Irrfan Khan dies at 53: A master at underplaying his excellence, the actor effortlessly rescued drab films
Bollywood’s greatest Khan spent his career opening and closing doors, ageing, without notice or reminders that he too would be sorely missed when gone.
I first discovered Irrfan Khan in the messy yet oddly compelling crime thriller Charas (2004). Cast as a blonde-dyed Don named ‘Policeman’, Khan stole each scene he was in. To discover new or alternate cinema in small town India, in those days meant spending precious money on pirated CDs and looking for recommendations through word of mouth. I watched Charas as a grainy, jarring 15-rupee print. Even through the blur, however, Khan’s uniqueness was clear, his acting conspicuously effortless.
I had not seen an actor who could act with his eyes, dance with his furrows and sing without breaking into song.
Khan had already, of course, made his mark in Indian cinema the year before with Dhulia’s Haasil and Vishal Bharadwaj’s timeless Maqbool, films I would soon find. Though a masterpiece like Maqbool potentially qualifies Irrfan Khan as the greatest actor of his generation, it’s his heavy-lifting, his ability and, therefore, unfortunate destiny to rescue mediocrity that characterised large parts of a career that Bollywood, for the longest of time, did not know how to nurture or harvest.
An artist’s prestige is marked by the justice they do to their craft, insomuch as indelibly affect, mould, shape or drive it. Khan was sufficiently insulated from the possibility of fame so as to always pursue his craft. But while artists respond to their times, they can also be severely restricted by them.
Though Khan debuted as the solemn letter writer in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988, the 90s swallowed, much like everything else with substance or cultural depth, his career whole. One cannot help but wish now that time would turn back and a decade’s worth of his work could be added to his list. Sadly, such a repository does not exist. Then perhaps, the 90s never produced anything worthy of Khan himself. In a recent interview, the director Anubhav Sinha said about working with him “Uske laayak abhi tak maine kuch likha hi nahi hai” .
To the Hindu film industry, we loosely refer to as Bollywood, perhaps the greatest Khan of them all, never really belonged.
Khan’s greatest performances, i.e. Maqbool, The Namesake, Qisssa, The Lunchbox, Paan Singh Tomar etc have all come in films that were made to not attack the box-office but simply, the concept of stories and characters. It is a realisation Indian cinema has dawned upon only recently and evidently far too late for the actor who is no longer with us. Maqbool’s vicious pain, Khan’s bloodshot eyes, were outliers to the cinema of the era. So was the understated poignancy of Mira Nair’s The Namesake.
When he wasn’t doing great cinema or essaying great roles, Khan was carrying mediocrity on his shoulders, lifting drivel by the ease and naturalness of his body language. I remember Akshay Kumar joke about Khan’s process in an interview by saying “hum log itna zor laga ke acting karte hain. 20 take dete hain. Aur ye aata hai uthke aur bas bol deta hai”. Meant as a playful jibe, Kumar, articulated Khan’s process well. But while his own oeuvre might have seemed of effortlessly packaging and delivering one role after the other.
In the decade between 2003 and Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, there are countless films you’d perhaps only remember for Khan or may not remember he was in them at all. Even after 2012- 2013 (Life of Pi, The Lunchbox and his international pedigree established) Khan dragged along various moderate to slightly spirited films like Blackmail, Madaari, Karwaan, Talvar, Qarib Qarib Single, Piku, Hindi Medium and his last English Medium. Not all of these films were precociously poor, but neither would have perhaps been close to recognisable were it not for the late actor’s input. Blackmail, Karwaan, Qarib Qarib Single, and the two Mediums were passable genre films that sparkled only when Irrfan cracked his knuckles and decided to hypnotise the camera with his wide eyes, seemingly uncomplicated straight-chested acting.
In a world where most actors believe acting is a full-body cardio workout, Khan played his own strokes. Sadly, the pitch of life, unlike cricket, isn’t curated to suit someone’s strengths nor be just to any one calling or destiny. It is what it is.
I guess it is a bit boorish, even bitter to suggest Bollywood was unworthy of Irrfan. It did after all give him his bread and butter and in fits and starts, roles that his immense, incomparable talent deserved. But for an actor, a third of whose career was spent in anonymity and another significant chunk committing to rotten apples, the possibility of what could have been is all too painful to ignore.
Khan’s death comes at a moment when contemplating your own mortality has become a daily exercise. In times when we seek to be emotionally rescued, assured and calmed by artists who convince us of their artificial pain, something as severe and final as death feels like the effortless yet draining stab that Khan’s acting was. He leaves us, early, earlier than we could see him fail at something that did at the same time also challenge his stature, his ability.
Bollywood’s greatest Khan spent his career opening and closing doors, ageing, without notice or reminders that he too would be sorely missed when gone. The greatest artists are perhaps the quietest humans. Or as Saajan Fernandes writes to Ila in The Lunchbox. “I don’t know when I became old, maybe it was this morning or many many mornings ago”.