For a few brief moments, our troubled world stopped obsessing over the Coronavirus and its mounting death toll, to express collective sorrow, shed tears, over the tragic loss of Irrfan Khan. Adulated actor, valiant warrior, loving family man and so immensely gifted – it’s hard to think of another contemporary star with Irrfan’s overflowing and abundant ‘tijori’ of talent. At 53, most great world actors start to peak, and go on to make timeless films that showcase their brilliance and expertise in a difficult and demanding craft – acting! Only a few manage to make that craft appear seamless, effortless, no matter how tough their lines or roles. These are the precious gems of cinema. Irrfan Khan was one such gem – a perfectly faceted and very rare solitaire – besides being equally priceless. I will skip his cinematic history – those who are interested can always fall back on Google. For me, Irrfan was the lone wolf in a jungle filled with hyenas. He was his own person from the moment he was noticed by Bollywood’s best. His aloofness was not a studied act – he was aloof with good reason – he was that sure of his talent. I cannot recall a single major movie of his in which he let his own exceedingly high standards down as a performer. My personal favourites remain Maqbool (2004) and The Namesake (2006), both featuring the equally nuanced actor, Tabu, as his co-star. And later, The Lunchbox and Piku.
The first time I met Irrfan was when he came over to meet the person who had actually watched and loved The Warrior – his international debut (2001) in a poetic and powerful role – me! The film had not been particularly well-received in India, though it had got respectable reviews in the foreign press. Irrfan must have been deeply disappointed by the lukewarm reception in his own country, and wondered what had impressed someone like myself (not really a part of the movie critics’ fraternity). He called me hesitantly and a couple of days later, there he was, at my dining table, appealingly reticent but incredibly impassioned, not just about The Warrior, but the magical and vast universe of motion pictures. He talked about his early years and his new life in Bollywood – his eyes restlessly darting around, searching constantly for something, as if to vividly recreate a few elusive scenes, as much for himself as for me. Our chat covered a lot of ground – from costume design to dialogue writing. We also discovered we shared a birthday – and concluded that was our mysterious bond. It was obvious that cinema was life for Irrfan. He was one with his chosen world.
Our last meeting took place in Raipur, where we were both speakers at a high-profile event. I had just finished my session and he was ready to start his. We exchanged affectionate greetings and I went off for press interactions. I was keen to attend his session and went back to hear him. The ‘Essential Irrfan’ had not changed at all – but the person on stage, talking smoothly to his awestruck interviewer, was now a global celebrity. He had acted in Hollywood blockbusters (The Amazing Spiderman, 2012), worked with superstar directors like Ang Lee (The Life of Pi, 2012), and so many of those life-changing experiences had rubbed off on him. I took in the details – the polished presentation, as polished as the famous and very expensive red-soled Louboutins on his feet, the sharply-cut Tom Ford suit, the perfectly gelled hair – and the anecdotes he chose to share. Everyone had a good laugh when he mentioned his newly-designed beach house in which he had decided to place a large bathtub bang in the middle of his living room. Why? He answered with a shrug, “So I can lie naked inside the tub, gazing out at the sea.” Okieee!
He deserved a far superior farewell film than Angrezi Medium which had its ‘lockdown digital premiere’ a few days ago. He was brilliant in it – which goes without saying. I am sure there were many challenges and several compromises involved in completing the film, keeping in mind Irrfan’s fragile health during its making. Here’s hoping we soon get to enjoy a festival of his films on any of the OTT platforms – nothing could beat that as a real tribute to one of our finest, most gifted actors.
“I trust… I have surrendered,” was your poignant and philosophical response after you were diagnosed with the terrible disease we lost you to. Your courage will always be remembered. May it inspire all of us in these very difficult Covid times, when life and death are playing dangerous games with humanity itself. When you said, “I suppose, in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye”, you broke our hearts. An emotionally over-wrought and very grateful nation bids you farewell today, dearest Irrfan…
And heartfelt condolences to your devoted wife Sutapa and beloved sons Babil and Ayaan.
(Shobhaa De is an established writer, columnist, opinion shaper and social commentator, who is considered an authority on popular culture.)
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