Irrfan Khan: India's greatest acting export no more

Updated: 30 April, 2020 07:44 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

For all the worthy local tributes pouring in for an untimely demise, fact is, if it wasn't for the West, the Hindi film industry wouldn't have known where to place Irrfan Khan

Irrfan Khan
Irrfan Khan

While Mira Nair's The Namesake (2006) introduced Irrfan to the art-house West as Ashoke Ganguli, there was a 2012 profile of his in The New York Times (by Kathryn Shattuck) that, he reckoned, alerted many in the Hollywood establishment to the person behind the roles he'd done thus far.

This is a couple of years after the last season of HBO series In Treatment that I recall Irrfan calling up from the US to say he was particularly proud of. And a few months before the release of Andrew Webb's franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, where he played the antagonist, Rajit Ratha.

Titled 'Bollywood Hero, American Everyman', the NYT piece went on to ask, "Could Mr Khan become the first Indian to capture the lead in a mainstream American movie?" It began with Irrfan himself declaiming, "Hollywood isn't ready for an Indian leading man." And Ang Lee later agreeing, while arguing, "But maybe he can do it for us [Asians]. He's definitely rare and very special." Irrfan was dubbing for Lee's Life Of Pi at the time.

The fact is, up until Irrfan had spent over a decade and half in Bombay, after graduating from National School of Drama (NSD), doing grunt-work on television, with shows after shows—some of them hugely popular, like Chandrakanta, Star Bestsellers, Banegi Apni Baat (that he also directed episodes of)—starting from late '80s, all through the '90s, let alone Hollywood, even Indian cinema wasn't ready for him as an Indian leading man!

That real deal happened only with the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia casting Irrfan in and as The Warrior (2001), in a slow, quiet, Himalayan Western, if you may, with his haunting eyes adding to the striking visuals. Thereon, young Kapadia scripted an Oscar-winning career as one of the world's top documentary whizzes (Senna, Amy, Diego Maradona).

Irrfan finally captured desi imagination with his inimitably insouciant, proper desi-cool turn as the rustic college goon in Tigmanshu Dhulia's Haasil (2003). A lot of local filmmakers, he said, could place him as the new villain in town. He refused a few such roles, only to mesmerise audiences even more as the obsessed lover in Vishal Bhardwaj's magical Maqbool (2004)—unreservedly a masterpiece that Bhardwaj found hard to match, leave aside with Irrfan (though Haider and 7 Khoon Maaf with the actor were decent attempts).

Thus, a star was proverbially born. Although he'd been around in Bombay all along. This is no time for rona-dhona on ways the film industry functions, while it was always a pleasure to chat about all of this, on occasion, with Irrfan. He never held back on what he felt or thought, about people and pictures.

Will never forget this one time he told me on a TV interview how embarrassed he felt watching the "aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai" (desi-wedding type) shindig around Slumdog Millionaire (2009) at the Academy Awards stage, with Anil Kapoor over-excitedly jumping about, while he hadn't even heard of Danny Boyle before signing up for the film! Or in another interview where he complained about why Shah Rukh Khan had to play out two schizophrenically different films (one with himself all over it) in Billu (2009), with no one ending up liking either, as a result.

That's how Irrfan was, even in public — charmingly candid, but meaning no malice whatsoever, of course. Despite much that he'd been through. To be fair, just casually scan the timeline for when he moved to Bombay. This was the fallow phase when 'parallel cinema' that had inspired him to become a film actor in the first place, had altogether been phased out. Many of the filmmakers had moved to television.

Irrfan got to do the historical docu-drama Bharat Ek Khoj (1988) with Shyam Benegal. He found a chance to work with Govind Nihalani in Drishti (1990) or Basu Chatterjee in Kamla Ki Maut (1989), in the evening of their careers.

The mainstream space almost wholly consisted of action stars, and thereafter, what he called "chocolate boys". Irrfan was neither. The key issue with him as a young aspirant, he said, was to imagine who he could be like. Until Naseeruddin Shah, from the generation before him, he confessed, metaphorically showed him the way — first from Jaipur where he grew up, to NSD, in Delhi.

An abiding memory of Naseer on screen, Irrfan recalled in a TV interview, was from Umrao Jaan (1981), where he flirts with Rekha's character, who is visibly annoyed and asks what he's up to. He casually mentions, "Waqt hai toh kuch toh karein, saath (Since there's time let's do something together)."

The first time I saw Irrfan on the big screen was in an NFDC production, Fareeda Mehta's Kali Salwaar (2002), where he plays writer Saadat Hasan Manto, staring at the heroine in the balcony, from across the street. What are you up to, he asks her. "Jhak maar rahi hoon (Doing nothing)," she says. "Chalo saath mein jhak maarte hain (Let's do nothing together)," he retorts indifferently. Few have seen that film. Don't remember much of it either — impossible to erase that casually killer moment from memory.

For all the years he was altogether bored of bulk-acting on TV in Bombay, whatIrrfan found the hardest to do was keep the inspiration alive — even while he found none of it in his work. He found most of it in watching films, right from the time he bought a video-player with his first salary in the city.

No actor I know from his generation was as well-versed with world cinema as Irrfan. One of his dreams was to be in the same frame as the French hero Gerard Depardieu. Can't thank him enough for introducing me to the Turkish-German star-director Fatih Akin, much before Akin became a thing. Or filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, who Irrfan, of course, worked with in A Mighty Heart (2007). It is said Wes Anderson specifically pencilled in a part for him in The Darjeeling Limited (2007). In conversations, he was always ready with a recco.

