A tribute to Irrfan Khan, the finest we had
The finest we had. An actor in a league of his own. A voice like no other. Eyes that spoke. Rest in peace, Irrfan Khan. The Telegraph picks the actor’s screen turns that will be etched in the minds and hearts of moviegoers for posterity
11. Talvar (2015): Meghna Gulzar’s edge-of-the-seat police procedural built around the real-life Aarushi Talwar murder case had Irrfan adding both flesh and life to a role that wasn’t easy to pull off. His investigating cop Ashwin Kumar often had to walk the tightrope between the personal and professional, his virtuoso act also bringing in some unexpected humour. This was a class act in a class film.
12. Hindi Medium (2017): “Arre yaar, koi mujhse comedy karwao,” Irrfan had once thrown his hands up exasperatedly and told us during a chat. The man was a cracker at comedy, his straight-faced deadpan making many not-so-easy-to-pull-off moods and moments seem like a cakewalk. In Hindi Medium, a film that was as much a comment about class and our faulty education system as it was a laugh riot, Irrfan was at the top of his game, tempering his nouveau-riche protagonist with a sense of relatability.
1. Salaam Bombay (1988): He had already become a somewhat familiar face with Bharat Ek Khoj and then in a larger role in Banegi Apni Baat that came a few years later, but Irrfan’s first memorable appearance on the big screen was fittingly in Mira Nair’s deeply moving Salaam Bombay where he was simply credited as “letter writer”. “I noticed his focus, his intensity, his very remarkable look, his hooded eyes. I clocked him,” Mira Nair said about the actor many years later. Initially signed on for a bigger role, Irrfan was later made to play a smaller part to make the film more harmonious, a fact that the actor later said made him cry all night. “I remember sobbing all night when Mira told me that my part was reduced to merely nothing. But it changed something within me. I was prepared for anything after that,” he said. But Irrfan the actor was already born.
2. Haasil (2003): Irrfan continued to appear in parts on screens big and small, often leaving a mark, but it took him 15 years after Salaam Bombay to land a role in a middingly big Hindi film. Haasil, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, focused on the ugly underbelly of student politics and had Irrfan starring in a negative role that earned him a few awards. Brash, ambitious, fearless, intense... there was something about the man that made everyone sit up and take notice. “Aur maaro! Aur jaan se maar dena. Hum reh gaye na, hum maarne mein der na lagaayenge, Bhagwan kasam,” his Ranvijay Singh screamed in one scene. Those eyes!
13. Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017): You just had to give the man even an average line and watch in wonder as he ran away with it. Qarib Qarib Singlle once again gave Irrfan a chance to sink his teeth into a comic character — but one with a lot of depth — and he made the most of it, his Yogi turning out to be one of the most delightful acts that year. “It’s a sunny, happy, funny film... I don’t get those kind of scripts too often,” he had told us on a visit to the The Telegraph office just before the release of the film. We can’t imagine anyone else as Yogi, especially when he went, “Log har peshe mein khudko ghulam kehte hai ... hum ishq karne wale shaayari ko kaam kehte hai.”
14, Karwaan (2018): The last film he shot before being diagnosed with cancer, this Akarsh Khurana-directed dark comedy became the film it turned out to be only because of Irrfan. His Shaukat, saddled with a dead body in the boot of his car but ever ready with a quirk and a quip, made this road film a joyride. The lines he delivered deadpan — “Roti huyi aurat aur doodhwaale pe kabhi bhi bharosa nahin karna chahiye” — were the life of the film.
15. Angrezi Medium (2020): His last film — released just last month — had him bring in the same zeal and commitment as he had to his previous outings, even as he braved long shoots and strenuous schedules to make this film, a sequel in spirit to Hindi Medium. “It’s a performance all right, but one that never feels like he’s acting. It’s in the eyes,” is what we had written in our review. He carried the film on his shoulders — like scores of films before — ensuring we walked out with a smile when we exited Angrezi Medium, excited about the return of Irrfan Khan. A joy shortlived.
3. Maqbool (2003): The film that kicked off the Irrfan Khan-Vishal Bhardwaj collaboration across many more movies was this desi retelling of Macbeth, the first of Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare-inspired trilogy, and starring Irrfan as the eponymously titled character. A mix of simmering intensity, murderous intent and palpable guilt marked Irrfan’s charismatic turn as Maqbool, with the film — despite the presence of stalwarts like Pankaj Kapur and Tabu, with Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah bringing up the rear — resting squarely on his shoulders.
