Irrfan Khan passes away at 53: Revisiting the beloved actor's crucial, yet little known, theatre years
In shaping the trajectory of the shape-shifting Irrfan Khan, theatre played a tremendous role. Not only his performances but also stories of his so-called ‘struggle’ to break into the mainstream inspire actors priming themselves for careers in an unforgiving profession.
The origin stories of superheroes populate a graphic novel (and lately, film) genre all of their own, with narratives that strike at the very core of a superhero’s raison d’être. The greatest of actors, no less than superheroes for their admirers, emerge from a similar wellspring, with its peculiar interplay of nature and nurture. Irrfan, the actor par excellence who shall no more roam among the living legends of our time, has an origins story that takes us back to his roots in theatre. It’s a little-known legacy that deserves as much of an airing as his greatest successes.
Although Irrfan was clear from the outset that his holy grail was the larger-than-life canvas of cinema — to gallivant with the stars rather than suffer through the precious privations of the stage — he has always acknowledged the immense fillip his dreams got due to his unexpected entry into the National School of Drama in 1984. While his early influences included Naseeruddin Shah and Mithun Chakraborty (who he felt he resembled), his desire to join the school stemmed from watching Shyam Benegal’s Junoon, in which the NSD-trained actor Rajesh Vivek played the uncredited part of a minstrel soothsayer with such compelling verisimilitude that it stunned a then sixteen-year-old Irrfan. “It was magical, I couldn’t figure out whether he was an actor or an actual dervish. I wanted to be taught this kind of acting,” he told his namesake anchor, Syed Mohd Irfan, in a 2015 interview.
The odds were certainly stacked against him when it came to admission at the premier theatre institute. He had even fabricated the list of plays the school had requested as evidence of past theatre experience, of which he had none. At home, he had told his mother (Saeeda Begum, whom he would outlive by merely four days), that he would “become a professor after completing drama school just so [that] she’d let me go.” Somehow, he convinced the school of his sheer honesty of drive and unimpeachable sincerity, even if he had to feign a commitment to theatre as a lifelong career.
In a 2015 interview with fellow alumnus Anupam Kher (one decade his senior), he said, “It was something I knew was very necessary, and I must say, it turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of my life till date.” As he trundled out, bedding holdall and possessions in tow, on a rickshaw from his home in Jaipur, he excitedly felt absolutely anything was possible. It would take another odd decade and a half for the world to truly become his oyster, but the seeds for an exhilarating journey as a working actor had been sown.
During his time at drama school, Irrfan was part of several student productions that were also open to the public, and memories of those performances still endure, as evinced by a stream of heartfelt social media tributes. A photograph of his sometimes exhibited at the NSD Gallery, depicts him as a workman intently bent over his bench, fitting old keys and locks. That still was from Talghar, a Hindi translation of Russian playwright Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, directed by Ram Gopal Bajaj. It was a play about impoverished Russians living in a cramped hideaway and Irrfan played Kleshtch, an embittered locksmith forced to sell his tools to cover his dead wife’s funeral costs. In a Facebook post, actor Joy Sengupta wrote, “[In Talghar], in a state of motionless action and minimal lines (very tough on stage), [Irrfan] conveyed the deepest of pathos, dragging your sight away from other actors.”
Another significant outing was Fujiyama — Prasanna Heggodu’s Indian production of The Ascent of Mount Fuji, written by Central Asian playwrights Chingiz Aitmatov and Kaltaz Mohammajanov, and translated by Kalpana and Bhisham Sahani. It was a play on Soviet-era social morality. “That was the main play in drama school that gave me at least a kind of sense in which direction I should go as far as acting is concerned. The process of this play gave me a little glimpse into what it means to be involved when doing a performance,” said Irrfan, in an interview. Another fallout of Fujiyama was that it partly prompted a member of the audience, Tigmanshu Dhulia, to join the drama school. Dhulia would later cast Irrfan in two milestones — 2003’s Haasil, which featured his breakthrough performance, and Paan Singh Tomar in 2011, which established him as a leading man with box-office cred.
Also produced around then was Prasanna’s Hindi teleplay Lal Ghas Pe Neele Ghode, based on Mikhail Shatrov's Blue Horses on Red Grass, in which Irrfan played an intense Lenin in a naturalistic turn which, according to Sengupta, “communicated the deepest of human experiences, without a trace of craft, only empathy.” The cast included his batchmates Mita Vashisht and Sutapa Sikdar — whom he married in 1995. Prasanna, a visionary of our times who Irrfan regarded as a mentor, wrote on Twitter, “Irrfan has walked with us first as a student, then as a friend, and then as a social worker,” referring to his Badanwal Satyagraha for sustainable living that both Sikdar and Irrfan have long supported.
After graduating, Irrfan was lapped up by the world of television, working with directors who had crossed over from the parallel cinema movement, now in its last legs. He did act in another teleplay, telecast on Doordarshan as Prasanna's had been. This was Govind Nihalani’s series Jazeere, a modern take on Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, in which Irrfan played Alfred, the father of the eponymous character, a young boy paralysed in one of his legs. Irrfan acted opposite Ratna Pathak-Shah and Vashisht.
Given these antecedents, the theatre’s role in shaping the shape-shifting Irrfan’s trajectory was tremendous. Not only his performances but also stories of his so-called ‘struggle’ to break into the mainstream inspire actors priming themselves for careers in an unforgiving profession. Perhaps, some consolation at this time of national bereavement can be taken from the fact that Irrfan was an actor who audiences got to experience in his absolute prime, even if there were undoubtedly many more innings left in the man. His best roles were total masterclasses, and the flavours and nuances of his performances will certainly linger on forever.
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