Few Indian actors straddled Bollywood and Hollywood with the grace and impact of Irrfan Khan. A graduate of the National School of Drama, Irrfan, who dropped his last name and was referred to simply by his first name with an extra ‘r’, began his acting career with television roles, getting his first movie break in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988.
The story of his disappointment on learning that his part—as a letter writer—had been cut, to just a cameo, is well documented. His unconventional looks, which didn’t fit into the mould of a Bollywood romantic hero, made it difficult for him to land lead roles in an industry where biceps carried more weight than acting chops. But Irrfan broke the trend. His bulging eyes conveyed so much. With his lean frame, dialogue delivery punctuated by slow deliberations and long pauses, here was an actor that believed less is more.
Just as he was on the verge of giving up his movie dreams, British director Asif Kapadia cast him as a soldier in ‘The Warrior’ (2001). Smaller roles followed before the actor, whom the San Francisco Chronicle described as “a rugged man with sad eyes,” got his big break with Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil in 2004. Dhulia was among his closest collaborators, along wth Mira Nair and Vishal Bhardwaj.
Often cast as the villain or a policeman, Irrfan is best remembered for playing Maqbool in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth, the police inspector in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the titular role in Paan Singh Tomar, Saajan Fernandes in ‘The Lunchbox’, Roohdaar in Haider and Rana in Piku. He was a part of forgettable films too, such as Supari, ‘Footpath’, Aan: Men At Work and Rog.
Rarely the romantic hero, he turned up the charm when he wooed Deepika Padukone in Piku and subtly conveyed Saajan Fernandes’ loneliness and hope of love in ‘The Lunchbox’.
Where many Indian actors found themselves struggling to get a foothold in Hollywood, the multi-faceted Irrfan chalked up an enviable list of credits including working with acclaimed international filmmakers such as Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) and Ron Howard (Inferno).
Towering in frame and in his accomplishments, Irrfan wore his achievements with an air of sangfroid, one that added to his allure. Deeply respected as an artist and highly awarded, he made acting look easy. Even when he played roles with a lighter touch, as in Piku or Hindi Medium, he did so with a straight face, sometimes conveying impatience, sometimes a touch of mischief, but always delivering impeccable timing. As Piku director Shoojit Sircar once said, “Irrfan won't do rehearsals but he puts the things in his head. The script is in his blood and veins.”
Director Nikkhil Advani, who worked with him in ‘D-Day’ agreed. “He kept you on your toes. He never gave the same ‘take’ twice, except for pivotal lines. He was a classic actor who didn’t need lines. He conveyed so much with his silences, with his eyes, with just a small gesture like a nod or a wave.”
In over 30 years, his repertoire covered themes from student politics to Shakespeare, the immigrant story to constipation, gangsters to dinosaurs. Recognition for his craft came with a National Film Award for Paan Singh Tomar in which he played the complex role of a national-level athlete who becomes a dacoit. But greater recognition was the fact that he was just as much sought by foreign filmmakers as Indian, that he was the first name that cropped up when directors looked for mature actors who could play nuanced characters and draw in an audience as well.
It’s the reason why younger actors likes Dulquer Salmaan, who acted with him in Karwaan, observed him as a student while peers like Shah Rukh Khan would call him the “greatest actor of our time.”
Homi Adajania, who directed Angrezi Medium, which was to be Irrfan’s last feature film, recalled how the actor was philosophical after being diagnosed with cancer. “Irrfan told me, ‘I would not change this experience because in 40 lifetimes, I would not have understood what life is about. I used to think my identity was Irrfan Khan, the actor. Now I am Irrfan, the human being, who is enjoying the miracle of being alive’,” Adajania said during the film’s promotions in March.
The actor was able to combine experience with talent and an understanding of the character, lifting the words off the page and imbuing them with little, natural attributes. All the while looking at life with a hint of amusement.
On Irrfan’s passing at the age of 54, the words from ‘Life of Pi’, when the adult Pi recounts how Richard Parker left him, resonate deeply: “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a freelance writer and film critic.