On Irrfan Khan's birth anniversary, celebrating a man whose films may have failed, but the actor in him never did

Looking back, it seems ominous that the last Hindi film to hit movie theatres in 2020 was Irrfan Khan's Angrezi Medium. Thereafter the world went underground.

Subhash K Jha January 07, 2022 14:53:51 IST
On Irrfan Khan's birth anniversary, celebrating a man whose films may have failed, but the actor in him never did

Irrfan Khan

During the many conversations I had with Irrfan Khan before he left us so abruptly, there were two roles he constantly spoke about. One was poet-thinker Sahir Ludhianvi. The other was Sardar Udham Singh. While Ludhianvi's role never came to Irrfan, Sardar Udham was planned with Irrfan.

During one of our conversations, Irrfan had said, “Udham Singh is one of the most fascinating historical  characters I’ve come across. After Piku, Shoojit (Sircar, director), and I want to work together on something really special. I can’t wait to start.”

In Piku, Irrfan had the third most important role after Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone. Irrfan was keen to do a more central role under Sircar’s direction.

Fate had other plans. Now, when Vicky Kaushal is getting rave reviews for Sardar Udham, I wonder how Irrfan would have reacted to the performance. The one thing that we can say with certainty is that Irrfan would have  played Udham Singh using the same range of restrained emotions  as Kaushal. In fact, Kaushal is the most direct descendent of the Irrfan school of less-is-more acting. Kaushal stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from Ranveer Singh, who imbues every character with a fanatical exuberance.

That was not Irrfan’s style.

Another role Irrfan was eager to own was that of poet-thinker Sahir Ludhianvi. This one Irrfan had set his heart  on from the time the project was announced by producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali. But Bhansali had already  committed himself to Abhishek Bachchan for the Ludhianvi biopic. It is another matter that the project never got made.

This time, two years ago, I had no idea the world would be Irrfan-less this year. We lost many beloved stars in 2020. Lekin Irrfan ki baat hi kuchh aur hai. Actors who had never met him felt it was just so unfair.

On Irrfan Khans birth anniversary celebrating a man whose films may have failed but the actor in him never did

Irrfan Khan in Angrezi Medium

Bahut hi behtareen  actor the woh,”  Nawazuddin Siddiqui tells me. During Irrfan’s lifetime, the gossip mills tried to pitch Siddiqui against Irrfan in a Shabana Azmi-Smita Patil kind of arthouse rivalry. Somehow, I never saw Irrfan as getting insecure about any actor. I remember once he was shooting for an Anees Bazmi film (Thank You, 2011), and it was a totally new out-of-body experience for him. Irrfan had a ball shooting with Akshay Kumar. He had  even shot a music video, and was very excited about it.

Not many know this. But Irrfan loved to dance. “I think I’ve a good sense of rhythm. Dancing is very liberating. Sadly the kind of cinema I do hardly requires me to dance,” he lamented.

I remember how happy Irrfan was on his birthday in 2016. He had two hits to his credit, and he was in the mood  for celebration. "Last year was very satisfying for me. Piku and Talvar got me tremendous praise. So I’d say this birthday, I feel very fulfilled. I rarely feel like celebrating any occasion. But this time, I am in that mood.”

This chameleon actor normally did not believe in birthdays. One reason for his apathy to his special day was the fact that the internet, for a very long time, gave out the wrong date for his birthday.

Irrfan shuddered, “I’d get calls on the wrong day. That was very annoying. That doesn’t mean I’m against birthday celebrations. In fact, I am going to have a party for the first time this year for my birthday. I am waiting for my friends from abroad to arrive. I was working on my birthday. To me, that’s the best way to celebrate. For years, I waited for the right roles. Now, when they’re coming to me, I feel privileged, blessed, relieved, and liberated.”

And just when Irrfan had begun to enjoy success, God had other plans.

We also spoke about Irrfan’s health when he was healthy. And Irrfan told me he was health conscious. “I do look after myself. But not in an obsessive way. I work out, but in my own way. I follow the regime that my body demands, and not what the physical trainer thinks my body requires. Besides that, I think I am getting to do the work that I want. Inner contentment always reflects on your face and body."

That inner contentment remained with Irrfan till the  end.

Looking back, it seems ominous that the last Hindi film to hit movie theatres in 2020 was Irrfan-starrer Angrezi Medium. Thereafter the world went underground.

He loved working birthdays. On one such occasion, he told  me, “I was working on my birthday. To me, that’s the best way to celebrate. For years, I waited for the right roles. Now, when they’re coming to me, I feel privileged, blessed, relieved, and liberated. In the evening on my birthday, I went to the Screen Awards’ nomination party, where I was nominated for Best Actor for The Lunchbox. That, to me, was the best birthday gift possible.”

In 2017, Irrfan was supremely on top of the game with Hindi Medium becoming both a critical and commercial success. I remember how pleased he was with the turn of events, and how much it meant to him to be in a film that was not just praised by critics, but also loved by the masses. I remember how disappointed he was when earlier,  his collaboration with the Raja of the Masses, Anees Bazmi, had failed. Come to think of it, the film (I think it was called Thank You, though Sorry would have been a more appropriate title) failed. Irrfan did not. He never did.

When his health began to fail, he was puzzled. Why would destiny play such a cruel game? When his worst fears came true, he left for London for his treatment. But his films were released in his absence. Most notable of these was the American Indie oddity named Puzzle where, I am proud to say, Irrfan was the first Indian actor to play  the romantic lead in an American film. This  Marc Turtletaub–directed romance featured Irrfan as a jigsaw puzzle aficionado who has an affair with the married mother-of-two heroine (Kelly Macdonald).

Puzzle was… well, a puzzle. While on the surface, the deep silences and the bonding between two abandoned  individuals over jigsaw puzzles suggested a wealth of enigmatic possibilities, the film possessed a bankrupt soul. Nothing happened. It was just an empty exercise in doing a variation on the classic Meryl Streep-Robert de Niro film Falling In Love. What  stood out in Puzzle was the fact that Irrfan played a colour-blind culture-unspecific role. Nowhere was it mentioned that his character was a brown-skinned Asian. Irrfan had broken another glass ceiling, and done us proud again.

But Puzzle came at a time when movies were the last thing on Irrfan’s mind. As he struggled with ill health, he  needed his privacy more than ever before. I felt intrusive even to ask about his health. I did not want him to think I was being a prying journalist.

Irrfan’s kindness always struck me as unique to a business where self interest comes first and last. I remember once in 2015, my daughter, who was studying at Columbia University, needed to talk to him for a research project.  Irrfan went out of his way to coordinate the Indian timing with the American, and spoke at length with her. Then  he called me to ask if she got the information she required.

Aisa kaun karta hai?

Happy Birthday, Irrfan. I know you love to dance. I hope you are dancing with the angels up there.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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