By Kaif Siddiqui and Taha Bin Tasneem
As if the year 2020 hadn’t been disastrous enough, the 29th of April brought with it the utterly heartbreaking news of the legendary Indian actor Irrfan Khan’s demise. On Wednesday, a day after he was shifted to a Mumbai Hospital, and four days after his mother’s death in Jaipur, the actor left this world, leaving behind a legacy and an illustrious career, spanning almost three decades. People all across the world took to social media to express their condolences.
Irrfan’s Humble Beginnings
Irrfan (originally Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan) was born to a humble family in Jaipur. The starry-eyed little boy who would go on to become one of the finest actors to star in Indian and international cinema originally had dreams of becoming a sportsman. In fact, Irrfan’s passion for sports earned him a CK Nayudu Tournament selection for emerging players as a stepping stone to first-class cricket in India.
Unfortunate as it would seem to him back then, a lack of funds stopped him from turning up for the tournament. Of course, it was only fortunate for the film industry that he completed his MA and joined the National School of Drama (NSD) in 1984. Around 1992, Irrfan moved to Bombay to begin his acting career by working in numerous television serials.
By the late 1990s he began working in Bollywood films. He acted in many films which went unnoticed. It was in 2001 that he was offered a role in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001) that he began making his mark. He became a known face after The Warrior opened in international film festivals. He then also worked in a short film by Ashvin Kumar which managed glowing international reviews. And since then his acting career has only flourished.
Irrfan then went on to win 4 Filmfare awards, an Asian Film award, and National Film award. He was also honoured with the Padma Shri in 2011.
Irrfan has won critical acclaim for movies like The Namesake (2006) and Paan Singh Tomar (2010). His other famous movies include The Lunchbox (2013), Piku (2015), and Talvar (2015). He has also starred in Hollywood films The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Life of Pi (2012), Jurassic World (2015), and Inferno (2016).
Irrfan: The Artist and his Art
The relationship between the art and the artist always fascinates. The art speaks for itself, but there is always some of the artist in there. For an actor, sometimes, their choice of roles reveals who they are as a person; and at the same time, there is something beautiful about watching an actor completely immerse themselves into their art – each role being completely different from the one before.
And after they pass, the art is what lives on. What does Irrfan’s wonderful tapestry of unforgettable performances say about him? What do we see in them, now that he’s gone?
One of them is his short but memorable role in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider (2014) – the mysterious “Roohdaar” (translated to “of the soul” in Urdu) – who famously says, “Darya bhi main, Darakht bhi main.. Jhelum bhi main… Chinar bhi main…” ending with “Main tha, main hoon, aur mai hi rahunga…” This character remains shrouded in enigma, throughout the movie, to the audience as well to the protagonist. But it is Irrfan’s performance that makes it so – adding to the aura, the otherworldliness of the character. Looking at those words now, we see them take on a new meaning. It is the artist speaking to us through the art, even after he’s gone.
The beauty of his acting, therefore, lay in its subtlety. Rarely ever loud or dramatic, his characters were mostly on the quieter side. He spoke with his eyes, with his expressions, and his mannerisms, equally at home with tragedy and comedy. Despite the dazzling variety of his roles, perhaps what made him so endeared to the masses was the fact that they seemed believable. You could meet someone like them. There was nothing over-the-top or dramatic about them. Perhaps they also had an element of familiarity, for some.
One such role is his masterfully understated one as Saajan Fernandes in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2015). The Lunchbox is as anti-Bollywood as a film could possibly be – it is a quiet, gentle tale over love blossoming out of nothing but exchanged letters. Through his character, who appears to be an unglamorous, middle-aged office worker, Irrfan explored a kind of love that was closer to real-life – something that you could feel, but you wouldn’t need to openly express it. It would just be there. This film saw him share screen space with another fine actor of his generation, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, which was every bit as delightful as it was hoped to be. One could say that Irrfan was ahead of his time. He, in a sense, paved the way for actors like Nawazuddin to shine, often doing roles and movies that were unconventional, offbeat, different from traditional commercial blockbusters, roles that were thought-provoking, yet never failing to be entertaining. In this sense he will always be remembered as one of the pioneers of a different kind of cinema; one that bridged the gap between “parallel” / “arthouse” cinema and the big blockbusters. As he himself put it once: “I want to entertain people but with some substance!”
