Picture this. A man and a woman are sitting on a beach, having a conversation. They’ve met before, all too briefly, as interested parties via a matrimonial site. But he’s getting married to another, and is not quite as delighted as he should be. And she’s not quite as blasé as she’s trying to be. There’s something between them, a teasing, tantalising something that they are trying to unpack.
“Why did you reject me,” blurts out Monty finally, “Tell me honestly.” “Because you looked at the wrong place,” retorts Shruti, “Mujhe achcha nahin laga.” He is taken aback. “I’m 35, well actually 38, but I admit to 35,” he says, “aur maine aaj tak kisi ladki ko theek se touch nahin kiya, aur tum itni khobsurat ho, tumhari body itni achchi hai, nazar udhar chali gayi toh galat kya kiya? What is so wrong about that?”
Certain movie sequences are unforgettable. This exchange, between Irrfan and Konkona Sen Sharma, in Anurag Basu’s Life in a…Metro (2007), is right up there when it comes to nailing that thing between a man and woman, which starts with an awareness of the other, and builds till they can’t see anyone else. It begins when Monty and Shruti meet for the first time, in a coffee shop, trying to, as any potential couple would, suss each other out: is he the one; will she fit?
Then Monty does something which is an instant deal-breaker. He glances at Shruti’s bosom. It’s a skittering, glancing look, but there’s no mistaking it. They part after that awkward, abortive meeting. But the chat on the beach leads to a circling back. To each other.
In a film industry where juvenilia masquerades as romance, this robust pair made us smile. They still do. Because it proved, all over again, as if we ever needed proof, just how fine an actor Irrfan is. Sen Sharma is no slouch either, but that moment, never seen in Bollywood before, belongs to him.
It is not a have-cleavage-will-leer look. The kind which is so disgustingly pervasive that it forces young girls and grown women to cross their arms across their chests in public spaces. Irrfan makes it frank, inquisitive, honest. It is a sublime moment, with an actor on the top of his game.
That’s the game we have been witnessing, and he’s been polishing it, since the late ’80s. That was when, after drama school, Irrfan got a break in television. It was the time when Doordarshan was the only act in town, and some really good work was happening on the state-run broadcasting channel. In 1988, he appeared in a couple of episodes of Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, a series never been bettered on Indian TV. The same year, he also had a blink-and-miss scene in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, whittled down from the promise of a lead part.
“It was my first film, and his,” says Nair, with a laugh. On the lookout for the right actors, she’d gone scouting to the National School of Drama (NSD), where Irrfan was a student at the time. There was a play going on, and she was instantly captivated, she says, by “this hooded-eyed, long, lean person, who radiated enormous unspoken integrity. His focus was extraordinary.”
Irrfan agreed immediately to the part Nair offered. But as they went along, workshopping with street children in Bombay, along with Raghubir Yadav, she found that he didn’t quite fit, because the children were physically so much smaller. She had to finally drop him from the film (he has just the one scene), and it broke her heart. But she made it up to him, much later, with The Namesake (2006), inarguably one of Irrfan’s best films.
In 30-plus years and 80-plus films, Irrfan has covered the kind of arc which would be the envy of any actor, anywhere in the world. Chor and charsi (a thief and an addict), good cop and bad, sadak-chhap gunda (a lout), dil-phenk nawaab (a casanova), canny mobster, faithful friend, terrorist, killer, gangster, and, by far the most layered lover: the boyfriend, the fiancé, the husband, the cuckold. In his last couple of films, he’s been a besotted spouse-and-daddy: he shot the last one, Angrezi Medium (that released on March 13 and will get a re-release in some states), in the middle of his struggles with a debilitating illness, because he was missing acting so much.
What he has never done well, in all his years, is plain vanilla. The plainest vanilla he ever got, was in Priyadarshan’s Billu (2009), as Shah Rukh Khan’s bachpan ka bhoola-bisra dost (long-lost friend). It is, naturally, one of his dullest films. It should have been a knockout, this counter-intuitive combo of the superstar and the super-actor, but the film was a washout. Would its success have taken Irrfan’s career graph on to another level? Who knows. What we do know is that his actorly lights have only shone brighter, in a series of stand-out acts.
Even in the decade that it took for him to become visible, he coasted on some sparklers. In 1993, he did Zee TV’s Banegi Apni Baat. It was a fresh, contemporary, slice-of-college-life long-running series, which made Irrfan, along with its other actors, including R Madhavan, extremely popular. But he was tiring of television, and on the lookout for work in films. He then fetched up in a game-changing series on Star TV called Star Bestsellers (1999), which brought him back together with NSD mate Tigmanshu Dhulia. Having drawn close during drama school, they would go on to forge deep personal and professional ties, and make cinema that would last. Many other talented aspirants, including Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan, Imtiaz Ali and Rajit Kapur, were all part of the Bestsellers list; Dhulia and Irrfan worked in a few episodes, building on the familiarity which came from sharing the stage in Delhi, and creating crackling newness on set in Bombay.
I ask Dhulia what he remembered most when he first set eyes on Irrfan. “His eyes,” he says, almost like a reflex.
