A Journey of Intimacy with Irrfan
Aritro Sarkar, Undergraduate ’21
If acting had subalternity, Irrfan Khan would probably be its biggest contemporary advertisement. In a realm where the key to survival is overstatement, his carving out a career through understating is nothing short of daring. He managed to puncture Bollywood’s glamour through sheer grit, all the while grinning, as if to to underplay that too.
For some reason, Irrfan’s premature passing has been harder to digest than most; writing an obituary for him has an element of finiteness that honestly scares you. This feels oddly personal, despite most of us having never met him. Perhaps this intimacy itself was borne out of the fact that he symbolized a certain accessibility of excellence, which the film industry otherwise conceals behind and conflates with zero-figures and eight pack abs. He was the everyman who just happened to be on your screens; he made a career out of being the underdog, and without even realizing, we offered him a place in our hearts, one that now lies bereft and betrayed.
Born Sahebzade Irfan Ali Khan in Jaipur, he indeed was the common Indian, armed with nothing but a dream: to play cricket for India. In fact, he was even selected to play in the CK Nayudu Trophy, for emerging players in the under-23 category, an opportunity spurned because of his dire circumstances. Soon enough, his fancy flowed like a river to acting, in which he immersed himself. Earning local applause in Jaipur’s established theatre circles was never going to quench his thirst; willing and wide eyed, he strode to Delhi’s famed National School of Drama, to hone further the art which he sought to make his calling.
There was something rustic about his passion; a degree of democracy in his dreams. Every third Indian at some point has wished themselves into either India’s cricket team, or Bombay’s film world. Irrfan was no different, and it is this element of the everyday that he held onto, like a child clutching onto their parents’ hand in a fair full of bustling strangers. Even hobnobbing with the heroes and heroines of tinsel town could not drown out the heat from Irrfan’s hearth.
After a spell on the small screen, where he dabbled with a variety of roles, he featured in Asif Kapadia’s critically acclaimed The Warrior. This was the breakthrough moment; starry eyed Irrfan was now the talk of town, prompting Vishal Bhardwaj to swoop in and cast him in his brave cinematic retelling of Macbeth. Maqbool was, in fact, arguably the first time the Indian audience sat up and took notice of Irrfan. There was a difference about him; he was not the fresh faced yet-to-learn star kid. There was an almost seasoned sensibility already in him, and over the next few films – chiefly The Namesake and Life in a…Metro, it became quite apparent that this was an actor brimming with brilliance. He steered his characters through characteristic subtlety and silence. It was almost like he was so adept at his craft that even words were below him, and that to convey the real meaning of his lines, all he had to do was adorn speech with ample quiet. A delicate twitch of the eyebrow, a glance that becomes a stare and a heavy breath later, all that was to be said, was heard. Why defile a moment with rehearsed phrases, when an instinctive hush could do the trick?
Over the years, Irrfan refused to box himself up in a category, choosing to pick a whole gamut of projects and making the world his oyster. Jurassic World, Life of Pi and serial Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire firmly made him India’s new face on the global cinematic map, and what an ambassador to have! The roles were limited and typical – as one would expect – but that did not bother Irrfan, who would regularly have the viewer’s attention dance to his tunes in his inhibited screen time. He did this regularly, with a composure and elegance so admirable it would border on being unsettling, like a villain unmoved and unimpressed by his own malevolence.
It is this simplicity that made him stand out, in a territory where pretense is what seems to bring in the paycheck. So committed was Irrfan to his craft that he had no time to advertise anything but the characters he played – Syska LED being an abhorrent exception. But like the rare brand he chose to promote, his elan too was light years ahead, catering from his early days itself to a gradually widening audience that now demanded quality. To Irrfan, content always trumped commerce, which is what makes his filmography a cinematic hall of fame: he’s worked with the best, and produced the best. In fact, such was the appeal of the man that it is believed that Wes Anderson, the director whose colour palette enthusiasm often gets the better of him, specifically curated a character for Irrfan in The Darjeeling Limited.
Such an ardent believer he was in his work, that he even chose to drop his surname to go only by Irrfan. It takes no rocket science to figure that the name ‘Khan’ opens many doors in Bollywood, which was an advantage Irrfan did not wish to access on the basis of nomenclature, but through the eclectic, everyday performances he delivered. Perhaps his finest hour on camera – and this is where my unbiased mask slips – came in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, where he shared screen space with the nascence of Nimrat Kaur and the nip of Nawazuddin Siddiqui. In hindsight, one feels that it was more than a film about mistaken letters being exchanged in a futile romance. It was about finding a bright spark in city life enslaved to the routine and the mundane. It was also, perhaps poignantly, a passing of the baton: Irrfan had his run as the champion of the everyman, bringing dreams to doorsteps. It was now on Nawaz, the upstart outsider who today sits on a throne many would argue is fashioned on Irrfan’s.
Irrfan’s loss feels so personal, because on screen, he was your regular bloke, but perhaps more importantly, he was your regular bloke off screen too. Maybe it stings more because the world right now is at a pandemic-induced standstill, making getting over this all the more difficult. Take nothing away from the man, though, whose intimacy lay in how he embodied all that a rising nation aspired to be; an honest person doing an honest job in earnest. He burst through the exclusionary Bollywood bubble, and made it his own. He made all our lives his own; he lived them on screen.
In Mira Nair’s The Namesake, there is a scene where he takes his son Gogol to the sea beach, and stares out onto the horizon. Upon realizing that he forgot his camera to click a picture, he asks his son to memorize this point. “For how long”, asks Gogol. “Always” says Irrfan’s Ashoke Ganguli, with a characteristic pause and a sheepish grin. Always remember that you had walked all the way to a point where there was no more land ahead.
Irrfan might well have been speaking about his own career – his humility would bar him from realizing – because that is precisely the kind of immortalizing a craftsman like himself warrants.