It is strange how an inchoate, intuitive idea of the person we see on screen – and in interviews and profiles – crystallises into an indelible imprint when he is gone. The sense of being left personally bereft by a star’s passing is rare in the cynical world of film journalism. I feel the same sense of loss I did when Smita Patil died so young, a woman I had never met, except on the screen. I feel the same today. The integrity of his performance – whether a cameo in a Hollywood film or the fond father of Angrezi Medium – translates into the integrity of Irrfan the man. A consummate actor, who made us smile, laugh, cry and empathise with, has to have a core of integrity. “A good actor has to be a good person” is what Om Puri said, when I interviewed him for my book on Smita. It is something I have never forgotten. It applied to Irrfan as much as it did to Smita.
Just a few, weeks ago, the trailer of Angrezi Medium’s trailer left us chorusing ye dil maange more, especially when Irrfan appealed to his audience to wait for him. And we waited for him, in anticipation of his unique brand of seamless spontaneity. Like a new gourmet dish from a master chef, a new bouquet from a designer perfumier, a new painting from a well-known atelier.
Irrfan’s impact was far from any textbook definitions of acting. When we saw him on screen, it was difficult to say where acting began and living-the-character ended. There was such beguiling ease in his presence, nothing contrived or worked hard at. If he followed method acting, you didn’t see the nuts, bolts and rivets of the craft. He was just Champak, the doting small time mithaiwala who would do anything for his daughter; Raj Batra, relocating from an assured status in Chandni Chowk to snooty south Delhi, again for his little daughter in Hindi Medium. In the process, he redefined fatherhood that radiated undemanding, unconditional love for a daughter.
Whether by design or accident, both films made the father-daughter bond central, defying patriarchy that puts a premium on the son. Irrfan brought affection, humour to his character that was often self-deprecating, and stood out for its sheer like ability even when he is conning the slum-dwellers that he is one of them. One fell in love with him because of his flaws, not in spite of them. Irrfan’s naturalness and relationship with cousin-cum-rival Deepak Dobriyal rescued Angrezi Medium from some of its embarrassing glitches. Dobriyal is perfect as the comic-comrade-in-arms who is a rascal out to cheat but has the propensity to spill the truth when drunk. Which he is, every evening in the company of Champak and another friend who plies a tourist bus. The duo’s misadventures when they reach Heathrow, and are separated from Champak’s darling daughter, who alone can speak English, strain our credulity – even if they do make you laugh at the moment. It’s the kind of laughter that makes you immediately question your response. There is just an element of plausibility of such things happening to Indians whose understanding of English is imperfect to put it mildly but the exaggeration kills it. A good idea that doesn’t have the elasticity to be stretched out so far. What saves Angrezi Medium is Champak’s love for his daughter Tarika (Radhika Madan) even when misunderstandings and her new found sense of independence causes a temporary breach. Irrfan is so reliable and relatable that he makes many implausible situations probable. It is his Midas touch that makes the film unmissable.
Another recent film where Irrfan made eccentric charm all his own was as the self-obsessed (yet capable of detachment on occasion) Yogi of Qarib Qarib Singlle.
The quirky movie about two older people in search of friendship, and probably romance, was engaging at various levels. Jaya, the sedate widow, who is everybody’s standby, chooses to meet Yogi on a whim when surfing idly on a dating site. At their first meeting, which is not at all cute in terms defined by the genre, Yogi comes on too strong to Jaya’s discomfiture and is rather sneaky in the way he gets her number. Despite the near disastrous first meeting, Yogi not only disarms the justifiably suspicious Jaya but us as he unpeels layers of his personality – self-confidence, the talent to spout his own and others’ shairi with aplomb, and sheer niceness to people he meets on the trip he challenges Jaya to take with him. Like Jaya, we are ready to travel with him to meet his exes. The fact that Sutapa Sikdar, Irrfan’s wife, is producer of this unusual romance, perhaps says something of her conviction in Irrfan’s ability to charm.