Irrfan’s batch, two years his senior, was doing Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths, and that’s when Dhulia saw Irrfan perform first. “He was the best actor in that lot,” he says, “Of course, we were going to work together.” As casting director, he tried very hard to get Shekhar Kapur to include Irrfan in Bandit Queen (1994), he says. The film’s cast reads like a roll call of the best talent on stage, including Manoj Bajpayee, Saurabh Shukla, Nirmal Pandey, Gajraj Rao (yes, the very one, who is basking in the limelight after his stints in Badhaai Ho, 2019, and the recent Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan), and, of course, Seema Biswas.
But Kapur had other ideas, so Irrfan’s wait, for his Hindi film break-out, continued. It was ironic that the man who blew him off for Bandit Queen had already shared screen space with Irrfan. In Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990), Shekhar Kapur and Dimple Kapadia play a married couple, and Irrfan is Kapadia’s illicit lover. The film didn’t do well, and it’s almost impossible to find a copy now, but those who saw Irrfan and Kapadia share passion with a lovely delicacy, knew they were watching something special.
Meanwhile, it was Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001) ,which kept his spirits up. In an early interview, he has called it “the film that changed his life completely.” While playing an almost silent warrior, Irrfan learnt how to use his eyes to communicate on screen: for an actor, drilled in craft and method, and requisite change of body language, it is his eyes, deep-set, expressive, which have remained the most effective part of his arsenal.
Two years later, Dhulia made his striking debut feature Haasil (2003), and finally, there it was, the film which got Irrfan the acclaim deserving of an actor, whose every pore dissolves into the character. Irrfan plays student leader Rannvijay Singh, who both looks down on, and is jealous of the fancy, English-speaking “hi-bye types” that he’ll never be a part of.
Haasil brought back to Hindi cinema a raw, visceral engagement with student and caste politics, which it had left behind in the ’70s. A once-great north Indian university, now crumbling, is the backdrop of this tale, throbbing with youthful energy and latent violence, that spurts out every now and then, in a city which meshes the ancient and the modern. Dhulia remembers dropping Irrfan off in Allahabad for a few days before the shoot began, and letting him soak up the city, its roads, people and attitude. “By the time I was ready, he was, too,” he says.
Haasil played to Irrfan’s strengths (some of his sequences with Ashutosh Rana, who also speaks Hindi with a flourish all his own, are flat-out fabulous). Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2004) came out the next year, and it has to be one of my all-time favourite Irrfan performances as well as Bhardwaj films. This update of Shakespeare’s Macbeth features a host of gangsters, curdled passion and grand betrayals, and Irrfan stands tall in a sea of good actors, as the man torn between loyalty and vaulting ambition.
Witness his joustings with Tabu, who was equally superb, as the desi Lady Macbeth. Their scenes together set the screen on fire: in one, the two of them are standing on a cliff, jostling with a gun, and slinging words between them which singe: they may be standing a few inches away from each other, but in their eyes, and ours, they have already fused into one. “Bolo, meri jaan,” commands Tabu. “Meri jaan,” responds Irrfan. “Say it again,” she says, “say it like you mean it.” He says it. And he means it. And it blows your socks off.
I remember thinking when I first watched Maqbool, of how it was one of the first real adult unbridled romances in Bollywood; Bhardwaj’s knack of creating incendiary romance has been the hallmark of his movies. And, despite the variety of roles that Irrfan has done, his dealings with his beloved, twisted or straight, naïve or knowing, have stood out consistently. For me, Irrfan the lover has pretty much always trumped Irrfan the everyone else. Dhulia’s Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (2013) has him turn on the louche sexiness to a degree we haven’t seen before. His Raja bhaiyya, a former royal now struggling to stay relevant, is made to mouth such dialogue as “Hamaari gaali par bhi taali padhti hai (Even my curses draw adulation).” Irrfan does bombast as well as he does everything else, while wooing every single good-looking female in sight.
In the “everyone else” category, it is the fauji-turned-dacoit in Dhulia’s 2013 Paan Singh Tomar, which has pole position. There is no forgetting the way Irrfan stretched and flexed on the track as Paan Singh, the athlete who won medals for his country, as well as the daaku who lunged over the bone-dry bushes of the Chambal, in search of justice and revenge. And that immortal line: “Beehad mein toh baaghi hotey hain, dacait miltein hain Parliament mein.”
It’s not as if Irrfan has only done superlative films. Like any other working actor, several clunkers are part of his CV. But even in a cheesy thriller like Rog (2005; produced by Pooja Bhatt and written by Mahesh Bhatt), his ability to slather on just the right amount of grease to his lines, is noteworthy. It’s hard to forget him as the wannabe actor in Rohit Shetty’s Sunday (2008), in which he is to be seen toting the 10 heads of Raavan in the back seat of a red Ambassador, driven by the trusty Arshad Warsi, and being perfectly comfortable being as asinine as the rest. To pay your bills is sometimes more important than a moral imperative, we’d imagine, so you end up accompanying Mallika Sherawat’s vengeful naagin in Hissss (2010): as an actor game for anything, everything is grist to your mill, crass comedies, daaku drama, teary sagas, and more.
