Irrfan went beyond craft, bared his soul to the camera - GulfToday

Irrfan went beyond craft, bared his soul to the camera

Irrfan khan 6

Irrfan Khan arrives at the 2008 Film Independent’s Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California. Reuters

Saibal Chatterjee, award-winning film critic

This obituary has come way, way too soon. Writing about Irrfan Khan in the past tense isn’t going to be easy. His untimely demise is a collective loss all right. It is deeply personal too. The sorrow that one is engulfed in has nothing to do with having known Irrfan, an incandescent actor, a remarkable human being and a fighter who took cancer and thoughts of mortality on the chin.

We all ‘knew’ him inside out because we were repeatedly witness to his brilliance, to his ability to disappear into his characters and yet stand out as an actor of uncommon timbre. Irrfan gave us magic of a pristine, unalloyed quality – he did not need the support of ‘showy’ song and dance routines nor eye-candy heroines to make his presence felt. To chew up the scenery, all that he needed was his mastery over the craft, and art, of acting.

In front of the camera, he never took his eyes off the ball. Talking of eyes, he had a pair that could look right back into the lens and not blink, in darkness or in light, and force the camera to match his firm gaze. Every performance of Irrfan’s, magnificently internalised and nuanced, even in films that fell short of doing justice to his innate skills, seemed to have the same effect on the audience: it invited us into the very core of his being, into the depth of his soul.


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How many actors do we know in India – or elsewhere in the world – who can do that with such a lot of effort to spare? By walking off the stage in his prime, Irrfan has robbed us of the many more surprises that were due from him, that he would have, in his inimitable way, sprung upon us had fate ordained a longer innings for him! He had so much work left in him. It is tragic – and unfair – that he ran out of time.

It is customary for obituary writers to declare that an individual’s death will leave behind a difficult-to-fill vacuum. The void that Irrfan Khan will leave will not just be confined to the exceptional work that will now remain in the realms of what-could-have-been in the world that we mortals inhabit; it will extend to the inspiration that he always was to his co-actors, both young and old, on account of the improvisations that he was capable of doing without following any known template. 

Irfan khan 5 Actors Omar Sy (left), Irrfan Khan, director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks at the premiere of ‘Inferno’. AFP

We have no way of knowing the exact magnitude of the impact that his absence will have on the general craft of acting for the screen but certainly will be considerable.

Revisiting Irrfan’s standout films – The Namesake, The Lunchbox, Paan Singh Tomar, Maqbool, Haasil, Life… In a Metro, Piku, Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, The Song of Scorpions, No Bed of Roses, Life of Pi… we could go on – would provide recompense of sorts, but it would never be the same as watching a fresh film starring one of the greatest actors that Hindi cinema has ever produced. Irrfan will live on in his films all right, but cinema without him will never be the same.

Watching Irrfan etch out a character – we will talk about him in the present tense for now – is akin to coming to know him ‘personally’ alongside the fictional, scripted figure that he fleshes out on screen. He pours humanity into every role he plays.

Honesty and transparency were the defining qualities of his craft. In a career spanning 30-odd years, the National School of Drama alumnus elevated acting to a plane where it ceased to be mere acting and crossed imperceptibly, but impactfully, into a zone where it took on a form of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, where silences would speak, where subtle gestures and nods would convey a world of meaning, and where mild modulations of the voice throw open a range of interpretations.

Irrfan khan 7 Irrfan Khan, from left, Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman and Archie Panjabi pose during a photo call for the film "A Mighty Heart." AP

Irrfan on screen would always be a ‘spectacle’, both subtle and startling. The last few films that he did in the Bollywood system – Madaari, Blackmail and Angrezi Medium – were not up to scratch by his standards, but he did have Anup Singh’s emotionally agonizing Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost and disquietingly piercing The Song of Scorpions – both belonging to a creative and spiritual domain far removed from the glitter and glitz of Mumbai pulp – to show for his efforts.

And, of course, in the last decade and a bit of his career, directors such as Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Ron Howard (Inferno) cast him in their films. Unlike most other Indian actors who land international projects, Irrfan stood shoulder to shoulder with his international co-actors, not only holding his own against a Tom Hanks (in Inferno) or a Natalie Portman (who starred opposite him in Mira Nair’s short fiction film made as a part of New York, I Love You), but also at times pushing them out of their skins.

Extending a tradition of Hindi movie actors who represented turning points – Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Sanjeev Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah – Irrfan carved his own niche. His approach was singular – it had a Zen-like approach that allowed him to soar above the mediocrity of a profit-chasing movie industry. It enabled him to leave behind a body of work that will stand the test of time.

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