For a man who essayed complex roles as an aam aadmi, Irrfan Khan’s acting genius was wrapped up in a familiarity that made the ordinary extraordinary. This was what seemingly drew him to characters as well: their ordinariness.
It is those characters that will remain most memorable in his body of work, as tributes pour in and people remember their favourite films, it is the ‘ordinary man’ characters that shine.
So compelling was his onscreen presence that if you met him in person, you couldn’t be blamed for being a little surprised by how handsome he was. I remember my brief and only meeting with him seven years ago and being taken aback by the swashbuckling ‘hero’ gait and intense large brown eyes.
Having seen him play the aam admi on film so often, it was an unexpected vision to encounter. The same man with such a ‘hero like’ presence in person.
The usual compliments exchanged, he seemed a little uncomfortable with the attention, here was a man who had famously said he didn’t know how to ‘market’ himself and would never ever put himself in that position if he could help it.
It is ironical that his last film, Angrezi Medium, which ran in theaters for two days but was cut short by the coronavirus crisis was one that he was unable to promote.
What followed was an outpouring of love, from Bollywood celebrities to even fans such as myself, tweeting and sharing promos of the film, urging people to go watch the movie.
There was something about Irrfan that just moved you, long before his cancer diagnosis in 2018. Here was a man who joined films to connect with people, dropped his last name, so not to be identified by his religion or ancestry (as he mentioned in an interview), but only for his direct communication with the people.
It was as if he was on a personal mission to break down the man made barriers between human beings that impacted perceptions and fed preconceived notions, his craft was a testament to this pursuit.
To become somebody on screen, he had to erase who he was or had been and that he did with commitment.
From Jaipur he moved to NSD and trained to be an actor, finding roles in Indian television, where he spent the nineties. What followed was a phase of creative frustration.
The big screen beckoned, but the path to 70 mm was not clear. Irrfan contemplated quitting acting. Maybe it was the TV grind, the takeover of the saas bahu genre, but he found an escape hatch just in time when he was cast in the British film, Warrior, directed by Asif Kapadia.
Interestingly the film was about a warrior who was attempting to give up the sword. After the film, Irrfan decided to hold on to his, and continue with acting.
The film was shortlisted as the UK’s entry to the Oscars, though it didn’t make it, it won the prestigious BAFTA award for best film.
Irrfan Khan had been noticed by the West even before he had been in India. He went on to work with the likes of Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie in The Mighty Heart, played the role of a police officer in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and also starred in the Life of Pi, to name a few.
Here was an actor who was getting to act in the very best of western cinema and yet carried it effortlessly, no pomp, no show, just an actor at work.
His triumph in India was Paan Singh Tomar, a film he internalised, resonating with the unsung hero and wanting to give him a voice. And he did. As the critics marvelled at the audience response, Irrfan wryly commented that the people are underestimated and believed in good stories.
Here was a man who despite the attention from the west never underestimated his country, its culture or its people. In interview after interview one encountered gratitude, even though most recognised that opportunities to a great actor like him should have come sooner.
In 2018, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and after much speculation revealed his diagnosis to the public. In an interview a few weeks ago he described his journey since his diagnosis as one of laughter and tears.
He said his disease had taught him to filter out the noise and focus on the essentials in life. Something we are all learning today, as the deadly coronavirus is standing outside everyone’s door.
In one of his last interviews with a UAE-based paper for his film Angrezi Medium, he quoted the famous Hindi film song
“लग जा गले कि फिर
ये हसीं रात हो न हो,
शायद फिर इस जनम में
मुलाक़ात हो न हो”
It was a goodbye of sorts when you read it today after his passing, a love letter to a country who by his own admission had given him so much.
“I can recite poetry but I cannot write it,” Irrfan once said. But he may have underestimated himself. His performances on screen were sheer poetry and will be as unforgettable as the work of great poets.
Advaita Kala is an author, screenwriter and a columnist. The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.