From Paan Singh Tomar to Life of Pi, Irrfan Khan has always managed to stir his audience with his performances.
His choice of films mostly deviated from the conventional, and they stood out because of his stellar acting.
Whether it was the hopeless romantic Maqbool in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or the intensely crooked Roohdar in Haider, the director’s inspiration of the Bard’s Hamlet, Irrfan delivered all characters as close to reality as they could possibly get.
Irrfan left for his heavenly abode on April 29, after succumbing to a colon infection. He was 53. But he left for us a fine diversity of roles to remember him by – characters full of faults, yet possessing a strange magnetic charisma.
Saajan Fernandes from The Lunchbox would be frowned upon for indulging a younger married woman Ila (Nimrat Kaur), but his conventional romance and love for simplistic food elicited a certain adoration for Irrfan from the audience.
In contrast, choosing to play a hardened investigator in Talvar, a film based on a book on the Aarushi Talwar murder case, Irrfan did justice to the role with his silent expressions; his eyes showed the storm brewing in an investigator probing a whodunit.
The quintessential Bengali Ashoke, played by Irrfan, in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Namesake (a book by Jhumpa Lahiri) moved the audience with the dilemma of an Indian man caught between the longing for home in his country, and starting a family of his own abroad. I believe the character trajectory of Ashoke is akin to Irrfan’s life – playing roles aplenty during his life, and then leaving all of them for a more peaceful place.
Irrfan earned the National Award for his brilliant performance in Tigmanshu Dhuliya’s Paan Singh Tomar, where his character arc grows from a patriotic athlete in the Indian armed forces, to that of a bandit operating in the infamous Chambal valley, extorting and kidnapping wealthy businessmen of the area.
His recent performances include Rana, an exasperated middle-class transport manager, latching onto the journey of another exasperated character Piku, played by Deepika Padukone in Shoojit Sircar’s movie of the same name. The film, an unconventional irreverent story of a father-daughter relationship, was loved by the audience.
Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium were Irrfan’s latest offerings to Bollywood; in fact, he was not able to promote Angrezi Medium because of his ill health, and as a gesture, many A-list actors, including Alia Bhatt, Anushkha Sharma and Katrina Kaif, got together and shot a video for the promotion.
A versatile Irrfan contributed to cinema outside of the Indian film industry too. He played Harry Sims alongside Tom Hanks in Inferno, an adaptation of Dan Brown’s book by the same name.
He played a rather ruthless inspector in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, giving Jamal (Dev Patel) the ‘third degree’ while interrogating him on how he became a millionaire. Another stellar performance of Irrfan is him playing Pi Patel in Life of Pi, where he does exactly what he does best – selective words, deep eyes accentuating his silent expressions.
I would like to close with Irrfan’s closing lines in Life of Pi: “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”