Salaam Irrfan! A Warrior to the Last

Irrfan Khan’s story was quite a proverbial one, that of a struggler with dreams of stardom in his eyes.

7 min read
Irrfan Khan in <i>Maqbool</i>.

Clearly, he was hanging on by a slender thread. Yet, we had convinced ourselves he would be all-okay, back in the whirl, return to the camera -- globally and domestically. No illness, terminal or otherwise, could touch the actor. How could it? He may have died up there on screen many-a-times, that was make-believe. In real life, he couldn’t. No way.

He was ours, he couldn’t vanish like a fist does when you open your hand. Yet, despite all odds he had completed his protracted role in Angrezi Medium, crisscrossing between home and London. We couldn’t detect a wrong move, neither did he look frail as the doting father of a teenage girl. Nor did he convey the impression for a nano-second as if he had returned from a hospital bed to complete a project which he had promised to. And promises are kept by the brave-hearted.

Irrfan Khan with filmmaker Homi Adajania on the sets of <i>Angrezi Medium</i>.
Irrfan Khan with filmmaker Homi Adajania on the sets of Angrezi Medium.
(Photo Courtesy: Maddock Films)

The gone artiste, a peerless one, couldn’t attend his mother Saeeda Begum’s funeral in Jaipur last week. He must have shed his tears, locked down. If it was stress or sheer haplessness that caused the rush-back to the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, we’ll never know. Talk had circulated about his hospitalisation, talk was that his wife had asked the doctors not to prolong his agony, if he had to go, the plug would have to be pulled out. It was that morning.

Irrfan Khan’s story was quite a proverbial one, that of a struggler with dreams of stardom in his eyes, with a major difference. Out there in the Andheri-Oshiwara enclave of the city, thousands of aspirants don’t make the cut, so to speak, in the big Bollywood web. They go through brief walk-on parts, land up in TV series and are crushed when they’ve been left on the editing floor. Irrfan went through this and more.

Sarfu and Irrfan in a workshop for <i>Salaam Bombay </i>in 1987.
Sarfu and Irrfan in a workshop for Salaam Bombay in 1987.
(Photo by Sooni Taraporevala, 1987)

Hope had gleamed when he participated in the Barry John-conducted workshop for Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and was seen briefly in the film as a roadside letter-writer. TV serials in the pre-OTT era, became his go-to-address to earn a living. One of his co-actors Sabir Masani recalls, “He could deliver reams of dialogue in one long take which suited the units working under severe pressure to deliver a batch of episodes to Doordarshan. My jaw would drop, he would improvise on the spot and carry the mundane scripts to another level.”

Irrfan Khan as a roadside scribe in <i>Salaam Bombay.</i>
Irrfan Khan as a roadside scribe in Salaam Bombay.
(Photo by Sooni Taraporevala, 1987)

Initially, Irrfan’s most high-profile project was an artsy one, Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990), in the company of Dimple Kapadia and Shekhar Kapoor. Enacting the third end of the triangle – a semi-classical singer who disrupts the marriage – he was restrained to the point of going unnoticed.

That’s when I’d sought my first interview with him, and he had politely requested, “Please don’t make me out to be a villain. Or I could get hopelessly typecast,” and had smiled, “At least, I’ve got a break. Now it depends on whether Drishti connects with the discerning audience at least.”

In fact, Drishti is quite emblematic of his fringe-dweller phase. Close to a decade later, when his career began advancing, he dropped Khan and went by the name of Irrfan in the credit titles. The extra ‘r’ was added to Irfan, presumably for numerological reasons, a common rite in Mumbai showbiz.

Ironically, the name – Sahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan -- he was born with in a Muslim Pathan family – would sit perfectly on him today. No one can keep an actor of grit and determination down for too long. From Beach Residency, a Madh island apartment, he had moved to a cool interior-decored room in Oshiwara.

Sahabzaade, never mind the trappings of stardom, remained tentative and humility personified. When a photographer asked him to wear Ray-Bans and throw swag for a photo-session, he had laughed, “Arre, for once I’m being told to pose like a hero. I’m just an actor…take candids by natural light if you don’t mind.”

At Madh island, directors Sudhir Mishra and Ketan Mehta, and Deepti Naval were among the 53-year-old actor’s neighbours. Producer-director Anjali Bhushan, also a neighbour, remembers him as “a no-hassles guy..he would give quite a few sane inputs at the society meetings. He would be obsessive about two things: swimming in the pool regularly and spending time with his family.”

Irrfan Khan with his family.
Irrfan Khan with his family.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Married to Sutapa Sikdar, a fellow graduate from Delhi’s National School of Drama, the elder of their two sons, Babil, served as camera assistant on his father’s cross-country romedy, Qarib Qarib Singlle.

