He doesn’t throw his weight around, does not drum up pr blitzkriegs about himself and is not hungry to see his name in the headlines every morning . But silently, slowly, without drawing too much attention to himself, Irrfan Khan has become an industry unto himself – part mainstream, part commercial, always exemplary.
A few weeks before he made the disturbing revelation of suffering from a ‘rare disease’, Irrfan Khan spent half a day with MW at an empty Mumbai restaurant for this cover story’s photography session. He seemed perfectly healthy and was in great spirits. The story and the accompanying photographs came out of that session, and the print version of the magazine went to press much before he tweeted about his illness. We wish him the very best as he takes on this new challenge. – Editor
I have seen every Irrfan Khan film, but when I sit down to think about him, it will always be his character Roohdar’s entry sequence in Haider that comes to mind. That character, the ambiguous manifestation of Haider’s father’s spirit (Bhardwaj’s cinematic device for Hamlet’s father’s ghost) holds true for Khan’s presence in the movie industry as well. You may not see him all the time, but he is there – a towering presence with an enviable filmography and performances that deserve reverence. Even when he jovially participates in AIB videos for movie promotions, there is a sense of honesty in his performance that makes it believable and bearable.
Shirt, jumper and trousers all by Tommy Hilfiger; shoes by SS Homme
Even though he debuted in 1988 in Salaam Bombay!, it was only after Haasil and Maqbool released in 2003 that Khan was noticed. After a string of assorted (and forgettable films), he delivered quite a bipolar year in 2007, with the jackassery of Monty in Life in a…Metro on the one hand, and the sombre pathos of Ashok in The Namesake in the other. Life in a…Metro came as a surprise for the audience, because who would have thought that Khan would be the comic breath of fresh air in a film? Till then, all his film choices had been dark, complex and grimy. In Life in a…Metro, he was fresh and funny, human and connectable. The same can be said about Ashok. Since his debut, Khan had always played characters that were fringe elements, stirring only in the dark and behind shadows. While they were exciting – Haasil, Maqbool and The Warrior will forever be masterclasses in acting – it was in 2007 that Khan acquired a quality that every mainstream actor craves for – likeability.
Shirt and trousers by Sunil Mehra; Master Control Chronograph watch with a leather strap by Jaeger-LeCoultre
It is easy to understand why Khan had been dealt such a hand till then. Bollywood has always been very clear about the roleappearance dynamic. Good looking people play positive characters and the not-so-good looking play villains, policemen, gangsters and thugs – unless the leading man is such a character. The 2000s brought in narcissism and Photoshop, and regular looking actors, like Khan, definitely had a difficult time shining through in an industry riddled with familial connections and an obsession with beauty. Let’s be frank here: Khan is not a good looking man, and it is very difficult for regular looking people to find a footing in this industry. Quite honestly, supremely-talented-regular-looking-actors will always be exceptions, like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, for example. We might now accept Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana as leading men, but even then, they are the faces of “slice-of-life”, “content-driven” cinema – the celluloid world is still reserved for Greek gods.
Piku was Khan’s first outing as a mainstream lead and love interest, the older man with
a crackling chemistry with Deepika Padukone.
2007 changed our perception of Khan. After some smashing performances in Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Billu, New York and Saat Khoon Maaf, he knocked it out of the park with Paan Singh Tomar in 2012 and the globally-lauded The Lunchbox in 2013. In 2015, he delivered yet another fantastic pair of polar opposite performances in Qissa and Piku – the brooding and grisly Umber Singh in one and the rascally, rakish Rana Chaudhary in the other. Khan was perfect as Rana in Piku, the confused third party in an outrageous bowelobsessed triangle. Also, Piku was Khan’s first outing as a mainstream lead and love interest, the older man with a crackling chemistry with Deepika Padukone. While Piku might not have been the most mainstream of films itself, it was a sign that the times were changing. After Piku, he appeared in powerful roles in Talvar, Jazbaa and Madaari in 2016 and changed track completely with the hilarious – and very lovable – Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Singlle in 2017.
Trench coat by Burberry; shirt by Brooks Brothers; trousers by Tommy Hilfiger
Till Life in a…Metro, Khan allowed himself to be typecast. He was the drama school graduate – intense, powerful and dramatic. He gravitated towards fringe characters because the mainstream cinema of the early 2000s was mediocre and forgettable. Even in mainstream outings, he preferred darker shades, because they were the only roles written with any scope to perform. It is surprising that in a film like Life in a…Metro, Khan is the light-hearted one. It almost felt like he wanted to prove that he could go beyond the underbelly. I personally believe that the decision to do this film steered him away from becoming a Nana Patekar – an actor defined only by his intensity in dramatic roles, while his versatility remains ignored.
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With The Namesake, Khan flaunted his ability to be soft, sad, weak and human. We had not seen a vulnerable middle-class Khan before The Namesake – a regular man beset by regular problems. His hooded, heavy eyes, till then utilized for their menacing qualities to theatrical perfection, shone in this film with the small joys of life, marriage, secretive middle-class romance and later, loneliness and pain. His most memorable scene in The Namesake remains that deftly-directed phone call that Ashok shares with Ashima, moments before he passes away. These softer sensibilities came back in The Lunchbox, a film I am not particularly a fan of, but one that definitely flaunts Khan’s ability to perfectly understand characters and their desires. He explored comedy again in Piku and in Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Singlle last year, a genre that he might not have worked in much, but is definitely quite a pro at. But more on that later.
The 2000s brought in narcissism and Photoshop, and regular looking actors, like Khan, definitely had a difficult time shining through in an industry riddled with familial connections and an obsession with beauty.
