“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.”
I wrote that for Irrfan Khan’s last cover story before he was detected with cancer. Today, I am looking back at that piece and every word still rings true. There are people you never wish to write obits for. Khan was one of them.
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 films, he delivered quite a bipolar year in 2007, with the jackassery of Monty in Life in a…Metro on 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.
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 bowel-obsessed 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.
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.
With The Namesake, Khan flaunted his ability to be soft, sad, weak and vulnerable. 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 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, a genre that he might not have worked in much, but is definitely quite a pro at.
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 was also an extremely intelligent man. He astutely selected scripts, always paid attention to his role, and however short it might be, he was very conscious of its impact — something even his mainstream International roles are proof of. Take Inferno, for example. Khan made us giggle with a sly smile, a crisp retort or an eye roll (sometimes, even his bored glare was hilariously timed), his expressions coloured with a strong sense of arrogance and condescension. His height worked to his benefit here, and he could make looking-down-upon quite entertaining. 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. If the Provost was bone-dry humour, 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 self-confident 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.
From Salaam Bombay to Angrezi Medium, his last film, Khan always made sure he left a mark with each Friday. I rewatch Haider sometimes only to fangirl over his rockstar-like introduction in the film. Maqbool, after Throne of Blood, will definitely be the best screen adaptation of Macbeth till date. Most importantly, he was one of the best actors this country has produced, a name that even the common man on the street would take if you asked someone “India ka best actor kaun kaun hai tere hisaab se?”
And they all mention his smile. That mischievous, dimpled smile.