4. Life In A... Metro (2007): Just when everyone was ready to slot him in a box, Irrfan threw a curveball at the audience, coming up with Monty, a part that allowed him to break free and also encouraged many of us sitting in the dark audi to embrace life a little and let go a little. The most memorable character in this Anurag Basu-directed ensemble, Irrfan’s Monty was a delight, whether it was “servicing” Konkona Sensharma’s Shruti with a scream session on the terrace or coming up organically with that perplexed, “Lekin petticoat blouse toh sab uske naap ka sil gaya ha,”, when Shruti tells Monty, the groom atop a horse, that she loves him. Pure gold. “I would love to play Monty again,” Irrfan had once told The Telegraph. If only.
1. The Namesake (2007): He had ventured into foreign shores before — with Asif Kapadia’s 2001 film The Warrior — but with The Namesake, Irrfan firmly put his foot in Hollywood with a story and characters that were distinctly Indian. Mira Nair’s screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller was a powerful and poignant story of love, loss, relationships and redemption on many levels, and who better than Irrfan Khan — those all-knowing eyes, that lopsided smile, that weary charm — to bring Ashoke Ganguli to life? Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial to New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, The Namesake travelled far and wide and into the hearts of the audience, with Irrfan, supported by Tabu, giving it wings. Ashoke’s words to a knee-high Gogol: “Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go,” resonate loud, very loud, today.
2. Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Anil Kapoor may have been the man screaming around town — and almost dancing on the Oscar stage — but it was Irrfan’s quiet presence in this Danny Boyle film, an eight-time Oscar winner, that made Slumdog Millionaire, an average film at best, worth a watch.
5. Billu (2009): It’s tough to forget those eyes welling up, Irrfan biting his lower lip in a bid to control his emotions when superstar Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan, playing a version of himself) acknowledges his childhood friend, Billu the barber, in front of a crowd of hundreds of villagers. “I have been in bits and pieces in many of my films… lived small, small parts of my life in many characters and also embraced each new human being in them,” Irrfan had told The Telegraph in an interview in 2015. Yet, in Billu — where SRK also doubled as producer — there was nothing of Irrfan. It was only Billu — proud and helpless in turns — that we saw on screen, with Irrfan embracing the character like second skin. We cried when Billu cried and we laughed along with him.
6. New York (2009): The Kabir Khan film set in and shot in New York may not have had a big role for Irrfan but when did screen time ever matter for him to make an impact? John Abraham was the film’s star, but Irrfan — as the tough cop with a soft heart, forced to perform his duty — chewed up the scenery, bringing both depth and drama to his part even when he had to mouth the most banal Bollywood lines.
3. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012): The role may not have been much in terms of length, but it was one that gave the film heft. Imagine watching our man play a role of such import in such a huge Hollywood superhero film? Irrfan made the most of the limited material he had, and made us miss him when he was not on screen.
4. Life of Pi (2012): “I suppose, in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go,” is what the grown-up Pi, played by Irrfan, says in the Ang Lee film that brought alive Yann Martel’s book about spirituality and shipwreck and turned out to be a multiple Oscar winner. “Irrfan is a class act... the man can do no wrong on screen... a compelling screen presence,” was some of the praise that came the man’s way in international reviews.
7. 7 Khoon Maaf (2011): The role may not have been much — his Wasiullah Khan aka Musafir was, after all, one of Sussana’s (played by Priyanka Chopra) doomed suitors — but Irrfan stole the show in just one scene, making our hair stand on end with what he brought to his part of a sadomasochist poet. 7 Khoon Maaf was dark and daring. Irrfan even more so. “It’s a part that made me think a lot. It was small, but it took quite a bit out of me,” he had later told The Telegraph.
8. Paan Singh Tomar (2012): “Paan Singh ran and I ran with him emotionally… like I ran from my native town (Jaipur) till I got into NSD (National School of Drama, Delhi). If not physically, but the need to run has been there for me too,” Irrfan had told t2 about the character — a real-life athlete who turns into a rebel — that he had played so compellingly in the Tigmanshu Dhulia film that had earned him a National Award. “Beehad mein baaghi hote hai, dacait toh milte hai Parliament mein,” thundered Paan Singh Tomar. In the way only Irrfan could.
5. The Lunchbox (2013):
He made even the mundane seem so momentous... whether it was that look out of the bus window or that hint of a smile while prising open the crumpled note from his lunchbox. The Ritesh Batra film, an unconventional love story built through the notes exhanged by an unlikely couple, was grounded in emotions by Irrfan who took the simple premise and made a memorable film out of it. His performance told the story of a life authentically lived and emotions authentically felt. Did you know that Irrfan passed up on a role in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar to make time to promote The Lunchbox? Big was never better for the man... truth and honesty to his craft were.
