gor kis diljale kī hai ye falak
shola ik sub.h yaañ se uThtā hai
– Mir Taqi Mir
Which spurned lover’s grave is this sky
Each morning a ball of fire ascends here high
This famous sher of Mir is a quintessential actor’s couplet. Each time an actor takes to task, like a spurned lover he has to prove all over again, and not just prove but shine like the sun in the sky. And no one embodied this better than Irrfan - a quintessential actor, an eternal aiyyaar, a reference guide for fellow actors, who outshone himself each time. Left people marvelling at his craft.
In coming days much will be written about him, his work will be showcased, and a general sense of loss and mourning will prevail throughout the country and even across the world wherever he left a mark with his work. A great artist, like great art, has the ability to turn something universal into something very personal and visceral. Irrfan had that ability. When navigating through a scene, a dialogue, he would bring to fore something physical, something very corporeal, and the performance would hit the audience straight like a bull’s eye, like a spear through one’s chest.
How Irrfan Turned Me into a Peeping Tom
I have no great claim on Irrfan. There are far more worthy people who’ve worked with him, spent time with him intimately, known him deeply both personally and professionally to write insightfully about him. My interaction with him is limited to a handful of professional meetings and a couple of informal interactions. But I can say for sure he was a poetry lover, and he would have completely endorsed the Mir couplet I quoted. I will only mention few of the moments that left an indelible mark on me as a fellow actor, and his kindness that touched me as a fellow human being fortunate enough to experience his company.
The first time I noticed Irrfan was in a Doordarshan serial in 1990s. It’s four in the morning in the US, and all details of the serial escape me. Please forgive me for that. All I remember is that it was an adaptation of some short story. Irrfan is a voyeur who happily peeps at a married woman in the neighbourhood. There’s a scene when he is hiding and watching the woman. It’s a silent scene but the look on his face brought the same dry throat and swallowing of the saliva feeling in the young me. A feeling I was too familiar growing up. The rush of adrenaline on seeing a naked female body.
This is what I mean when I say he stirred something visceral within you. Suddenly, it was not about Irrfan’s character being the Peeping Tom, I became the Peeping Tom.
Irrfan Was a Master Storyteller
As an actor he magnificently opened the scene pulling, drawing every audience member and creating a meta Irrfan. We all were the character Irrfan in that moment. A great storyteller is one that makes the story an audience’s story. Like a great Czech playwright once said, every great drama is audience’s story playing on the stage. And Irrfan was a master storyteller who through his body, his expressions, his gestures brought the story, the moment alive within his audience members. And the story, the moment lived forever in his audience.
When I started watching Maqbool, I was curious to see one scene in particular. The scene where Macbeth sees blood everywhere. It was a terrace scene in Maqbool. And boy, it was sheer poetry! The blood came alive in each and every crevice in the floor on that terrace. It was a breathtaking portrayal of Macbeth. I do not remember how many times I have rewound that scene on my old DVD and watched it. I am sure Vishal Bhardwaj can vouch the genius of that scene.
Irrfan’s Ability to Turn the Mundane Into Sublime
There’s a scene in Mira Nair’s The Namesake where Irrfan goes to a public booth and makes a phone call to Tabu complaining about his stomach ache. The scene has an air of impending doom. A sense of foreboding. We all know as audience member’s what is coming. But Irrfan magically turns the scene into a cry of despair in every audience member’s heart. Like fingers crossed, lips pursed, a whole universe praying lord please, please, please let not this happen. In that moment Irrfan becomes every father we do not wish to lose ever.
There’s a scene in Lunchbox where he discovers a letter in the lunchbox, and then for a brief moment he lifts his head up and darts his glance around the room to check if someone else has noticed the letter or not. That scene is a quintessential lover’s moment - part unbridled excitement, part guilt, part sheepishness, part uncertainty, part opening a Pandora’s box on the self, part Phoenix-like discovery of the self again from the ashes. And Irrfan, in a split second, brings all these complex emotions to the fore. Like a Momin couplet it arrests your heart forever.
tum hamāre kisī tarah na hue
varna duniyā meñ kyā nahīñ hotā
– Momin Khan Momin
You couldn’t be mine in anyway
Else what wouldn’t have happened in this world
There are countless moments that one can recall. I will sign off with one last. There’s a scene in Hindi Medium where he is watching a mindless Hindi soap opera. It’s a passing shot and he like most of us opinionated TV watchers is articulating his disappointment with the character’s reaction. In that one moment he brings alive the whole cultural gaze of three and a half decades of Hindi TV serial watching in this subcontinent. The moment is a marvel in cultural-social history of our popular entertainment consumption.
Irrfan’s Insistence on Doing Things Differently
But the most endearing interaction I had with him was over a dinner party where he is talking about his days in Tonk, the hunting expeditions in younger days, the decadent Nawabi culture, and so on and so forth. I was sitting and listening to his tales in palpable discomfort, unsure of what to make of his tales when suddenly his face turns into anguish, into pain, as he denounces hunting and killing of wildlife for sport. I had seldom seen such pain. Like his acting it became visceral. The pain of the dying animal became real, and Irrfan the person became endearing forever for me that day.
Those who have worked with him say he was forever willing to try something else when a scene was given to him. Never content with what he has immediately performed. Reminds me of a Ghalib couplet that is a perfect epitaph for him.
huī muddat ki 'ġhālib' mar gayā par yaad aatā hai
vo har ik baat par kahnā ki yuuñ hotā to kyā hotā
– Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
It’s a while since Ghalib’s been dead but still stirs the memory
The insistence what will happen if it were to play this way on every statement
With a very heavy heart I go off to sleep Irrfan Bhai hoping I see you in my dreams in a place much better than this world of ours. You’ll be dearly missed.
(Danish Husain is an actor, poet, storyteller, and a theatre director. He tweets @DanHusain. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)