Some actors are hired to turn a project bankable. Others to make it rankable. It appears that Irrfan Khan belongs firmly to the second category. His very presence in any movie is a guarantee, at a minimum, that “it can’t be that bad.” Recently, the 54-year-old actor has been in the news for battling cancer which forced him to keep his highly successful movie career, and life at large, on hold. Facing neuroendocrine tumour (he underwent treatment in London) with a lot of pluck and a little bit of smile, Khan is back in the theaters this weekend with Homi Adajania’s Angrezi Medium. Even in the emotionally tough times, the father of two had retained his sense of humour — most evident when he deadpanned in the film’s initial teaser, “Some unwanted guests have gatecrashed my body,” allowing himself and his fans some laughs after a deathly silence. Furthermore, a biography quietly hit bookstores while Khan was battling the life-threatening disease, hoping to capitalise on “one of the finest Indian actors of our generation.” Aseem Chhabra’s Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star describes its subject as a “gentle dreamer with arresting eyes, a towering presence and an illustrious filmography.” The book further notes that his “eyes narrate a sea of stories.” Some men act with their body. Irrfan Khan grabs you with those brooding, heavily soulful eyes. Usually, in a movie, Khan’s eyes have more depth than the plot. Little wonder then that he has used his great asset to dramatic effect from Maqbool to Paan Singh Tomar.
In a career spanning three decades (starting with a stint on TV), this NSD alumni has deftly alternated between a range of entertaining and intense roles over the years, in his characteristic style. A rare talent who has brought off-kilter joy to many commercial no-hopers, the audiences have nevertheless come to recognise him for his passion towards his craft, his effortless versatility, the smart-alecky body language and a wry outlook he brings to his acting. The master of method evokes awe and admiration in equal measure from his filmy colleagues. Kareena Kapoor, his co-star in Angrezi Medium, can vouch. She recently told PTI that the main reason for taking up Angrezi Medium was the opportunity to work with Irrfan Khan. She called it “the greatest honour.”
Khan was last seen in Karwaan (2018) as the rambling driver ferrying a corpse around Kerala backwaters, in what critics later deemed as a typical Irrfan Khan act. If anything, Khan peppered the otherwise uneven road trip with his quintessential brand of humour (his blossoming romance, for instance, with the burkha-clad khatoon, the cranky old man’s wife) and wise-guy flamboyance. As Khan returns to life and acting, here’s streaming five of his best films and performances. PS: In trying to keep them recent as well as their availability on streaming sites, we may have missed out on several of his compelling roles, be it his scene-stealing act in Piku, his Hollywood breakout The Warrior, philosophically-oriented Life of Pi, or even something as lightweight but fun as Life in a… Metro.
Where to watch – Netflix or Hotstar
You’d have thought acting stalwarts like Konkona Sen Sharma, Neeraj Kabi, Tabu, Gajraj Rao would have been enough to elevate Talvar into a thrilling watch. But it is Irrfan Khan’s tautly impressive presence (as the officer investigating a heinous crime) that makes this Meghna Gulzar whodunit on the sensational Aarushi Talwar case a must-see.
The Lunchbox (2013)
Where to watch – Netflix
Many of Khan’s performances in mainstream Hindi films go for a sort of overreach, a hint of humorous ebullience. When going artsy (think Vishal Bhardwaj), he amps up the wicked energy. But in The Lunchbox — the unlikeliest of epistolary romance set into motion by a lunchtime mix-up — Khan’s doleful office-goer takes a step back, to fit into the film’s Bombay nostalgia, loneliness and regret. Wistfully underplayed, you will find it difficult to take your eyes off him. What’s more, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s stellar turn lights up the otherwise quiet and reflective narrative.
Paan Singh Tomar (2012)
Where to watch – Netflix
“Beehad mein baaghi hote hain, dacait milte hain parliament mein,” that’s Paan Singh Tomar’s acerbic response to a reporter’s question about how he ended up being a Chambal legend (for all the wrong reasons). The Tigmanshu Dhulia film is a powerful roast of the political system that turns a promising athlete into a bandit. Khan embodies Tomar’s revolutionary spirit and contempt for the state, in what is clearly one of his finest hours on Hindi screen.
The Namesake (2006)
Where to watch – Rent on Amazon
Tabu says in Talvar, standing next to Irrfan Khan in a family court seeking divorce, “Our relationship died years ago.” Not quite true. Their chemistry in hits like The Namesake and Maqbool tells you otherwise. Especially, in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestselling NRI novel about love, loss and identity in America. Khan-Tabu complement each other perfectly in this clash-of-culture tale highlighting a classic immigrant’s dilemma. Caught between traditions of their homeland they have left behind and the American modernity they are about to embrace, the film is both exquisite and intimate. The sharply-observed performances only help raise it from merely watchable to truly memorable.
Where to watch – Hotstar
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Macbeth spin-off sees Khan take on the mammoth responsibility of the complex and rich Shakespearean hero and as expected, delivers. Prodded by Abbaji’s (Pankaj Kapur) young mistress (Tabu) with whom he has fallen in love, he bumps off his master to conquer the much-coveted underworld throne. Sinister and dark, Maqbool is a shining feather in Khan’s multifaceted cap.
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