It’s been exactly two years since a rare neuroendocrine tumour ended the life of Irrfan Khan - one of the most mesmerising and gifted Indian actors of at least the last three decades.
He worked with Ang Lee and Wes Anderson, with Mira Nair, Danny Boyle and Asif Kapadia, besides many Indian directors from all ends of the cinema-artistry spectrum.
Two of his memorable films, which challenged him in ways that the regular Bollywood roles couldn’t, were with Anup Singh, the director of Qissa (2013), a film described variously (“gender parable”, “displacement meta-text”, “ghost tale”, “unlikely romance”) and about a father’s obsession with having a child in the haunting landscape of post-Partition Punjab, and The Song of the Scorpions (2017), a visually enthralling revenge saga set in Rajasthan with Irrfan and Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani.
Singh, based in Geneva, is also a compelling writer of prose, as is evident in his book Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind, a memoir of a friendship between two men—a director and his actor, a creator and his muse, Anup and Irrfan.
In the last two harrowing years, a world that a virus ravaged—a world without Irrfan—changed in unforeseen ways. One such change, possibly unrelated to the virus and best understood as a cumulative effect of the proliferation of visual storytelling avenues in the last decade, is the wealth of powerfully instinctive acting talents that have come to the fore in India. What heights could Irrfan have reached at a time like this?
Irrfan began in the 1990s in television before cinema engulfed him with a fire that prised out his best. Singh’s book—about making the two films with Irrfan as the lead, about a relationship that built over years—is an immersive reading experience about making cinema, and the rewards, agony and whimsies it involves, and about the actor who left too soon, much before his prime. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking experience to read it in Singh’s deeply felt, cadenced prose. Singh had meticulously planned at least two more films with the actor, and now, as the titles of one of the chapters says, there is “no succour in memory”.
Memories can keep us going. Much of the book is about the process that emerges when a rigorous collaboration between talents is put in course. Singh takes us through the journeys of both films from the start, when he would meet the actor after his heart for narrations and rehearsals to actually capturing the magic in the methods that Irrfan followed to embody a role. For a cinephile, an actor or an aspiring director, there is enough grist. But what’s most moving, and which the book seemed to have precious little of as I read it, is the man Singh witnessed—the personal histories and moments that defined the soul and mind behind the elegant wreck that was Irrfan’s face, seemingly always dipped in suntan, defined by mercurial, fevered eyes. Towards the end of the book, in one of the chapters about Singh’s memories of the last few months of Irrfan’s life, in hospital beds and their homes, Singh reminisces Irrfan asking him a question, while he was undergoing medical treatment:
“It’s strange what brings back memories,” he said. “I’ve left so many of my selves around, Anup Saab. What will people remember of me?
At first, I looked for more such personal details in the book. After all, this was one of those rare actors who could bring alive inner drifts of characters, sometimes through just a subtle gesture—say, a blink of the eye or a flick of the hair. How could he understand human emotions and psychological impulses so completely?
After finishing the last chapter, I realised the processes of Irrfan’s métier are indeed the best keys to unlock his genius. Throughout the book, Singh emphasises the “speculative, conjectural” approach that the actor had to his work as well as to himself. It was his gift to embrace everything that life had to offer. In Singh’s recounting, Irrfan did not have even a sliver of the impostor grain in him.
He writes in the chapter titled ‘Walking the Terrain’:
“It was entrancing to see the exquisite responsiveness that he possessed in his daily life to people, objects, music, even temperature, come to the fore here as a vulnerable readiness, a wonderful combination of receptivity and reluctance to impose. He was no longer trying to force an emotion into the elements and space around him. Instead, suddenly free of all presumptions, he was watching for what might emerge in the scene itself. What was happening before him is what was now guiding him into the action.”
In the last chapter, 'The Dance', Singh takes the same observation further:
“For me, one of the joys of working with Irrfan was that he kept himself in an active relationship with any and all beliefs. He was ready to engage with demagoguery just as much as he was keen to quiz all kinds of reasoning. His interest was in the process, the nitty-gritty, the unarticulated, the unknown, the arcane, the surreptitious. Everything that might be considered the unfathomable aspects of belief, people or things.”
A lover of Nusrat saab (at one point, it was agreed between the two men that Singh wouldn’t refer to the musical voice that Irrfan almost worshipped as anything else but “Nusrat saab” just as at one point during their collaboration and growing friendship Singh became Anup saab to Irrfan and Irrfan became “janaab” to Singh) and whiskey, comfortable in silences, deep observations, and arbiter of serendipity and the unknown, this portrait of the actor reaffirms that the most transcendent and enduring things in life are often enemies of logic and speculation. And that’s a quality that’s key to understanding Irrfan Khan’s brilliant sagacity as an actor and man.