Decoding Irrfan

Where does the National Award winner go from here?

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi | Published:March 31, 2013 1:03 am

Where does the National Award winner go from here?

Irrfan is amongst those actors who are the quickest to invade your mind,and the slowest to leave it. As befits the kind of actor who wears someone’s skin so close to his own that the two are practically indistinguishable,he’s got himself a National Award for Best Actor for Paan Singh Tomar. The award is richly deserved,and as awards go,it is one of those choices which are faultless,recognising a great character played by a great chameleon.

But it also led me to a question. Despite his obvious excellence,and the hunger he exhibits with each role,has Irrfan reached a plateau? A National Award for a particular role can have the effect of a straitjacket,quite apart from an actor’s own predisposition,or rujhaan (a much more effective word for ‘leaning towards’). Where does he go from here? That he is an actor of worth is acknowledged both in India and outside: for an international casting agent,all roads lead to Irrfan. Can his big win move him from the periphery of edgy roles to a more central position?

This is an actor in his prime,and,most of the time,a complete joy to watch. Just a few weeks ago,in a film which wouldn’t have been what it was if Irrfan hadn’t been in it,he gave us a scorching rendition of a flawed lover,the sort Hindi cinema usually has no space for. The love he has for a young woman who is clearly above his station in Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns has a mix of longing and betrayal. It’s not that he loves her less when he is with another woman,but he is a man,and weak,and the pleasures of the flesh are allowed to be a momentary diversion. When he is hurt,he cries. When he is raging,he is a volcano. His portfolio has been missing a lover since Maqbool,and in this ‘gangister’,he shows how powerfully swayed by passion he can be.

Now,when you think of Paan Singh Tomar,even those of us who did have a faint,black-and-white recall of what the real athlete-turned-dacoit looked like,you think only of Irrfan. The movie character is the result of mining moffussil memories,as well as taking into account sports journalists who covered athletics at the time he was running (and winning) races for the country. Till the time the script is being written,it is on the page. And then,when it leaps onto the screen,you need an actor. Prepared. Taut. On his mark. Straining every sinew to win a race,both on the track,and off it. Paan Singh Tomar needed an Irrfan,and they’ve romped home,breasting the tape,for a win.

That victory is as much of the director as it is of the actor. Because an actor needs someone who knows him or her well. Either that,or someone who knows how to play actors to their strengths. In Life Of Pi,Irrfan is a bookend. He is the narrator,telling the story of Pi (Piscine Molitor Patel) to a listener who appears entranced much too soon. Being Irrfan,he invests his small part with the inflection and pauses an Indian having lived overseas for many years may exhibit. But it is a stilted role,and the actor feels becalmed. And that has everything to do with Ang Lee,whose building up of character has been much more impressive in his other films in cultures he knows better: Indian characters (played by Indian actors,which includes Tabu,too) are clearly not his zone.

Pi-Irrfan was a Gujarati in Canada,and to me,a character who could have been more. Cultural specificities do not always have to come in the way,though. As a Bengali in the US in The Namesake,Irrfan was so much better. It was a character that came to us via author Jhumpa Lahiri who created with great fidelity a certain Bengali of a certain era,who then got transferred on the screen via director Mira Nair. Irrfan nails it,the intrinsic Bengali-ness of Ashoke Ganguli which never quite goes away,as firmly entrenched as the accent,even after so many years in America. By comparison,Tabu who in many ways is Irrfan’s female counterpart in the good acting department,stutters.

Finally,an actor needs a role with meat,and a director’s unswerving vision. Irrfan is poised nicely at this moment. Hollywood can only come and go. Can Bollywood grab him and create roles that only he can fill? I’m waiting for someone to put him in a rom com: his little flash (a darting glance at Konkona Sen Sharma’s bosom,calibrated to be interested but not creepy) in Life in a Metro has left me wanting more. Anyone who can look at a girl’s chest,and come off well while doing it,deserves a medal. And several awards.

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