Why Birthday Boy Irrfan Khan Is the Greatest Actor We Have Today
Ranjib Mazumder argues that Irrfan Khan’s acting prowess stands unmatched in Bollywood today. Don’t you agree?
In one of the many outbursts of Bhaskor (Amitabh) in Piku, there is a scene in which he accuses Rana (Irrfan) of heartlessness for placing his father on ventilator. Piku with its understated narrative gives Rana moments of silence while making his eyes remember buried grief. While he slowly walks out of the room, the character slowly walks into you, with the grace of an actor we are privileged to see on our screen.
Also, consider the recently released but criminally under-distributed, Qissa, in which Umber Singh raises his fourth daughter as a son, displaying a fatal conviction. Irrfan playing the father balances his inner turmoil and outer certainty so fiercely that he makes you convinced that in the system of patriarchy, even the man is trapped.
Or just look at Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake. Our actors are known for moving in and out of their accent with scant respect for authenticity, but Irrfan moves with a deeply studied Bengali accent and body language, making you live through the character’s fears and doubts with subtle but assured strokes of tenderness.
Talking about Irrfan Khan, it’s almost impossible not to be overburdened with adjectives. How does he really do it? If we consider his career so far, it’s apparent that he can play just about anything,irrespective of its moral paradigm, an aspect that makes most of our heroes coil up in fear. He acts with an ease as if he inhabits a body that doesn’t really belong to him, he waits for characters to take over his body, and reveal their emotional range through dialogues or measured silences. He shows us that acting is not dressing up, it’s about stripping bare, about speaking lines as if they aren’t part of a script but a part of oneself. Even if there aren’t any words, his eyes would do just fine.
The tradition of acting in Hindi cinema which owes its origins to nautanki gharana has over the years evolved into something of a hyper reality. The dramatic devices have always made our world black and white, characters larger than life, and stories hardly life-like,transporting us to a realm of alternative realism. To be fair, it would be unfair to expect actors to rise above the material; which is why we mostly have stars, not actors.
Dilip Kumar was the first one to wipe out the general lack of insight about human behaviour in our cinema. Balraj Sahni, Naseeruddin Shah and a few others followed his footsteps, and made characters believable on screen. And with Irrfan, perhaps the spring is in full bloom. His range, his diversity, and the fearless thirst to take on anything that offers him something challenging makes him almost invincible among the current crop of actors in Hindi cinema. He stands like the Colossus of Rhodes amongst his peers, the dwarfs. The only actor who perhaps can be equated with Irrfan’s dramatic scope is Tony Leung Chiu-wai, the Hong Kong star known to the world for his acting, unlike the action figure exports. Both actors can move from big budget flamboyance to art house mournfulness without missing a step. We know what you are thinking, we are not counting Daniel Day-Lewis here; he is an alien.
The real pleasure of Piku is watching Irrfan between two stars, acting as the perfect foil. Like his earlier escapades, he is always a character in a story, never a face-twitcher with manufactured emotion to elevate a film. He is forever rooted in reality, unbelievably desirable or absolutely despicable, but always attainable.
(The writer is a journalist and screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on May 14th, 2015. It is being republished in order to mark the actor’s birthday.)
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