Irrfan brought such credibility to a role that might otherwise seem outlandish: an accomplished Indian woman architect openly having a relationship with a driver
Last week was a big loss for Indian cinema. We lost two stalwarts, Irrfan (Irrfan Khan) and Rishi Kapoor, who both passed away after struggling with cancer. Between them, they encompassed sort of polar ends of the film spectrum. Rishi Kapoor, born into the first family of Hindi cinema, was the son of Raj Kapoor and grandson of Prithviraj Kapoor. He did mainly romantic leads in 92 mainstream masala Bollywood films, his big hits including Bobby, Amar Akbar Anthony, Karz and Rafoo Chakkar.
Later, he also did the gutsy Kapoor & Sons and Mulk, that called out mainstream oppression of India's Muslims. Whereas Irrfan, son of a game hunter who also owned a tyre shop in Tonk, Rajasthan, was an outlier, who trained at the National School of Drama. He was one of the earliest Indian actors to carve a significant international career alongside his Indian films, in Hindi, and is best known for his roles in independent films. As I have already written about Rishi Kapoor on Facebook, I will focus on Irrfan here.
Irrfan did wide-ranging roles in over 150 films. His international films include Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox, two Oscar-winners, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Ang Lee's Life of Pi, Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988, debut feature for both) and The Namesake, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, The Amazing Spider-Man, Jurassic World, A Mighty Heart (with Angelina Jolie), Asif Kapadia's The Warrior, Anup Singh's Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, and Doob–No Bed of Roses. His best Indian films include Maqbool and Haider, both Vishal Bhardwaj's magnificent Shakespeare adaptations Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar, Talvar, Piku, Life in a Metro, Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Singlle.
Recalling some of my favourite Irrfan scenes:
Maqbool: When Tabu, the gang boss' mistress, points a gun at Irrfan, her secret lover, and says, "Meri jaan bolo," (say, my love), she makes him say it thrice, each time with greater feeling, before he slaps her.
The Namesake: Irrfan, an immigrant in the US, walks with his little son towards the end of a sea-lashed pier, and says, "Will you remember this day, Gogol?" "How long do I have to remember it?" Gogol asks. "Remember it always. Remember that you and I made this journey and we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go."
The Lunchbox: When Irrfan and Nimrat Kaur finally decide to meet at a restaurant, he watches her anxiously looking out for him, but leaves without meeting her, as he feels "too old." But his expressions, encompassing hope, regret, betrayal and acknowledgement of his age, shows a master at work.
Piku: The climax, in which Irrfan and Deepika Padukone comfortably play 'tuku tuku' badminton, and Deepika tells the maid, kal se aana (come from tomorrow). By which we understand that they will be together now. Irrfan brought such credibility to a role that might otherwise seem outlandish: an accomplished Indian woman architect openly having a relationship with a driver.
Qarib Qarib Singlle: Utterly charming, hilarious film in which again, both Irrfan and the incandescent Parvathy Thiruvothu bring credibility and charm to a ludicrous story: a man woos a woman by revisiting three ex-girlfriends with her. When they are alone in a cable car in Gangtok, he asks her, "Share karogi?", offering her bottled water, we smile, knowing they will be together. Life's like that. We need more women directors and writers. And fine actors like Irrfan. Even though, as we would say in Bambaiyya, "Ekich piece hai" (he's one of a kind).
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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