6. Jurassic World (2015):
A role with nothing to write about for its screen time, but one that made a significant contribution to the story. Irrfan played Simon Masrani, a big-time money man, with just the right amount of suaveness and attitude needed for the character. When he was on screen, your eyes went nowhere else. With or without dinosaurs in the frame. “It made my children (sons Babil and Ayaan) happy and I have a larger fan following all over the world now,” he had told The Telegraph shortly after the film became a humongous hit.
7. Inferno (2016):
Always on the radar of big-time Holly filmmakers, this film based on Dan Brown’s eponymous book had Irrfan rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tom Hanks, and managing to hold his own. “It was comfortable and it’s warmth all over whenever Tom Hanks was on set. Felicity (Jones) punched me too hard in the action scenes!” Irrfan had laughed the trademark Irrfan laugh and told us when we quizzed him about the Inferno experience.
9. Haider (2014): Irrfan’s biggest win as an actor was in the way he made every part his own, with just one line or one scene required for him to scorch the screen and steal the spotlight from his co-actors. In Haider, once again teaming up with Vishal Bhardwaj in his desi take on Hamlet that was contemporised against the backdrop of the Kashmir insurgency, Irrfan was Roohdaar, the human form of the ghost in the Shakespearean classic. “Main tha, main hoon... aur main hi rahoonga”. Yes, you will.
10. Piku (2015): No one else could have been Rana Chaudhary in Shoojit Sircar’s delightful slice-of-life film that looked at life and death with humour and heart. Eccentric but pragmatic, Irrfan’s straight-faced turn as the man who brooks no nonsense was a standout act in a film peppered with standout performances, Amitabh Bachchan to Deepika Padukone. There was little he had to say, just a twitch of the eyebrows was enough, whether it was in that famous knife scene in the car just before interval or the conversation around bowel habits at the dining table. And when Rana spoke, he brought on the chuckles: “Kamaal ho aap... kaise har baat ko pet ke saath jod lete ho”. Twinkle in the eye? Check.
Tea tales with Irrfan
Bina doodh aur shakkar ki chai kya chai hoti hai?!” Irrfan Khan was appalled at my request for ‘liquor tea’ at a nondescript dhaba somewhere on the Calcutta-Durgapur highway. It was a blistering 40-plus-degrees on a sultry May afternoon and we had stopped over for refreshments (“thoda bhaag bhi lenge,” he had laughed). The year was 2014 and Irrfan had just wrapped up his portion of shoot — where he played a cop — at the Raniganj coalfields for Gunday, co-starring Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor. It was yet another forgettable film solely powered by a class Irrfan act, and though he had been shooting in the sweltering heat since dawn, Irrfan looked none the worse for it.
I had been lobbying for an interview, he wanted to do it on the car ride to the Calcutta airport to catch the last flight back to Mumbai. That meant quite a bit of time chatting with him, but who was complaining? The conversation was a delight, as all conversations with Irrfan would always be, and he made sure that I never got my liquor tea. “Samose achhe lag rahe hain,” he smiled, insisting I have one too, with some milky-white tea. I did, spending the rest of the day with a bout of extreme acidity, but with a genuine smile plastered on my face.
Such was Irrfan. If he met you once, he behaved like he knew you for life. Over the years, we met and chatted many times, Irrfan always ensuring that he gave me a copy that was worth writing. But most often, it was the chatter that didn’t make it to the story and often done with those he felt even slightly comfortable with, that was more engaging.
Every time we met — in the The Telegraph office, where he dropped in twice within the space of a few months to promote Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Singlle, or outside it — Irrfan was the man we always knew him to be: real and rooted. “Telegraph ko toh main hamesha interview dene ke liye khush hota hoon,” he had told me on many occasions. And he always made good on his word.
Simplicity defined Irrfan. I remember how wistfully he spoke about seeing the Teesta river for the first time and why his heart always beat for shukto and jhinge posto. When he dropped in to promote Qarib Qarib Singlle, wife Sutapa Sikdar in tow, he spoke for a bit, paused in between and then asked, “Woh kha sakte hai kya?” eyeing a plateful of koraishutir kochuri. He was a child at heart.
Irrfan was a man who had travelled the world, met and worked with the biggest, and yet he had the innate ability to blend in and make you feel he was one of you. So long, Irrfan. Here’s raising a toast of milk tea, with a few dollops of sugar, to your memory.