As the third wheel in the journey from Delhi to Kolkata in Piku, Irrfan played a character who was curious, irritated and genuinely concerned about the exasperating father-daughter duo that can drive most people up the wall. From distance to involvement is a process that Irrfan’s rationality made credible.
We saw cynicism mellowing under the forced intimacy of a long, exhausting road trip (dictated by the bowel movements of the constipated father) to offer home remedies for the affliction with a straight face. This ability to maintain a straight face in a comic situation was a blessing he was born with.
Then there was Irrfan the actor inhabiting characters who were grim and serious, like the soon-to-retire Saajan Fernandes, who is congenitally churlish to his colleagues and more particularly to his eager, rather ingratiating replacement Shaikh played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. It lay bare the layers of his vulnerability. The key to the mellowing is a lovingly prepared lunch box that reaches him when the famed dabbawalas of Bombay make a mistake. The Lunch Box w as a gem of writing, direction and of course impeccable acting. Some routine films get by with standard acting but exceptional films demand equally exceptional acting to make it memorable. This was as true of Piku as The Lunch Box.
When it came to gravitas, Irrfan made seeming immobility eloquent – from the trusted right hand man of the Don, whose empire holds sway over Mumbai’s power structure, to the uneasy murderer urged on by his lover and finally the guilt-ridden anti-hero waiting for the inevitable end in a hallucinatory fog in Maqbool, Vishal Bharadwaj’s first Shakespeare adaptation.
A different quietude surrounded Irrfan in The Namesake. Ashoke Ganguly carries with him all the small and big hesitations of a first generation immigrant. He retains Bangla cadences in his spoken English. Gentleness defines him – in his relationship with wife Ashima and the eccentrically named son Gogol who has to come to terms with his dual heritage. Verbally reticent, Ashoke conveys his emotions more through his absence and recollections by the family after his death. It is a nuanced interpretation of a man who often retreats into the shadows.
And then there was the shock of a diabolically scheming husband in Blackmail. It was a completely noir narrative, with no compromises made to lighten the edges of adultery, carefully plotted revenge- murders passed off as accidents (some are bizarre accidents). Dev Kaushal is a salesman of toilet paper and the office scenes of newer, effective ways of selling their product are a riot. Dev is the typical bored married man – dissatisfied with his job and his marriage. The film springs into action when Dev finds his wife is having an affair with an ex-boyfriend who is beholden to his wife – rich, tantrum throwing diva indulged by her wealthy father. The bizarre circle grows surreal. Dev imagines and discards many scenarios – killing the lover, his wife et al – before deciding on blackmailing the adulterous pair for paying off his EMIs first and then for the thrill of it. His impassive face and deferential manner towards the asinine boss hide a scheming mind that plays the end game with calculated finesse. In a noir thriller, we often don’t identify with anyone but here, the writing and Irrfan’s idiosyncrasies have us rooting for him, to not get caught in the web of his own making.
Looking back at his career, his first major role as the soldier-turned dacoit of Paan Singh Tomar signalled that we have a major actor who lives the role written for him. From the pride of being a soldier who represented his country as an athlete to bitter disillusionment with the uncaring, corrupt establishment is a harrowing journey Irrfan takes us through. He made us feel empathetic, angry and sad as he gave us glimpses of a ravaged soul. It won him his first National Award as Best Actor.
It is a cliché to say that good actors get under the skin of the character. Some let us into the process consciously; most conceal the process to give us the pleasure of performance. With Irrfan, it was neither. It was as if we were meeting an individual who we know instinctively, get a peek into his mind, and share his feelings with the sort of natural empathy that leads us to identification with him. It was as if we have come across an old friend after years of losing contact. Recognition followed by affection.
That was our journey with Irrfan. He went too soon. He was just 53. We will miss him, the brilliant actor, and the good human being.