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Triumph of the ordinary: Why Irrfan is among India’s most important actors

It is no accident that in a nation obsessed with cricket and larger-than-life cinema, a film about an Indian steeplechase champion   turned outlaw is bringing the audiences in and getting rave reviews. Much of the reason why Tigmanshu Dhulia’s latest work Paan Singh Tomar has got such favourable reactions is its lead actor.

Irrfan, who earlier went by the name Irfan Khan, is no ordinary actor. He combines in him the rare aspects of impeccable comic timing, an expressive face and the ability to get completely under the skin of the characters he plays. In Paan Singh Tomar, he combines all these aspects to deliver a performance which must be ranked as one of the finest Hindi cinema has seen in years. The transformation of a passionate small-town services athlete to one of the most dreaded outlaws of the Chambal is seamless and, without glorifying the character even a wee bit, Irrfan puts across the pathos and helplessness of this transformation in a manner which is both identifiable and engaging.

Not surprisingly, this six-feet tall National School of Drama diploma holder, born Sahebzaade Irfan Ali Khan in Jaipur, Rajasthan, is today one of the more important Indian actors in Hollywood, unlike some fast-fading ones who crow about their blink-and-you-miss appearances in Tom Cruise starrers. His latest, the upcoming Spiderman film, will see him play the main negative role, a tribute to the man’s versatility.

For someone who can hardly be called good-looking, Irrfan’s success in both Hindi cinema and Hollywood can, perhaps, completely be attributed to his sheer raw talent, his ability to understand the nuances of his various roles and, most importantly, the overall context of that role in the movie he is a part of. However, the real triumph of Irrfan lies in his ability to play the ordinary man to perfection: understated, relevant and straight from the heart. Whether it is Ashoke who is finding his feet in unfamiliar terrain in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006), or the eponymous Maqbool in Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2003 classic, the hopelessly in love Arun in Sudhir Mishra’s brilliant Yeh Saali Zindagi or even the straight-from-the-heart but rough-at-the-edges Monty in Anurag Basu’s brilliant take on city life, Life in a Metro, Irrfan is all these characters, never the actor playing it.

For someone who can hardly be called good-looking, Irrfan’s success in both Hindi cinema and Hollywood can, perhaps, completely be attributed to his sheer raw talent.

Because of his ordinary looks and trademark, understated dialogue delivery, audiences are able to establish an immediate connect with him, and he is never really out of reach for them. This trait of his even contrasts with most other Indian actors – with, possibly the exceptions of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri – who are never able to shed the trappings of who they are outside of the film set.

It is often said that comedy is the toughest of aspects in acting. Yet, one key aspect of Irrfan’s repertoire is his comic timing: time and again, he has been able to wow the audiences with his straightfaced dialogue delivery but with lines which any other actor would not be able to generate half that impact from. In Paan Singh Tomar too, this talent comes through sharply, when even while being chased by police in the ravines, Tomar does not lose his wit. In particular, it is the scenes of Tomar’s comic flirtations with his wife which bring out the finest aspects of Irrfan’s ability to make audiences laugh with the most innocuous of lines. This penchant for comedy is also evident in Life in a Metro and in a few other rather otherwise forgettable films he has done, like Thank You.

But make no mistake, Irrfan can terrorise too. Maqbool, 7 Khoon Maaf, The Killer and, of course, the pathbreaking Haasil (the 2003 film where Tigmanshu Dhulia showcased Irrfan brilliantly), he is menacing and deadly.

As Indian cinema finally enters the stretch where truly remarkable scripts are drawing the audiences back to the theatres – read multiplexes – Irrfan probably is poised for his best phase yet. Having been part of films like Salaam Bombay!, Kamla Ki Maut and Ek Doctor Ki Maut earlier, today, with films like Slumdog Millionaire, A Mighty Heart, The Amazing Spiderman and The Life of Pi under his belt, he is also a force to reckon with in Hollywood.

But Sahebzaade Irfan Ali Khan’s calling will, perhaps, always lie in the roles he will play in Indian films. Despite his Hollywood successes, chances are, you can take Irrfan out of the Hindi heartland, but you can’t take the heartland out of him. Rarely does the world of glitz and glamour celebrate the success of the ordinary as it has with Irrfan. That, more than anything else, is his greatest achievement.

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