There are always a few actors who stand apart from rest of the crowd, when it comes to pure craft. And to that league of extraordinary gentlemen, belongs the versatile Irrfan Khan.
The fact that he doesn’t have the conventional ‘Bollywood hero’ looks. The fact that he doesn’t seem to care about it. The fact that he can spin some form of magic every time he graces the big screen. These things tell us something that we already know.
That Irrfan is one of the best actors in any film industry is not newsworthy. But every time someone says the Hindi film industry has gone to the dogs, I am tempted to point a finger in the direction of Irrfan and his ‘friends’. One man versus 10 mindless blockbusters. That’s some pressure. But that is the pressure created for him by the likes of us, the ones who survive the nonsensical movies thrown at us by going back to the classics.
One classic that really called everyone’s attention to Irrfan’s skill as a performer is Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of the Shakespeare play Macbeth. Yes, it is Maqbool that I speak of.
Maqbool hit the big screen on January 30, 2004. It wasn’t that Irrfan had not given stellar performances prior to Maqbool, but the film was maybe one of the more mainstream things the actor was involved in, and that’s saying something, as Bhardwaj’s films are not exactly described as commercial flicks. However, Haasil (another gem), The Warrior and Kasoor were not the kind of films regular movie-goers were jubilant about.
Irrfan plays Miyan Maqbool in the film. He is the titular character, the driving force of the film. But he is not always on screen. And the times that he is on, he is either pensive, or he’s plotting the course his life would take as a don and as a lover. Maqbool looks up to Abbaji (portrayed beautifully by Pankaj Kapur). Abbaji is the aging don who holds the reigns of the Mumbai underworld. They have an almost sacred relationship – Maqbool and Abbaji, if such a thing exists in the world of crime. But there’s a twist. Maqbool is in love with Abbaji’s lovely, young mistress Nimmi (played by Tabu). Caught between the two webs of desire and duty, Maqbool does what Nimmi wants him to do, does what he really wants to do. He slays Abbaji and everyone who is capable of obstructing his path to achieve the ultimate crown of crime and love.
There is a scene that one cannot help but bring up while discussing Irrfan and Maqbool. The one where Maqbool loses his sense of self and deliriously declares the dead body of Kaka (Piyush Mishra) to be alive. “Isko leke jao yaha se, zinda hai wo!” (Take him away. He is alive!) Irrfan as Maqbool stumbles, almost falling back into a bewildered Tabu, who is aghast at what she is witnessing. “Mar gaya hai wo, Miyan”, Tabu’s character says as she tries her best to bring Maqbool back to earth.
Maqbool is dutiful, almost to the point of a slave, to Abbaji. Just like Irrfan is to his character. Take, for instance, when during one sequence Abbaji coughs, and Maqbool rushes to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water for the old man. In the kitchen, he sees Nimmi (Tabu) with a jug of water. Nimmi is in a playful mood, but Maqbool is not. During that moment in time, he only gives a damn about delivering that glass of water to Abbaji.
And then there is the scene when Nimmi is teasing Maqbool for being a coward. A coward for not touching her, for not taking the ‘business’ over from Abbaji. Irrfan’s character keeps his silence despite the constant provocation. Maqbool tries to hide his hurt. He plays along. You see, his love for Abbaji holds him captive, silent. And this complexity is conveyed through Irrfan’s performance in a matter of a few minutes. So powerful, so present.
“I am still struggling as an actor when it comes to learning things about my craft”, Irrfan had said during an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra when she had asked how he makes everything look so natural, so smooth. However, the actor had promised in the same interview that he would reach ‘there’ very soon. ‘There’ being a place from where he could claim himself to be an equal of Hollywood star Mark Ruffalo. But Irrfan is already there, has been there for quite a while now.