The ability to be a chameleon is the mark of a good actor. To become the part, without calling attention. Without demanding a look-at-me-doing-this-great-role air. Without vanity, and that’s what separates the great from the merely good: like the other greats, Irrfan can surrender to the director’s vision, submit to the demands of the part, and abandon all ego while keeping the sur intact. “For someone who had no deep background knowledge, Irrfan picked everything up incredibly fast,” says Aseem Chhabra, author of the recently released biography, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star (Rupa). Clearly, the guy who began as a loner (Dhulia remembers him in his corner room at drama school, smoking bidis all day long when not rehearsing) was also a quick learner.
That, and the ability to speak Hindi with authenticity and depth, flavour and flair. At around the same time when Irrfan was sliding into the movies, cinema in Bombay was in the process of hiving off faux accents and holding out a cautious welcome to those who brought in a whiff of freshness from the north. For all these aspirants, Hindi was a first language, not something read off a teleprompter or in a dubbing studio. Coupled with having the lived experience of non-metros, with its distinctive lehejas (affectations) and rhythms, it was a combination that dried-up, dessicated Bollywood was ready for.
There’s something else that makes Irrfan stand out from his contemporaries: he has found both acclaim and roles in the West, with at least a couple of parts that have been substantial, if not impactful. The late, great Om Puri had made a dent in productions outside of the country, as has Naseerudin Shah. But Irrfan has the big studios, and the franchises, like no one else. He was a villain in The Amazing Spiderman (2012), almost a bit part which he claimed he enjoyed doing. Then there was another, equally tiny role in Jurassic World (2015).
A bigger one has him play an investigating policeman in Michael Winterbottom’s 2007 A Mighty Heart, on the Daniel Pearl abduction, co-starring Angelina Jolie. And the pearl in his crown, Ang Lee’s 2012 Life Of Pi, in which he plays the older version of Pi. But for all the joy that must have been his, just by being part of the legendary Lee’s cast, Pi Sr isn’t Irrfan at his best. You can see him working to a plan, which doesn’t quite limn his actorly qualities.
It is with The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s moving novel of immigration, loneliness, and belonging, that Irrfan found his crossover triumph. For a non-Bengali to master those subtle tics characteristic of a true ’50s Bengali gentleman, is quite a challenge, and Irrfan aces them all, from the accent to gestures. An almost imperceptible tilt of the head, denoting goodbye, to his wife (played by Tabu, who is very good too, but not as successful at internalising the Bengali-ness) is spot-on: no demonstrative hugs or kisses, just that little sideways tilt of the head, and you know that a farewell has been made by Ashoke Ganguli, to his dearly beloved wife, Ashima.
“When I was casting for Ashoke Ganguli, Irrfan was the first and only call I made. When he came to America with Tabu, it was his first time (and hers). I introduced them to Jhumpa’s parents, Amar and Pia. His character was modelled on Amar. They spent time with the family. The way Irrfan brings all that into Ashoke — that tentativeness of stepping into a new space, finding his way into the character… the massive Bengali community in greater New York that welcomed them, and from where we got the authenticity,” says Nair.
The other film which brought him global fame was Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2012), in which he plays Saajan Fernandes, a middle-aged widower, who finds a revival of his drooping spirits in the fragrant tiffin box which appears on his desk one day. Clearly, the tiffin box is meant for someone else, but the connection it forges between the sender, a lonely housewife called Ila, and the receiver, makes it absolutely right. And Irrfan plays it just right, too, making it a role for the ages.
No dearth of those, actually. Anup Singh’s Qissa (2014), has one of the most unusual, beautifully realised lead roles any actor can be privileged to play. A moody, atmospheric tale set in post-Partition India features a landowner, who has come to the Indian side. His burning desire to father a male heir, his relationship with his wife, who can only give birth to girls, and the fourth and final offspring, whom he insists on celebrating as a boy, is a wonderful exposition of gender, sexuality and patriarchy, exquisitely performed by Irrfan, Tillotama Shome and Rasika Duggal.
Love, or something like it, becomes, in Irrfan’s versatile hands, a feeling to savour. One of the loveliest lovers he plays is in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (2015), starring Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone. He starts on the periphery, and then finds himself getting increasingly drawn towards Padukone’s shirty young Piku. It is a winning performance, with a pleasing, sideways quality to it, and as always, he makes the film better.
Irrfan’s awkward-but-sincere lover gets another airing in Tanuja Chandra’s winsome romcom Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017). His pairing with Parvathy is mint-fresh, and the relish with which he bites into the part of the unclassy but full-of-heart lover, trying to find his way to his partner, is quite delightful. It’s an unvarnished, easy performance, which helps us get past some irritating contrivances. It is Irrfan doing his thing.
And that’s really the thing. He is one of those actors who keeps us watching. He lifts weak material and turns it bearable. In Madaari (2016), Irrfan’s character says, “Kapde, lattey, shakal soorat sab sava sau karod jaisi hai, kaise dhoondoge mujhe (My clothes, face, everything about me is like a million others, How will you find me)?”
He needn’t have worried. We find him and keep him. Everytime we see him.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines