ALWAYS the actor, never the star, Irrfan Khan shone bright in a cinematic universe that unspooled from the Hindi film industry across the seas to Hollywood and one he made his very own with powerhouse performances in films as diverse as ‘The Namesake’ and ‘Maqbool’.
Understated and self-effacing, Irrfan was the man with a difference in the tinsel world of showbiz, transitioning from TV soaps to the big screen and then from Indian films to world cinema with so little fanfare and so smoothly that no one really noticed – an actor was born.
And when he died on Wednesday, losing a two-year battle with neuroendocrine tumour, a rare form of cancer that targets various organs of the body, he left behind an Irrfan shaped hole that no one will ever quite fill.
He was just 54, packing into his three decades in cinema a variety of roles he stamped with his own deft touch, sometimes frothy and light as in his role of a never-can-get-it-right suitor in ‘Life in a Metro’, sometimes intense like in ‘Maqbool’, a retelling of ‘Macbeth’, and other times introspective as in the much acclaimed ‘The Life of Pi’.
Tall and gangly, and not conventionally good looking, Irrfan, his directors said, portrayed it all with his eyes and chameleon like ability to slip into layered characters of bewildering variety, a rare actor at home both in the west and in India.
The performative intensity was seen early in his career with ‘Haasil’, where he played the role of a student leader with negative overtones. It continued through a remarkable filmography that saw him playing melancholic immigrant Ashoke Ganguly in Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’, an athlete-turned-dacoit in the biopic ‘Paan Singh Tomar’, the quizzical Rana watching a father-daughter dynamic in ‘Piku’ or the loner striking a tentative relationship with a woman he has never met in ‘The Lunchbox’. And yes, though he appeared in mainstream films as well, Irrfan probably never shook a leg or sang in his films.
The remarkable career in acting almost didn’t happen. Born to a Muslim Pashtun family in Jaipur in 1966, Irrfan initially wanted to become a cricketer. But his parents – his mother had a royal lineage and his father was a businessman – were not too keen and he tried his hand at business. That didn’t work too and the young Irrfan found himself drawn to local theatre. But his dream seemed too far-fetched for him to share with anyone.
“I was not cut out to be an actor. I was the last person who could become an actor. If I told people I wanted to be an actor, they would have killed me. I couldn’t even share it,” Irrfan said in an interview in 2017. Hearing about greats like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, he applied at the National School of Drama (NSD) in 1984. And the rest, as they say, is Irrfan’s history.
It is during his NSD years that he met his wife Sutapa Sikdar and formed long-lasting friendships with directors such as Tigmanshu Dhulia. It is a measure of how intensely private a person Irrfan was that when he died, few could recall his wife’s name. Or that he has two sons. Babil and Ayaan.
In one interview, he recalled his relationship with his mother Saeeda Begum, who died just four days ago in Jaipur. It was an equation where he was constantly seeking approval and they would argue a lot. He moved to Mumbai after his NSD degree and the acting journey took off in 1985 with the TV show ‘Shrikant’, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s novel. Then came shows like ‘Darr’, ‘Banegi Apni Baat’ and roles in Doordarshan serials like ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’, ‘Kahkashan’, ‘Chanakya’ and ‘Chandrakanta’.
Television kept him occupied until acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair offered him a cameo in her 1988 movie ‘Salaam Bombay!’. But his role was edited out in the final cut of the movie. Nair promised to cast Irrfan in the lead in a film and 16 years later gave him ‘The Namesake’, one of his most memorable roles.
Irrfan’s break in world cinema came with London-based director Asif Kapadia giving him the lead in ‘The Warrior’, making him a known face and showcasing his range and ability to those in Hollywood. His big international films include ‘A Mighty Heart’, ‘Darjeeling Express’, ‘Partition’, ‘The Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘The Life of Pi’ and ‘Jurassic World’.
The last Hollywood project was with Tom Hanks in 2016’s ‘Inferno’, where the Hollywood actor said he was struck by Irrfan’s “beguiling eyes”.
In the deeply philosophical ‘The Life of Pi’, Irrfan’s character, Pi or Piscine Molitor Patel, says, “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
Irrfan bids adieu to a multi-splendoured innings in celluloid with ‘Angrezi Medium’, which released in the theatres last month, just before the India-wide lockdown began on March 25. He shot the film while still under treatment for his cancer but could not make it for the promotions. And left behind a message instead. “Hello brothers and sister… This is me Irrfan. Today I’m with you but also not with you,” he begins.
“There is a saying… ‘When life gives you lemons, you make lemonades out of it. It sounds good. But when life actually puts lemon in your hands, it becomes really tough to make lemonade… Enjoy the trailer and be kind to each other…And yes wait for me,’” he says. The words echo in the silence of a promise never to be kept.
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