Actor Irrfan Khan, who passed away on April 29 last year at the age of 53, was one of the most respected and versatile faces of the Hindi film industry.
It was not the usual yawn-inducing corporate awards function. It was the awards ceremony of a young business and lifestyle publication at the Trident in Mumbai in 2016. The show was chic and extremely well put together. An LED video screen showing water lapping up against a beach covered an entire side wall. As the evening progressed, the colours of the sky in the video changed from blue to orange and then dark blue.
The brick façade stage was low and close to the audience, like in stand-up comedy venues. White cloth tables were arranged horizontally around the room. This meant even those in the back row could easily see the VIPs – and there were many of them – out in the front.
Irrfan sat in the front row, with the hosting company’s proprietor. He wore a light coloured suit. Drinks had started early, as the idea was to relax. Irrfan’s poison that evening was chilled white wine.
As the show unfolded, upbeat start-up founders and athletes, some of them Paralympians, collected their awards and spoke about their journeys. Irrfan watched the proceedings with an air of curiosity or mild amusement. At times his curiosity seemed patronizing. But he was never bored. He appeared free, too. This was not a film or political gathering, where certain appearances would have to be maintained, hands would have to be shaken. When it was his turn to present an award, Irrfan privately joked with the company boss that he wanted to be a judge at one of the brand’s beauty pageants.
Later on, Irrfan wanted a smoke. And that’s when the evening within the evening began. Irrfan, along with a couple of his team members and hosts proceeded outdoors, to a small flight of stairs right outside the banquet room. A colleague of ours knew Irrfan, and introduced some of us to him.
He was friendly and chatty. While he had a mini entourage around him that helped him with his handrolled cigarettes or phone calls, he was not starry.
Earlier that year, I had watched Irrfan stand up to some Muslim clerics, who had objected to his valid questions about certain Islamic practices. In terms of his performances, I enjoyed Piku and the old Hutch ads. Irrfan was a right fit for that campaign, which was for affordable phone plans, and thus targeted towards the common man. Irrfan was real, deadpan funny and very Indian in the commercials.
“Hutch ka chhota recharge sirf dus rupaye me, kabootar mehenga pad jayega,” he said in one. The ads were also understated, with very little of that common affliction of Indian entertainment – loud background music.
We asked Irrfan about the art of acting, specifically the challenge of remembering lines and emoting at the same time. He said remembering lines was secondary to interpreting the character.
As we were talking, a pigeon overhead, perhaps peeved by the Hutch ad, did its business, soiling Irrfan’s jacket. We joked that the bird at least did not have any digestive issues of the Piku kind. Irrfan went to the restroom to clean up and returned for some more chatting.
He did not stay for dinner. “Isme hi itni calories hoti hai,” he said, pointing to his wine glass.
Irrfan did not stay around in this world for that much longer either. Standing at the stairs that day, he was close to the heavens in more ways than one. Just three and a half years later, a talented man full of life and plans was gone forever.