Perhaps exposure of this sort could also frustrate an actor, in contrast to the eco-system that surrounds him. Irrfan spoke quite often about having decided to quit acting altogether in his early years, since television was all he was doing, and the sort of movies he wished for weren't going to materialise anyway. This is the phase, he said, he actively worked on his craft, since he had nothing to lose. And much less to hope for. To keep himself busy, he said, he toyed with ways to gently seduce the camera, besides attempting to "live in the moment".

Irrfan in a still from Inferno
Irrfan in a still from Inferno 

This became perhaps what critics/reviewers might over-use the word "nuance" to explain many of his performances that highlighted most of all, minimal face-acting — least amount of gestures that also kept space for dramatic revelations, when you least expected them. He was the finest film practitioner of 'less is more' — hitting its highest note perhaps with Dhulia's Paan Singh Tomar (2011) that, despite a fair festival run, remained in the can for the longest, before finding theatrical release to top Bollywood awards that year.

More specifically, he could hold a moment. Also there was something infectious about his performances, if you notice, say Deepika Padukone match her smiles and telling eye-contacts with his, in Shoojit Sircar's Piku (2015). Same between Konkona Sensharma and him in Anurag Basu's Life In A Metro (2007). Or, most recently, actor Deepak Dobriyal playing off Irrfan's thoroughly restrained yet feisty/OTT comic timing in Angrezi Medium (2020), his last release.
That's what earned him most respect from peers and public alike.

I was at a breakfast interview with Naseer in Lucknow (he was shooting for Dedh Ishqiya) when Irrfan joined in (he was there filming Bullet Raja). Throughout, Naseer, who's generally frugal with praise and an idol of sorts to Irrfan, called him "Khan Saab" — referring perhaps also to his aristocratic lineage, although he's had a fairly modest upbringing.

There was still something naturally royal about Irrfan's presence, both off but, more so, on the screen. This was a handicap, at least according to one filmmaker critic of his I know. He was incapable of coming across as "low-status", even in roles that demanded so. This is where Nawazuddin Siddiqui held an advantage, apparently. There was minor tattle going on about a rivalry of sorts between fellow NSD alumnus Nawaz, 45, and Irrfan, 53. Much of it had to do with the phenomenal success of Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox (2013), arguably the greatest Indian success abroad, that both starred in.

The fact is, Nawaz could never do what Irrfan could, and vice versa. As is true for all unique talents. That royal demeanour no doubt would've helped Irrfan bag the role of Mesrani (probably named after Ambani), the Indian-origin richest man, who's the main villain in the gigantic Jurassic Park franchise film, Jurassic World (2015).

His last major outing in Hollywood was with Tom Hanks in Inferno (2016). This is before he headlined the ambitious Japanese mini-series Tokyo Trial (2017; currently available on Netflix). Just look at that line-up abroad, even while he'd confound producers back home picking up a hardcore art-house film like Qissa (2013), although scoring huge in the box-office with the comedy, Hindi Medium (2017).

Irrfan had been ailing since 2018, diagnosed with a rare, neuro-endocrine cancer. He was never seen in public thereafter. He made sure of that—nothing to mess with our memories of him. The common adage '50 is the new 40' (in line with people in other decades) couldn't have been more aptly applied than with Irrfan. He was at the cusp of something bigger, having kick-started his career with definitive, defining roles, only in his mid 30s!

At 20, he told me, he had trained all the actors of Mira Nair's Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay (1988), but failed to star as one of the boys in it, because he was too tall to fit into the frame with them. He lived and learnt a lot about life from those street kids.

The Irrfan I knew came across as a deeply sensitive man. The ongoing wave of Islamophobia bothered him no end. He had dropped Khan from his name. Unsure if being racially profiled twice at American airports had anything to do with it. He also had a strong dislike for traditional stardom-led ways of Bollywood— mildly upset by stuff like, how much he was paid by a friend for a role, and how much was offered to his co-star, for the same picture.

But he also had a playful, roving-eye, happy-high side, behind that gambheer/serious exterior. He was surrounded by friends and well-wishers, I noticed, when graciously invited by his wife Sutapa (they met at NSD), to participate in his episode of the biographical show, Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai (2012). After all these years, the show's anchor, Bollywood star Raveena Tandon asked where I saw Irrfan in the pantheon of the (more popular) superstar Khans. In a league of his own, obviously.

Some of the fun part of Irrfan's personality you find organically channelled into madcap entertainers like Dil Kabaddi (2008) or Karwaan (2018). Or you could just watch him happily descend into YouTube level sketch-comedy with an AIB video gone viral! Better still, you could catch the totally terrible Thank You (2011), that he certainly did for the bread, butter, or more likely, cheese. Outside the preview screening of one of these flicks, he came up to say I must've got "jaded" watching so many movies. Yeah, right!

If it wasn't for Rajesh Khanna, could Irrfan have carried on as an AC repair mechanic? That's what he had visited the superstar's Carter Road bungalow as, much before he had thought of becoming an actor, or formally moved to Bombay. Irrfan had trained to fix appliances. His father was in the business of selling tyres. That visit as an AC-repair guy to Khanna's residence, he recalled in an interview, somehow ignited in Irrfan the belief that he simply couldn't work for the money. He needed something more to keep him engaged.

Before he left for NSD, Irrfan's father had passed away. His mother Saeeda Begum was worried that he was going to become a "naach-ganewallah". Whatever that means, he promised her, "Aapko sharminda nahin hone doonga (I won't let you down)." He didn't. Saeeda Begum, 95, passed away three days before him.

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First Published: 29 April, 2020 23:54 IST

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