Irrfan Khan passes away: How a boy from the actor's hometown grew up in his omnipresent shadows
Three years ago, when I met Irrfan Khan after watching Hindi Medium, we shared fond memories of our hometown Jaipur — till he gave me a lot to think about.
This article was first published on 1 May, 2020, two days after Irrfan Khan passed away.
Three years ago, I attended what was probably my first press screening in Mumbai. It was Saket Chaudhary's Hindi Medium, starring Irrfan Khan. Moments after I wrapped up my first Facebook Live deconstructing the film, I met the man of the hour, Irrfan, for a brief interaction. Having whined about the instant review of the film without processing it, I realised I needed much more time to 'deconstruct' the person Irrfan was.
And so, there he was, right in front of me, fully empathetic about the fact that this was one of my first celebrity interviews in the city. He stared me right in the eyes, with those pensive weapons of choice. His occasional, unexplained grin perplexed me even more as I struggled to ask my question and scribbled copiously in my diary.
Rather than revealing awkwardly, "I'm also from Jaipur," I maneuvered the conversation in a way he was prompted to address his schooling years in the hometown organically. "I remember I struggled a lot in NSD (National School of Drama, Delhi) because I didn't know English too well. Even my wife's command over the language was excellent. But my primary and secondary education were Hindi-medium, which is why I could relate to this story, and the monologue at the end," he told me.
I measured the window, and bam came the words. "I can relate, as I'm also from Jaipur." His eyes turned bright, and the inherent ache in them made an escape as quick as English in our conversation. "Arrey wah! Sahu ki chai, Rawat ki kachori, LMB ki rasmalai! Mazza aa gaya!" As he listed down
his mine our list of edible attractions, I realised I never missed Jaipur so much since moving to Mumbai.
He then admitted he does not visit the city often, as he associated 'home' more with Delhi: " It's the place where I found myself." He lamented the fact that there are limited opportunities to grow creatively in Jaipur. I interjected, arguing the situation was changing gradually. "There is some inclination towards gaining exposure. When I was in school, it changed from a Hindi-medium to an English-medium curriculum. The switch was sudden but I think it was for the better," I said to him in Hindi.
"You were in Xavier's right?," he asked, or rather, reminded me, with his eyes set firmly on my "how-does-he-know" expression.
"Arey sab pata hai mujhe, kya gul khulaye hain tumne" (I know everything about what you have done in school)." When I insisted on an explanation, he said, "Socho. Zorr laga ke" (Think hard).
I thought of all the times a random alumni member of my school mentioned that Irrfan was supposed to join Xavier's but he could not because of bad grades. The closest I came to believing the myth was when the school cricket coach would attest the rumour: "He used to come to the school for cricket tournaments. He loved our sports culture, and used to say he will get admission here someday." Irrfan played cricket when he was in Jaipur, and could not turn up for the CK Naydu Tournament owing to lack of funds.
Irrfan's entry into my world, much before these claims, was rather gradual. He broke out in Bollywood with Vishal Bhardwaj's 2004 crime drama Maqbool, at a time when I could not get over Rajkumar Hirani's Munna Bhai MBBS that released days before. The first time I saw him on screen was in Vivek Agnihotri's 2005 film Chocolate, where I could not gather why he did not mouth his dialogues as enthusiastically as his co-stars Anil Kapoor and Emraan Hashmi. But there was something immensely watchable about him.
So, I gave him another chance in Anurag Basu's 2007 film Life In A... Metro. "He's funny," was my sole takeaway. Then came the 2008 comedy Krrazy 4, and he was funny again. And then I, just like the world, stood up and took notice of him in Danny Boyle's 2008 Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Though that film also had the ever-dependable Anil Kapoor as a zestful quiz show host, his pronounced dialogues did not stand a chance before the unsettling silence of Irrfan's cop, during the scenes where he interrogated Dev Patel's character.
Slumdog Millionaire also came at a time when I was pushing myself to open up in school. It was a challenging transformation, particularly since I was challenging what I had been all my life till that point. As Irrfan breathed life into one character after the other, watching him perform was validation. I could go out, make an impact with my less-is-more approach, and recede into my shell. I felt people were warming up to me, not because I was trying hard to be someone I was not, but because I did not let my core get altered while doing so.
Years later, when I was in the first year of college and was struggling with all the school friends I lost touch with, I saw him say these words with fully realised ache, "Life is all about letting go. But it hurts when you don't get a chance to say goodbye." The film was Ang Lee's Life Of Pi, and I instantly forgave Irrfan for doing the film despite a short role. Just for that one line.
A couple of years later, barely days after I lost my grandfather, he made the coping so much easier with his straight-faced humour (with a grin hiding in the corner) in Shoojit Sircar's Piku. As Deepika Padukone's character took every possible step to look after her cantankerous, ailing father, he offered a sound remedy to Amitabh Bachchan's character for chronic constipation, "Ye sab natak karna band kar dijiye aap. Sab sahi ho jaega." It helped lighten up the mood, and allowed me to reiterate, "He's funny."
Whenever I expressed my desire to work in movies (in whatever capacity) or put on show my Bollywood trivia, some random uncle would say, "Irrfan Khan banega kya tu bhi? Baal bhi waise hi hain. Aankhien bhi latki hui. (will you become the next Irrfan Khan? The hairstyle is also similar. And the eyes are also baggy).
But let us reel back. All these conversations and musings were not privy to Irrfan or any remotely related person. Then how did he know I was in Xavier's? Was it merely a guess? His grin was too wide for it to have been just a guess. There was something to back him up there that I missed. A background check maybe? Too self-adulatory. A slip of my tongue? It would have been in the voluminous notes then.
As I hurriedly browsed through the pages, Irrfan began to take off in the elevator. Even though my eyes were fixated on the notes, I could see his weapon of choice ready itself for the final blow. I looked up seconds before the elevator door shut, and he said, "Diary pe likha hai."
A picture of my school, with its full name — St Xavier's Sr Sec School — laughed at me when I stared at it on the cover of my diary. And Irrfan's final words took me back to what the random alumni uncle would always say about his performances, "Wo na bas apni baat rakh ke chala jata hai. Fir sochte raho" (He just says what he has to say, and leaves. Then you can keep on thinking about it).
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