, he sinks into it. In Rohit Shetty’s 2021 cop blockbuster Sooryavanshi, Mishra plays Bilal Ahmed, who seems loosely based on India’s most famous gangster-terrorist-fugitive. This man fled Bombay before it burned in the 90s, but (legend has it) has longed for his city ever since. You couldn’t get a more one-note stage than a Rohit Shetty actioner, yet Mishra turns him into a pitiable shell of a man, lending the film its only nuance – the fact that circumstances are what give birth to a terrorist.

Whether you need a man you can trust, or one that you must despise, you can always count on Kumud Mishra to deliver.

Kumud Mishra has turned up in more insipid films than would have been ideal for an actor of his calibre, which is why his turn as Dr Arora is a hearty sign. It is a reminder that there are many fine roles waiting to happen, many flawed Indian male traits yet to find expression on screen. Watch his steely resolve when a desi ‘katta’ is thrust at his head (as in-your-face an expression of fragile Indian masculinity as can be) or his melting vulnerability at the unexpected sight of his ex-wife. Whether you need a man you can trust, or one that you must despise, you can always count on Kumud Mishra to deliver. Dr Arora convinced me that were there to be a movie made on my life, I want this sexologist to play my daddy.

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