In 2017, I graduated from film school after two rigorous years of critiquing Indian mainstream cinema and the endless boycotting of the commercialisation of the narrative – and I found myself knocking on the very same gates that I had vowed to never cross – Bollywood. I started work as a writer and joined filmmaker Sudhir Mishra who was shooting a series at the time. And there I was, among 250 odd people crowding the set, sitting behind a camera, watching Mishra directing a legend – Irrfan Khan.
The iconic actor, who breathed his last on 29 April, 2020, dropped his last name sometime back, and simply wanted to be known as ‘Irrfan’ – so, that’s how we’ll address him too.
I was on the sets to work on writing a different project with Mishra during the film breaks, which basically meant that, for a novice like me, I had all the opportunity and time to watch Irrfan perform.
I saw before my eyes an actor appreciating the performance of his co-actors, creating space for everyone in the scene, and withdrawing into himself – almost reluctant to create a ‘spectacle’.
One day during shoot, there was a scene where Irrfan's character was to meet delegates from Africa, and Irrfan showed up in indigenous Kenyan attire, much to everyone’s surprise. It wasn't part of the script, but it worked very well for the scene.
‘Irrfan Was Man In Search of Beauty, Meaning and a Connection With the Universe’
I remember that Sudhir Mishra was in awe of Irrfan’s smile and his brutal honesty. He told The Quint, “Irrfan was a man in search of beauty, meaning and a connection with the universe.” This strife can be said to be at the heart of all of Irrfan’s performances, through a combination of suddenness and pauses, which brings about an element of surprise – not only for the viewers but also for the other actors involved in the scene.
Seeing this in front of my eyes took me back to the time when I had heard a story about the shoot of Haasil (2003), where Jimmy Shergil was performing with Irrfan in a scene, and Jimmy only had his dialogues with him; he had no clue about what Irrfan’s dialogues were, and no cues, therefore.
This element of surprise worked because of Irrfan’s capability as an actor, knowing full well the pacing of the emotions in the scene, and thus, creating a ‘space’ for Jimmy to perform.
This is what Irrfan was a master of, and I was seeing it happening before my eyes. What he was doing through this ‘reluctance’ (to ‘performance’) was a complete assimilation of the filming process. An actor almost becomes a prop, where performance ceases, but it fits perfectly with the landscape of the film. This project had to be discontinued because of Irrfan’s sudden illness, but in those few days of shoot, I saw the ‘star’ who is also the ‘stardust’. The difference between the two being that the spectacle of stardust is in the dispersing, whereas the glory of a star is in the reflection; once the reflection stops, the star ceases to be one, but the stardust multiplies.
Irrfan’s Art of ‘Reluctance’
For decades, Indian actors have been following an exhibitionist approach, especially in the mainstream, because it is an icon-driven industry. Not only does a star perform for the camera, the camera also ‘performs’ for the star. Irrfan managed to break through this excess. This approach is exemplary in The Lunchbox (2013), where his character Sajaan Fernandes lives a mechanical life, almost reluctant to enjoy it, and comes across a letter from an unknown person through a mis-delivered lunchbox everyday.
The way he holds the letter while eating, a bit hesitant but also letting go of the reluctance of joy he has grown used to – it’s a mature, graceful, vulnerable character who makes his own choices and sticks to them, no matter how hard it makes his life.
Watching the film in a theatre with a person I was in love with then, I could almost feel the taste of the food which Saajan was eating from the lunchbox. The performance was riveting. A contrasting performance to this would be his character in Paan Singh Tomar (2012) – an extremely emotional person who is pushed to the fall and fights back with accentuation. There’s a moment where a higher rank army officer asks Paan Singh to run and deliver an ice-cream before it melts; years later, when Paan Singh retires, the officer sends him an ice cream bar as a gift.
In the scene, Paan Singh is overcome with joy and tears – it’s his biggest ‘achievement’ – and the way Irrfan plays it, it’s his innocence that brings out the many shades of a character – who later on becomes a dacoit. And then, he uses it as a motif in the narrative during an interview as a dacoit, when he gets to know that German ice-cream is available at the nearby city; his outward facade changes, but his innocence remains.
Irrfan Embraced the Digital Medium
It took time for Irrfan to find acceptance of this style in the mainstream, and in this decade, he got to work on a host of mainstream films. In D-Day (2013), his character Wali Khan smiles and waves at his son, as his family enters the airport, a family which has no clue about his real identity.
A subtle reaction from the actor brings forth a duality within the character; a clash of identities. Flashes of this duality is also seen in his flamboyance yet subtlety in ‘Hindi Medium’ (2017), and ‘Qarib Qarib Single’ (2017).
Irrfan surprised everyone when he took part in several sketches by AIl India B*kc**d (AIB), specifically the ‘Party Song’, which not only mocks the use of so-called dance numbers or party songs in films, but also his own inability to participate in a certain kind of work. He was opening up to the digital medium and carrying forward his experiments in acting in the digital sphere which probably suited him the best, but then came an intervention. In 2019, Bhavesh Mandalia, the writer of Angrezi Medium (2020), told me stories about the script reading and shooting of the film in London at a time when Irrfan was under treatment for neuroendocrine cancer. Cancer affected every aspect of his life but he won the battle when it came to acting.
Irrfan Played Myriad Roles
Irrfan would read the lines of all other characters before reading his portions, and would often point out dialogues of other actors which could be developed. He would take a dialogue and improvise it with Deepak Dobriyal, playing the character of Gopi, often requesting Deepak to take the punch dialogue because it fit better with his character. This is the process of assimilation, which is prominent even in his international works. The brutal yet humble police officer in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the judge who decides to be a follower of law rather than succumb to political pressure, even though it means going against his fellow judges in the mini-series Tokyo Trial (on Netflix).
The Indian immigrant father who tries to understand his America born son in The Namesake (2006) or the father who decides to raise his daughter as a son and marries her off to a girl in Qissa (2013). Both the characters are fathers, both are vulnerable, insecure, but played differently – one questioning his own faith, while the other is acting with a certain foolhardiness.
Each of Irrfan’s characters is different from the other.
Some of his notable characters are in Talvar (2015), and Piku (2015) – and are etched in every viewer’s mind. His work opened up the gates for several Indian actors to work in the realm of such realism within the mainstream framework.
The Last Time I Saw Irrfan
The last time I went to Irrfan’s house was during a costume trial, where he was busy preparing for his character. He was altering his costumes to bring in shades of his character’s vulnerability and grace. Before leaving, I wanted to say goodbye to him but he was busy, and I did not want to disturb him.
I carried on, thinking I will reserve the greeting for another occasion. I regret it now even as quotable quotes by his character from Life of Pi (2012) fill my social media feed – where Pi talks about not taking a moment to say goodbye. I wish I had taken that moment. Farewell, Irrfan Sir.
(The writer is a screenwriter and filmmaker based out of Mumbai. He can be reached at email@example.com. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark actor Irrfan's death anniversary.)