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Irrfan Khan: An actor with the most eloquent eyes

They say acting is a matter of pauses. And with Irrfan it was what his eyes did during those pauses.

April 29, 2020 / 04:41 PM IST

Whether he was looking at the fabulous treats upon opening his lunch box or contemplating on his tortured soul as an accomplice to a murder most heinous, Irrfan spoke to us with his eyes. He changed the way Hollywood thought about Indian actors

The twinkle in those eyes told the story of a tiger in a boat and it was there when he was laughing at his passenger’s discomfort when flying a helicopter. This is the Irrfan we should celebrate. He surrendered his fight to colon complications from Neuroendocrine cancer. The news that he won’t be dad playing Sukhbir’s ‘Oh ho, ho, ho-ho!’ at a party for the neighbourhood lah-di-dah folks anymore, or that he won’t be sharing a cup of tea with a fellow judge, casually dismissing the inherent racism by saying, ‘Someone thought my accommodations should be at a lesser hotel.’

Now many of you may not have seen Tokyo Trial, a Netflix special about the trials of Japanese generals after the second World War. Irrfan plays Justice Radhabinod Pal, the only voice of dissent in the hearings led by Allied judges. The intensity with which he plays this role makes you believe that he was indeed there, making his presence felt with his quiet dissent even though the other judges say so much. This miniseries will actually make you wonder about the state of justice in the world. Can victors be reasonable and just during a tribunal? Will revenge be masked as jurisprudence?

Speaking of justice, Maqbool showed him as a man whose body and soul were in conflict. Irrfan made for the quintessential Shakespearean tragic figure, but with Vishal Bhardwaj’s interpretation of a hesitant accomplice in the murder most foul. I think Irrfan’s terrified,‘Isko le ke jaao yahaan se!’ because he thinks he saw Piyush Mishra (who’s just been brought dead by the two cops) open his eyes, is unforgettable. All that guilt he carries in his heart comes tumbling out and his woman has to reassure him, ‘Miyan, yeh mar gaya hai.’ I cannot imagine anyone else essaying that role.

Then you suddenly see him as a lonely man Sajan Fernandez opening a love note meant for someone else from a lunch box not meant for him. Unlike the unappreciative husband who usually brings back the food uneaten, Sajan replies to the note. That love affair begins with food, and even though we know where the movie is headed, we begin to root for this otherwise crotchety quiet man who discovers passion in his tiffin box. Irrfan’s irritation at having to share that food which is almost like a kiss and tell, makes you wish that the love affair actually ends like a fairy tale with the two running away…


Alas, Irrfan also made some ghastly commercial films like Rog, The Killer and Deadline Sirf 24 Ghante and showed up in Hiss and The Amazing Spiderman as well. But as they say, even John Travolta had to work in The Broken Arrow so that he could bite into Pulp Fiction.

Not too many of us have been fortunate to have watched a Bangladeshi-Indian collaboration called ‘Doob: No bed of roses’. Those who understand Bengali will see how Irrfan is perfect there as well. His ‘Go away!’ as he closes the door to his family life, to cinema, to the scandal that rocks his career as a filmmaker is singular. Irrfan plays a filmmaker whose career comes to a standstill because a young actor claims a relationship with him. His loneliness during the scandal that follows is gut-wrenching. In the film, he is estranged from his grown-up daughter and even though he marries the young actor, he longs for his daughter’s love and understanding. Again, his lonely eyes, staring into the void will stay with you long after the film is over.

They say acting is a matter of pauses. And with Irrfan it was what his eyes did during those pauses. And it was in his laughter as well. Life In A Metro saw him play Monty the easy, happy guy who is about to get married to ‘Side se Bipasha ki tarah dikhtee hai’ girl, a connoisseur of brassieres, and we responded to his heartfelt laughter in the film. Irrfan also shone in an Anees Bazmee film but you cared for his romantic role in Saat Khoon Maaf and his Taxi cab owner cum driver Rana in Piku more.

My first encounter with Irrfan was via video cassettes we would rent for four dollars in the US and watch Irrfan as Badrinath and his wide kohl-lined eyes in the very popular TV show Chandrakanta. His appearances in Kehkasha and Bharat Ek Khoj will perhaps be viewed by newer audiences on Doordarshan, what with extensions of the lockdown looming on the horizon.

Although he has a tiny role as a father in the horrid Darjeeling Limited, he will for always be the Bengali dad Ashoke Ganguli who makes his son Gogol truly understand his identity both as an American lad as well as his Bengali heritage. Somehow, the movie was more about his amazing ability to show the truth than about his son forging an identity for himself. The movie has come and gone and Irrfan played a dad in both Hindi Medium and English Medium movies (I hated the second one but no matter what you cannot take away the flash of his brilliance as he watches his daughter walk away from him…)

As you have realised, it was all about his eyes, always the eyes. They spoke volumes for him. And today these eyes have lost their sparkle. Irrfan has passed away, leaving a huge gap behind. They say Bollywood is all about the looks. He won us over by looking at us through his cheery, world-weary, tragic, happy innocent eyes. I say Hallelujah, Irrfan Khan, rest in peace. As I play the song for you, ‘And I know that when God took you back he said Hallelujah / You're home...’

Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
first published: Apr 29, 2020 04:34 pm
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