Unwaveringly, the actor was hungry for acknowledgement. Of his stock of approximately 80 features, the breakthrough was struck by the 2001 British short film The Warrior, directed by Asif Kapadia (who went on to win Best Documentary Oscar for Amy). At home, the sudden impact was struck with Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil (2003), in which Irrfan raised the bar of screen villainy in the role of a scourge of the politics-ridden Allahabad University.

A twist of fortune upped his market equity. Corporates in B-town which had been tight-fisted in bankrolling his lead-role films had to reverse their strategies. Aware that he’d become a factor to contend with, Irrfan frequently asked that he should be a part-producer of his projects. But of course, if an indie filmmaker had a terrific script, he was known to have waived away his fee entirely.

The Sahabzaada could never be pushy. Opportunity knocked. One of his finest opportunities to shine came with Mira Nair’s adaptation of The Namesake (2006). Irrfan as Professor Ashoke Ganguly and Tabu as his wife Asima, made for perfect casting. Evidently, Hollywood casting agents could sense that and both were cast for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012).

Irrfan’s acting style was patently low-key and laconic. His voice was close to a pressure cooker at low simmer, his eyes maintained a disconsolate gaze, his hair was often casually rumpled. And his body language could be flexible, from a languid gait to an athletic sprint. Underplaying paid. After all, in close-ups the camera can exaggerate every split-second of a facial flicker.

On occasion, though, as in Ritesh Batra’s deservedly lionised The Lunchbox (2016), Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the flamboyant office underling stole the scene away from Irrfan’s involuted, due-for-retirement Saajan Fernandes. It happens. Efforts were on to extract controversial statements from Irrfan, correctly he maintained a stoic silence.

Irrfan Khan with Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone in a promotional still for&nbsp;<i>Piku.</i>
Irrfan Khan with Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone in a promotional still for Piku.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Without a shred of doubt, Irrfan was at his best form with the more venturesome directors. Evidence: Tigmanshu Dhulia (Haasil followed up by Paan Singh Tomar, for which he won the Best Actor National Award and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, 2013), Vishal Bharadwaj (Maqbool, 2003;7 Khoon Maaf, 2011; Haider, 2014), Anurag Basu (Life in a Metro, 2007), Nishikant Kamat (Mumbai Meri Jaan, 2008) Sudhir Mishra (Yeh Saali Zindagi, 2011) and Shoojit Sircar (Piku, 2015)

Plus of course, there’s the impersonation of the Chandni Chowk nouveau-riche trader who strives for an upmarket status in Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium, the sleeper success of 2017.

Schooled for starters by decidedly atypical filmmakers, notably Basu Chatterjee (Kamla Ki Maut, 1989), Tapan Sinha (Ek Doctor ki Maut, 1990) and Mani Kaul (The Cloud Door, 1994), Irrfan’s filmography escapes any facile categorisation, simply because he has been accidentally ubiquitous, here there and anywhere. For instance, he portrayed unusual suspects in his forays during the late 1980s and early ‘90s in those TV series: Vladimir Lenin in Lal Ghaas Pe Neele Ghode and the Marxist political activist Makhdoom Mohiuddin in Kahkashan produced by the Urdu progressive poet Ali Sardar Jaffri.

The actor never made ideology his visiting card though. No political grandstanding, no acerbic comments on social media sites, no association with causes. Fair enough, politics wasn’t his scene, differentiating him from a sizeable lot of his generation of actors.

Tom Hanks with Irrfan Khan.
Tom Hanks with Irrfan Khan.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Vis-à-vis the Khan’s crossover to international famedom, he embedded a high-profile in topline pictures – ranging from A Mighty Heart (2007), The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Inferno (2016). This without any let-up in his commitments on home turf.

On an altogether personal note, how was Irrfan Khan off-screen? Quite inscrutable, I’d say. Polite but constantly on guard. He spoke only when spoken to. Perhaps to deflect controversies, to be politically astute and to remind himself, that there are no second chances in the pursuit of fame and fortune.

There’s one instance with Irrfan Khan though that I’m ashamed of. Totally guilty. I had approached him for a role opposite Tabu in my film titled Silsiilay (2005), as a businessman involved in an adulterous relationship. “What! You’re sending me back to the Drishti days!” he had guffawed, “But never mind. I’ll do it,” and had agreed on a token fee. As soon as I realised that the producer wasn’t even willing to pay him the tiny sum, I had no option but to avoid him.

On running into him at an event years later, he had asked, “What happened? I’m not such a bad actor, am I?” I had no answer, just like there’s no answer to --Sahabazade, why did you have to go away? Just like a fist does when you open your hand.

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark actor Irrfan Khan's death anniversary.)

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