In a recent clip shared by Anand Gandhi, which plays out as a tribute to Irrfan Khan, we see the late actor in a candid conversation with great change-makers. In the clip we see Irrfan sharing insights on one’s self, the ecosystem, and the future of humans. Anand Gandhi, the man who directed the sublime Ship of Theseus, said, “I’ve been recording interviews between scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers and artists as part of a seamless movie undertaking,” further saying that this “is a tribute to the nice actor that I keep in mind- enormous, compassionate, rational, and seeker of reality.” This example is but one in the countless number of tributes and heartfelt messages that has out poured since the actor’s death due to a colon infection, expressing in particular how the death felt like a personal loss for so many who hardly knew him.
Irrfan Khan was one of those rare actors whose reputation rested not on his star power but solely on his screen presence. His artistry was unmatched in his pursuit of truth in every character he played on screen, bringing out the most complex of characters with an effortlessness that is rare to find. You may not see him all the time, but he is there- a towering presence with an enviable filmography and performances that deserve reverence. Much has been said about his celebrated roles- from the scene stealing villainy in Haasil to the stoic reticence in Maqbool, from the caring parent in The Namesake to the ruthless one in Qissa, from the mistreated athlete in Paan Singh Tomar to the ghostly intrigue in Haider. His performances were a testament to the unassuming brilliance he possessed as an actor, but the chief weapon with which he led us to his brilliance was his eyes. Large, drooping eyes that were enough to reflect the truth of the characters even in their worst realizations. Take for instance his lead performance in Maqbool, where even an unlikable character is given a stoic sense of guilt solely through his eyes. Or in The Lunchbox, where a reservoir of emotions flood his eyes every time his character opens the tiffin. Ranveer Singh said while promoting Gunday, where Irrfan had a supporting role, that how the actor’s eyes most certainly deserved a separate Oscar.
But for the rare honesty in his screen presence, what still makes the actor’s demise so painfully real rests in something that is in some way personal. Assem Chhabra was quoted as saying how he changed “the idea of what an actor needs to look like in an industry where he isn’t the traditional idea of what is handsome” bringing in that rare sense of the sublime and quotidian. Mira Nair, who gave Irrfan his short, almost insignificant debut role in Salaam Bombay! and then went on to cast him in a pivotal lead performance in The Namesake, wrote in The New York Times that he was one actor who seemed to be “clearly from some other culture but having great appeal to be seen as anything from an Everyman type to a very quiet and intelligent sort of sex appeal.” This performance would open the world for Irrfan, who evoked so much sympathy for this character that it hurt. Later, his performance in Piku, as the cab owner Rana Chaudhary who has to drive the dysfunctional father-daughter duo to Kolkata stands out for this ability, where he is able to gracefully realize the dynamics of a foreign family with the sweet, sly, deep intelligence that imbues his every movement on screen.
In Gandhi’s clip, the late actor says how he “thinks that there is a need to make people understand that they are a product of so many influences”, further adding that how there is a sort of “influx of cultural invasion” when it comes to the idea of a spiritual role model. This side of the actor, so deeply personal and rare in its vulnerability evokes a soul who had a sense of his own place in this world, an aspect that is but seldom in the facade of commercial movie stardom. Irrfan was one of those rare people from Bollywood who not only had a strong socio-political awareness but was also not wary of voicing his opinions or taking a stand.
His Facebook page, tucked away amidst the film promotions, has posts of Gram Seva Sangh (GSS), an organization that fosters synthesis between rural and urban India and promotes handmade products. In 2018, while inaugurating a GSS symposium, Irrfan said his art was also like that of the artisans- both use the same tools, the human body. This was an artist in the truest sense of the term, who knew he had a voice and used it without any hullabaloo surrounding it. In 2016, he publicly questioned the concepts of fasting, qurbaani, and tajiya processions, which didn’t go down well with Islamic clerics. He later clarified that he did not intend to create a controversy, but maintained that a discussion must begin around these rituals. All religions must introspect and change to stay relevant, he said. These are not easy stands for a star to take, but Irrfan clearly did not care about how the cinema world might react.
Irrfan demise leaves us with a void that is unattainable and permanent. Perhaps, his line from Paan Singh Tomar: “Bihad mein toh baghi hote hain, dakait milte hain parliament mein” (The badlands have rebels, it’s Parliament that has the dacoits) is best suited to realize his greatness not just as an actor par excellence but as free-thinker, conscious of his own voice. It is this sudden, intractable death in an uncertain, quarantined existence that limits us to mourn his loss, exposing the permanence of loss in a world that is currently bereft of hope. Perhaps, this is why it feels so personal, a loss that reminds us of what we must look up to, as an ideal. How does one mourn this loss? How does one make peace with this unfairness of death? When does the realization end? What is distant closeness called? There are no succinct, easy replies at all, that would suffice for the memory of his transcendence. One can only feel this with all intensity, and remember that such a loss demands to be felt.