The outpouring over Irrfan's passing has been extraordinary. The mourning has transcended age-group, gender and social class, the loss felt and expressed on such a personal and visceral level that it should rightfully bewilder. After all, despite being a film actor, he was not really a mass figure, not in the conventional sense. His most-loved and admired films are mostly “niche films”. He wasn’t a “youth icon” in the way those epithets are framed. And nostalgia played a much smaller part in feeling his loss (than it did, with say, Rishi Kapoor) – people weren’t mourning for older parts of themselves connected to the artist in his prime.
There have been bigger names in his field who have also died young. Kishore Kumar passed away at 58, Mohammed Rafi at 55, RD Burman at 54, Mukesh at 53, Madan Mohan at 51, Sanjeev Kumar at 47, Guru Dutt at 39, Meena Kumari at 38, Madhubala at 36 and Smita Patil at 31. Most of them had a considerable body of work already behind them, and so, despite being robbed of legitimate time, mourning in their context had more to do with their past work than future prospects (with the exception of Smita Patil and Guru Dutt). Maybe life expectancy has something to do with it as well; in 1965, life expectancy in India was 44.5. In 1985 it was almost 56; in 2020 it is almost 70. Despite being less relevant in privileged circles, it perhaps plays more than a small part in subconsciously framing societal expectation from individuals.
Irrfan passed away at 53, with 17 years in the limelight and 74 films since his breakthrough Haasil in 2003. With perhaps ten classics in that body of work, a strike-rate any actor worth his salt would proud of. As the only other true contender to the tag of “India’s greatest actor”, Naseeruddin Shah said, Irrfan chose his films well, as in the end, it is the quality of the films that define an actor’s legacy. And yet, it doesn’t do justice to Irrfan because he was that rare performer who was brilliant in almost everything he did, even if the film wasn’t special as a whole. His cameos in ensemble films like Life In A…Metro and Mumbai Meri Jaan were not just the best highlights within them, but as good as anything he ever did. His brief appearance in Life of Pi provided a memorably moving ending for many.
So, you have to look beyond his classic films or performances to judge him, beyond The Warrior, Haasil, Maqbool, The Namesake, Paan Singh Tomar, The Lunchbox, Qissa and Piku. You could actually go back to a television film he was in, in an anthology series (Star Bestsellers) called Ek Shaam Ki Mulaqat in 1999, where he gave an astonishing performance that merged extreme realism with delightful colour, which was absolutely unique in that era.
It gives a very early indication of a facility that helped him create his own genre as an actor, evident even in advertising commercials he did for Hutch/ Vodafone. Contrary to popular perception, however difficult it may be to imagine this in some cases, actors are usually the most replaceable elements in a film due to the vast variety of talent available. But it is actually impossible to imagine anyone else do a lot of the work that Irrfan, so strong was the individuality he stamped upon it.
But none of this still explains why his passing evoked the scale of loss it did. One obvious reason is his everyman persona, that made very diverse people relate to him for a realness that is perhaps even more valuable in the social media and mobile era.
But equally, there was a larger-than-life quality about him as well that he could slip into with the same conviction when required, where he could scale his persona as per demands (like he did with AIB, for example). Nor was his international stature built around his everyman persona.
Irrfan is, by a distance, India’s most successful crossover film artist till date, and he was really just getting started. Working with the likes of Ang Lee, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom, Wes Anderson and of course, Mira Nair, is one thing. Getting selected to play the male lead opposite Kelly MacDonald in a mature romantic film (Puzzle, a 2018 film) when an Indian or even Asian was not really required for the part, quite another (his performance was minimalistic, shorn of all tricks). Being a memorable part of Jurassic World and The Amazing Spider Man only added to his profile.
He was rapidly becoming the top-of-mind non-white/ non-black actor in the world today; it is now heart-breaking to hear Mira Nair mention that Alejandro Iñárritu was considering Irrfan as the lead for his new film.
This is the main reason why Irrfan’s passing is, without exception, the greatest loss in the history of Indian cinema till date. His enormous talent was still looking for worthy outlets, as he was still palpably hungry for new stories and expressions, far from the smugness that success inexplicably and almost invariably seems to breed in the Mumbai film fraternity. He was on the verge of acquiring an international clout that might have not just taken himself, but the indigenous film industry to a new level.
Irrfan’s once-in-a-generation quality as an actor seemed to centre around his eyes – the windows to not just his soul, but humankind’s.
It wasn’t as much about them being hooded or large, but how he centred every character uniquely through them without altering much else discernibly in a way that was awe-inspiring. This is what made that other national treasure and Irrfan’s role-model in his youth - Naseeruddin Shah, call Irrfan’s work process “totally invisible” in an exceptionally generous article, where he actually alluded to Irrfan being a superior actor.
Perhaps Irrfan’s enormous impact lay in something much more intangible – a magnetic force of empathy he could generate at will, that seeped into viewers and got under their skin. A force that seemed to invoke something greater than themselves, from within themselves. Risking an extreme fragility through the vulnerability of fierce seeking, which was unfailingly hypnotic in its effect.
To cite parallels from another space and time - much like musicians Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley, separated by two decades and opposite approaches in instrumentation and tone; two legendary and highly influential artists who died young, whose true value became clear more and more with passing time (closer home, Asheem Chakravarty of Indian Ocean is an example of that). Some call it “honesty” or “soul”, this strange drawing from an acute awareness of compassion and most significantly, mortality. It is strange how the most powerful force there is, is also taken for granted the most, until it goes missing.
(Jaideep Varma is a writer and director.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark actor Irrfan Khan's death anniversary.)
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