Time and time again, Irrfan proved that he was a master of his craft, in conveying complex emotions through his characters. One of his most distinctive traits was his wry sense of humour, which showed up repeatedly in his characters, especially the humorous ones. The way he delivered his lines – from the witty to the sarcastic, was in a class of its own, as was his screen presence.
Before the camera, Irrfan’s performances appeared to look effortless. His role in Piku (2015) is another fine exploration of emotions and feelings that is grounded in reality, mixed up with a lot of humour. His Paan Singh Tomar (2010) is a story of how an army-man athlete turned into a rebel outcast. His oft-forgotten role in Billu (2009) saw him star with none other than Shah Rukh Khan himself and give a brilliant performance as always.
A careful choice of scripts and great amounts of research and dedication to each role he played makes almost each one stand out. His preparation for his roles often went to great extents, and like any true artist, he always felt strongly about his work. Mira Nair, director of The Namesake (2006), said that Irrfan, who played a Bengali character in the film, went “so deep into the accent that we had to pull it back”. She further added “Irrfan really works hard. If he needs any help, any crutches he can see, he grabs it, then he distils it and takes it to another level.”
Irrfan will also forever be remembered as the star who was the face of India to the world stage, being arguably one of the most well-known Indian actors at the international level, from roles in Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Jurassic World and Inferno. Yet, despite achieving fame at this level, one is amazed at his commitment to his art – he rejected offers from directors like Christopher Nolan (for Interstellar) and Ridley Scott (for The Martian) only because he wanted to give his full effort to the movies he was then working on back home. One sees the mark of a true artist in him, in the feelings he expressed about working on 2012’s superhero film The Amazing Spider-Man, in which his role was cut short by the production company, which he described as something he ‘doesn’t even want to talk about’. One can only imagine the amount of passion he must have put into each and every role. Another quote from his films which has taken on a new significance is this, from Life of Pi— “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
In 2018, Irrfan developed neuroendocrine cancer at a time when he was arguably at the peak of his career. He returned to India after an 8-month long battle with cancer. Just days before he finally lost his life to a colon infection, his mother departed from the world, and with the prevailing lockdown situation, he was not even able to attend the funeral proceedings, having to manage with video calls. His last film was Angrezi Medium (2020), for which he was unable to participate in promotional activities.
The outpouring of grief that is on display is a testament to his enduring appeal as an actor, performer and entertainer that transcended barriers across the world. Colin Trevorrow, who directed him in Jurassic World, in a tweet, called him “a thoughtful man who found beauty in the world around him.”
The following is the statement that has been shared by his team:
“I trust, I have surrendered”; These were some of the many words that Irrfan expressed in a heartfelt note he wrote in 2018 opening up about his fight with cancer. And a man of few words and an actor of silent expressions with his deep eyes and his memorable actions on screen. It’s saddening that this day, we have to bring forward the news of him passing away. Irrfan was a strong soul, someonewho fought till the very end and always inspired everyone who came close to him. After having been struck by lightning in 2018 with the news of a rare cancer, he took life soon after as it came and he fought the many battles that came with it.
Surrounded by his love, his family for whom he most cared about, he left for heaven abode, leaving behind truly a legacy of his own. We all pray and hope that he is at peace. And to resonate and part with his words he had said, “As if I was tasting life for the first time, the magical side of it”.
One hopes he is watching all the people whose lives he touched and the love they’re sending, and that he is at peace. One hopes that he has found comfort from all the pain that he suffered from during the last years of his life, and that wherever he is, he is in a better place.