It is difficult to write an actor’s obituary when everything you might want to say is already in the public domain. It becomes even more difficult when the actor in question is someone like Irrfan Khan, a rare gem in the history of Hindi cinema, a so-called supporting actor who rose to mainstream stardom, and played lead roles in commercially successful films like Hindi Medium (2017) and Piku (2015). Perhaps, only Irrfan could have done that. He created a path for others to follow — a path cemented with sheer hard work, relentless struggle and redoubtable performances.
A constant element to bemoan is the strange way in which stardom functions in Bollywood, where good looks are the definitive markers of a star; where mere acting prowess might make you a good supporting actor, at best. Irrfan could breach that formulaic construct.
His beginnings were far from comfortable. His struggle for recognition could inspire a film script. Many serials, art-house films, years of unending struggle in the unsparing metropolis that is Mumbai and, finally, things began to change for this actor with Haasil (2003) where he played a negative role.
If you look at Irrfan’s body of work, which spans student diploma films and television serials amongst other things, it is indicative of the most important thing that actors without a pedigree have had to learn in order to survive Mumbai: To wait. The art of waiting makes for a good teacher, perhaps.
Maybe, it is this act of waiting that further magnified his performances. He gave everything to his on-screen portrayals that all those years of waiting had taught him. Of course, lest we forget, behind the success of one Irrfan Khan, there still are many stories of failure — forever lost in the boulevards of Mumbai.
Even when Irrfan did succumb to Hindi film stardom, he ensured the script got elevated. In Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro (2007), he played a highly unimpressive character, but there is no way you wouldn’t fall for his innocence and boisterous charm. In The Lunchbox (2013), he made the mundane appears intriguing. And it’s hard to not absolutely detest him in Haider (2014). That is what he always did. Irrfan Khan was never Irrfan Khan on screen. He always became the character.
One cannot think of Ashoke Ganguly from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake without putting Irrfan’s face to the character. If one may dare to say so, Ganguly was fully realised on the screen because of what Irrfan brought into the character.
Irrfan’s success story is a testimony to his acting talent, which subverted box-office norms. His work abroad helped to further strengthen his prospects in the country. It is rather sad that some of our finest have to wait for Hollywood or Western validation to receive their rightful dues at home.
Can you think of Life of Pi (2012) without Irrfan? He is barely there in the film, which is otherwise dominated by a blitzkrieg of events and great visual effects, yet, it is his dialogues in the end that many left the theatre with.
There is a quote from Tom Hanks that has gone viral since the news of Khan’s demise spread on social media. Hanks refers to Khan as “the coolest guy in the room” and says he knows he can only be a pale imitation of him. That says something, and not just because Hanks is a big Hollywood star.
A lot of Irrfan Khan’s admirers and colleagues have said that the news of his death has left them “numb”. There’s no better word to articulate the sense of abandonment — of being unable to watch him light up the screen anymore.
This article was first published in the Indian Express Print by the title ‘He waited and won’. The writer teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune
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