Happy birthday Irrfan: The actor whose skills escape definition

Irrfan Khan has time and again proved that he brings to the big screen something magical and inexplicable with his varied performances. And what better day to celebrate his talent than on the man's birthday?

Written by Anvita Singh | New Delhi | Updated: January 7, 2018 11:36:56 am
Irrfan Khan As Irrfan Khan turns 51, here’s looking at the actor whose strength lies in his subtlety.

Irrfan Khan is, to most of us, an undisputed king of good and subtle cinema that portrays life as it is for real people. And it will not be wholly wrong to claim that Irrfan has brought back subtle to Indian cinema. Subtle is described by the Oxford dictionary as “so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe.”

And Irrfan’s cinema, and his method of acting, is indeed difficult to describe. Yes, you may attribute a hundred adjectives to it–effortless, natural, real, grounded, beautiful, smooth. All true, but all the words fail to capture what the talented actor brings to the screen. So, I have decided to settle with subtle.

The actor has turned 51 today. Today is special, but 36 was a great year for the actor, but most importantly for movie buffs, as it was the first time that a wide range of audience got a taste of the man’s skills. Haasil was released in 2003, and Irrfan portrayed the ‘bad’ guy Ranvijay Singh in it.

Ranvijay is not evil, but he is cunning and a plotter, but what stands out as one of the qualities of Ranvijay the character is that he is fearless. And so the debut director Tigmanshu Dhulia obviously needed someone who had it in him to be as fearless as its main antagonist. He cast Irrfan, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Irrfan Khan Haasil Irrfan Khan in a still from Haasil.

This is not to say that the actor had not appeared in a number of movies (Salaam Bomaby, Karamati Coat, Purush, The Warrior, Kasoor) before Haasil, but none of them had really done the trick.

Haasil flopped at the time, and it was only over time that the movie acquired the cult status. Thankfully, Irrfan’s gritty performance caught the eyes of some important filmmakers. One of them was Vishal Bhardwaj. After playing a conniving student leader and lover, Irrfan’s next big performance to hit the screen was Maqbool.

Irrfan Khan Maqbool Irrfan Khan in a still from Maqbool.

Maqbool, an Indian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was critically acclaimed and so was Irrfan’s performance. Irrfan played Miyan Maqbool in the movie. He portrayed the chaos and love of Maqbool in a way that was so understated that if you didn’t pay enough attention, it could escape you what effort and thought the actor had put in that utterly delightful performance.

Even in an altogether mediocre movie like Himanshu Brahmbhatt and Mahesh Bhatt’s Rog, Irrfan was enigmatic. Rog saw the actor as Inspector Uday Singh Rathod, an insomniac famous for solving big cases. Irrfan’s Rathod was grounded in his desires to get the woman, and to solve the case. Rathod’s eyes spoke effectively of the indecision he constantly faced while working on the important case.

Irrfan then dabbled in Hollywood with A Mighty Heart, The Namesake and The Darjeeling Limited. Needless to add, he was brilliant in all of them and brought a hard-to-explain depth to the characters of Zeeshan Kazmi, Ashoke Ganguli and The Father, respectively.

In 2008’s relatively less-known Dil Kabaddi, Irrfan was vulnerable and hilarious as Samit, a man going through a divorce. Irrfan’s performance was easy, but at the same time alive to his character’s troubles, which he somehow put up with.

Irrfan Khan Paan Singh Tomar Irrfan Khan in a still from Paan Singh Tomar.

In 2012, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Irrfan collaborated once again on Paan Singh Tomar, without hoping for any success. Only making the film, as he had once said during an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, because he felt strongly about it. In fact, he had once said that he literally lived Paan Singh’s character. That he went through the same injuries and emotional strain that his character had undergone. In some measure at least. And ‘this’ is how you know that Irrfan completely inhabits the people he chooses to portray on screen.

2013’s The Lunchbox was again something the actor had never done before, play a 60-something man who finds love through a particularly delicious lunch box. Irrfan’s portrayal of Saajan Fernandes was emotional and raw. While watching Saajan smoke, smile and eat throughout the movie, you felt that knew a Saajan, that you might have bumped into a Saajan, or for better or worse, become a version of Saajan.

Irrfan Khan Haider Irrfan Khan in a still from Haider.

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, Irrfan was Roohdaar, the ghost whose duty was to remind Haider (Shahid Kapoor) to avenge the death of his father. Roohdaar sure had the best lines in the movie, and his shadowy and constantly-looming presence throughout a good part of the movie was inescapable. He was a sheer delight to watch, and more importantly, hear. Irrfan’s enunciation skills are as top-notch as his acting skills.

Irrfan Khan in Piku Irrfan Khan in a still from Piku.

In Piku, the actor showed that he could stand behind the main protagonists of the movie (Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan), and still steal the limelight. His portrayal of Rana Chaudhary was as good as any of his other performances. He was just there on the screen doing what was required of him to do. Be a complete charmer. And in a more recent Qarib Qarib Singlle, he was a witty and fluid Yogi. Agreeable, endearing and a hundred other adjectives.

Irrfan will next be seen in another slice-of-life film called Karwan, with Dulquer Salmaan and Mithila Palkar. Cannot wait.

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