There are some obituaries you never, ever want to write. This is one of them. We knew that Irrfan Khan, one of the best actors the world has been privileged to watch, was struggling with a debilitating disease. We knew he was gravely ill. But we also believed that he would rise and shine again, because, how could he not? How could he leave us, this enormously talented human, who with his fine body of work so enriched our inner lives?
Irrfan, who passed away on Wednesday morning at the age of 53, was not just a brilliant actor who dissolved into his part, leaving no residue behind. He also managed to walk off the screen, and come home with us. He made space for himself in our hearts, nestled in unexpected corners, and popped up once in a while, for a chat. Which he would begin, with that characteristic hooded-eyed smile: chaliye baat karte hain.
From the very first glimpse we had of him, in Shyam Benegal’s teleserial Bharat Ek Khoj, we knew we were in the presence of someone truly special. He went on to become an integral part of some of Indian TV’s most popular serials (Zee’s Banegi Apni Baat, Doordarshan’s Chandrakanta, and Star TV’s Bestsellers), but his heart was always set on cinema. And, over a period of 30 years and more, as he essayed one unforgettable part after another, from Asif Kapadia’s striking The Warrior to Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, he never let us down. If this sounds like a gush, yes, it is. An unapologetic, teary-eyed one, because he made things better, even in his no-account parts.
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Of his impressive body of work, four films jostle for the top spot for me: Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil, in which he plays a local Allahabadi student leader; Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, in which he was a mobster-with-many-moods-in-Mumbai; Mira Nair’s The Namesake, in which his Bengali bhadralok immigrant finds his place in faraway New York; and Anoop Singh’s Qissa, in which he plays a man desirous of something he could not have.
These roles combine not just the ‘skills’ of a schooled actor, but deep empathy, a generosity of spirit, and an unfettered intelligence, which shone through everything he did, good, indifferent, or flat-out fantastic.
He did everything. Or at least everything that Bollywood brought to his table, after having learnt that this tall, rangy, magnetic-eyed person could transform, into anyone, with a particular kind of magic. He could go high, dive low, get intense, do goofy and grumpy, growl and guffaw. He could be dangerous and maniacal. He was also the loveliest, kookiest, most passionate lover you ever saw. It took the film industry many years to find Irrfan, and it isn’t as if he was flooded with roles from the big studios immediately after his breakout roles, post 2002, in Haasil and Maqbool.
But the filmmakers who did, like his National School of Drama (NSD) mate Dhulia, and Bhardwaj, made the most of his, and their own, innate knowledge of the Hindi belt, long neglected by Bollywood. Their coming together was a great confluence. It brought a new language, new robustness to Hindi cinema, something that old-school Bollywood filmmakers like Mahesh Bhatt recognised. Bhatt’s production house gave Irrfan a chance to go over to the other side, away from the raw, visceral gangland/heartland tales, and explore unfamiliar territories. He lifted brainless comedies (Rohit Shetty’s Sunday) with the same verve as he did gritty, hard-hitting tales (Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar): it was all grist to his mill, acutely attuned to the world around him.
Irrfan met his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, too at the NSD. Married for 25 years, they have two sons.
Of course, there was no confining him to Bollywood. Irrfan’s work took him to the world, and he was the only Indian actor who well and truly crossed over. He had already made an early appearance in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). But the big-and-small parts in international productions quickened after Danny Boyle’s 2008 Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire, and he showed up in Ang Lee’s magical-realistic tale of survival, Life Of Pi, and in such mega-budget franchises as The Amazing Spiderman and Jurassic World.
But home was really where his heart was. None of these much-publicised international outings could truly mine what Irrfan was capable of. He did those movies because he could, but saved the razzle dazzle for his desi dil-hai-Hindustani outings. Fully switched on, he came up as close to us as possible, to start that conversation, as only he could: chaliye, baat karte hain.
I hope that those chats will never, ever end.
Also read | Irrfan Khan passes away | Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan and others mourn the demise of Irrfan Khan | Indian film industry pays heartfelt tributes to Irrfan Khan | Everything Irrfan said about his battle with cancer | Hollywood celebrities pay tribute to Irrfan | Everything you should know about Irrfan’s life and career | 15 Irrfan films that you can watch online | Angrezi Medium director Homi Adajania pays tribute to Irrfan | Rohitashv Gour remembers NSD senior and friend Irrfan Khan
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