These conscious decisions to do films that explore various facets of his personality and prowess is what sets Khan apart from his contemporaries, most of whom have become extremely comfortable in compartments. I have met and interviewed quite a lot of them, and I have come to realise that besides being a fabulous actor, Khan is also an extremely intelligent man. He astutely selects scripts, always pays attention to his role, and however short it might be, he is very conscious of its impact. Over the years, I have also seen him carve a public image which might give the impression of him being accessible, but he is, in reality, quite guarded about his personal life. So, while you might think that he is everywhere, from Syska LED ads to dank memes and sketches with AIB, do you really know anything about him?
I scratch my head trying to understand a large chunk of his film decisions. Since Maqbool, he has constantly been a part of projects that could not have come across as interesting, even on paper. Aan, Charas, Chocolate, Rog and Chehraa hit theatres (and bombed) between 2003 and 2007. After The Namesake, he was back to doing films like Sunday, Krazzy 4, Dil Kabaddi, Acid Factory, Right Ya Wrong and Hisss, till Paan Singh Tomar happened in 2012. It is only after Paan Singh Tomar that Khan has not picked up a single bad project. They might not have all been blockbusters, but they are not what-was-he-thinking in any way. And these films were decisions made by a man who has been, intermittently, starring in international projects since 2001. Maybe the argument is that everybody has to pay their bills, because what else could have been the motivation to do such films, I will never know.
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Speaking of international projects, Khan kicked off with the critically acclaimed and BAFTA-winning The Warrior, by Asif Kapadia, in 2001. But since then, other than The Namesake, none of his international roles have been meaty. While Shadows Of Time and Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart had him in forgettable roles, he was also equally ignored in The Darjeeling Limited and Slumdog Millionaire (which, to his credit, was too big an ensemble to remember anybody well). Hisss was a disaster, and neither The Amazing Spiderman nor Life of Pi gave him much to bite on. He tried to pull off Lex Luthor-like characters in Jurassic World and Inferno, failing to leave an impression. The problem lies in the fact that Khan is unabashedly desi. Hindi rolls off his tongue more easily than English, and he has always felt confined and stuffy in his English-speaking roles. It almost feels like he is unable to fathom how to emote in that language. And while he might have taken the baton to be the designated older brown guy in Hollywood movies from Om Puri and Anupam Kher, much like them, he is being given characters that are defined by their colour and name, and the exotic quality that adds to the fabric of the film’s experience. It is not like Hollywood or the UK has accepted the young guns either. Dev Patel is still either the computer nerd or the immigrant haunted by a past of exotic poverty, and Aziz Ansari – well, we shouldn’t talk about him these days, given that he might not have a career left to talk about. It would be hopeless to imagine that the US and UK would write roles for brown actors that go beyond eroticising third world grime and struggle (Priyanka Chopra is a glorious exception).
The man can make you giggle with a sly smile, a crisp retort or an eye roll (sometimes, even his bored glare is hilariously timed), his expressions coloured with a strong sense of arrogance and condescension. His height works to his benefit here, and he can make looking-downupon quite entertaining.
Having said that, in Inferno, Khan was able to infuse his character of the Provost with his personal brand of humour that everyone at home has come to fall in love with. His comedic outings (Life in a…Metro, Piku, Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Singlle) saw him hone a sense of humour unlike anybody’s in the industry. I struggle to describe it, but the apt way to put it would be “Punjabi-motherly”. His humour oscillates between calm, sarcastic, reed-dry delivery and agitated physical comedy. The man can make you giggle with a sly smile, a crisp retort or an eye roll (sometimes, even his bored glare is hilariously timed), his expressions coloured with a strong sense of arrogance and condescension. His height works to his benefit here, and he can make looking-down-upon quite entertaining.
On the other side of the spectrum is the motherly agitation, used to full glory in Piku and Life in a…Metro. Khan delivers a sidesplitting combination of frustration and helplessness, which is Patekar-ish, but less OTT. It feels more natural because he is not trying to make you laugh, but his natural reaction – one we have driven our mothers up the wall often enough to be at the receiving end of – is relatable and hence, extremely funny. When he deals with Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhashkor Banerjee, he is almost matronly – a common comedy archetype in Indian and western cinema. In Hindi Medium, he puts forth this same combination with an extra dollop of confusion (also, he is ably supported by Deepak Dobriyal). In Qarib Qarib Singlle, he updates his selfconfident rascal vibe from Life in a…Metro, making Yogi arrogant but sensitive, caustic but funny, pinching but never hurtful. In Inferno, he put his best dry humour foot forward and it remains, possibly, his most memorable international performance.
The interesting question now is what next for Irrfan Khan? He has already proven himself as possibly the finest actor of this generation. Is direction and producing on the cards? Is he ambitious enough to become more than an actor? Does he want to become a global megastar, like fellow Khans Shah Rukh and Aamir, men who are exactly as old as he is? Or is he satisfied and content to focus on acting milestones, a BAFTA or an Oscar, perhaps? We will just have to wait and find out. Till then, watching him on screen will always be a pleasure.
PHOTOGRAPHER: ROHAN SHRESTHA | ART DIRECTOR: AMIT NAIK | FASHION DIRECTOR: KUSHAL PARMANAND |
JUNIOR STYLIST: NEELANGANA VASUDEVA | HAIR: NAQI MOHAMMAD | MAKE UP: VIJAY SHIKARE |
LOCATION COURTESY: SU CASA, RECLAMATION, BANDRA WEST, MUMBAI.