The last time I saw Irrfan Khan in person, he was flying kites at his home in the old city of Jaipur. Khan had returned to his hometown after completing one of his greatest films, Paan Singh Tomar, and looked every bit of an athlete — lean, tanned and super fit, ready to run a steeplechase and climb the podium. Who could have imagined that just a few years later Khan would be struck by a rare disease and die battling it? But, as Irrfan himself wrote in a poignant tweet announcing his illness in 2018, “life is under no obligation to give you what you expect”.
Irrfan Khan, who died in Mumbai on Wednesday (April 29) at the age of 53, wasn’t just an ordinary actor; he was an entire industry in himself. Roles were written for him, shooting schedules were planned around him not just in India, but all across the world. If you want to understand Irrfan’s importance in the global pecking order, fast-forward to the credits of the 2015 film Jurassic World. I won’t tell you when and where his name appears, but when it does, it will make every Indian proud.
Like everyone who has had the great fortune of spending their formative years in Jaipur, Irrfan was extremely fond of flying kites, the traditional sport of the city. It was almost a ritual for him to return to his home on Makar Sankranti, a festival of kites, music and pakoras, and spend the day on the roof.
The thing about kites is this — if the wind speed is not favourable, it is impossible to fly them. And, once they have the wind beneath their wings, they can soar higher and higher into the sky. But, and this is the sad part, it is every kite’s destiny to fall back to the ground once its thread is snipped, cruelly and unexpectedly. Irrfan’s life and career were almost like that of a kite.
Three decades ago, Irrfan first started appearing on the Jaipur theatre circuit as a wannabe actor. In those days, the only place of importance for an aspiring actor in Jaipur was the Ravindra Rangmanch, a small theatre nestled in a corner of the picturesque 19th century Ramniwas Bagh of Jaipur.
Irrfan’s first role of any importance, his colleagues remember, was that of a man who stands in the corner of a stage with a danda in his hand. Throughout the play, he doesn’t move or say a word. But within a few years, the kite was destined to soar.
In the winter of 2002, the British papers were going ga-ga over an Indian actor who had changed the very paradigm of acting. After a few years of non-descript roles in Indian cinema and TV, Irrfan suddenly burst on the cinema scene of England with his career-defining role in The Warrior, a British film about a warlord who kills without mercy. The film got rave reviews, was almost nominated as the British entry for that year’s Oscar’s and was heralded as a Kurosawa meets Sergio Leone moment for British cinema. But, it did one more thing: It convinced Irrfan to not give up acting—an idea he was contemplating after a string of low-key performances—and established him as the face of India in Hollywood.
I happened to be in London during that summer on a scholarship. Imagine the pride of a quintessential Rajasthani when the BBC called a fellow Rajasthani—Irrfan Khan—simply “mesmerising” and the Guardian called the film’s narrative technique “bordering on the magic realism modish in fiction about a decade ago, yet demonstrating access to the mysterious interior story of the protagonist.”
Over the next few years, the entire world was to find out… Irrfan was mesmerizing in each and every role he portrayed. Such was the power of his performance that even in third-rate films like Rog, it would be impossible for a viewer to take eyes off the screen every time Irrfan appeared on it. And when he had the script to back his performance, Irrfan’s films were absolute magic.
The surprising thing about Irrfan was that he created memorable characters without doing much — like a kite floating in the sky on a balmy day. You could cast him as a die-hard romantic — Qareeb Qareeb Single, an expat worried about his son’s existential angst — The Namesake, a comic, a baddie or a cop, Irrfan would go about his task in an unhurried, understated manner that brought a rare calm and joy to the viewer. All he had to do, usually, was talk with his big, round eyes that conveyed so much with so little, and through minor variations in his trademark dialogue-delivery.
There were, of course, occasions when he burst on the screen like a volcano kept silent for centuries. And when he did, his entire persona would burn the screen with so much emotion and energy that the moments became engraved on memory. One such epic performance is in Irrfan’s signature film, Paan Singh Tomar, where it is just impossible to not identify with his pathos, sear with his rage and exult when he blazes both the track and the ravines of Chambal. His act as an athlete who is forced to turn into a baaghi (rebel) is so compelling that I can bet you’d leave everything and gape at the screen even if the film were playing in the background.
Three Indian films about dacoits are (or would be considered at some later day) cult classics. The top ranker, of course, is Sholay, a delightful mix of comic-book figures inspired by Hollywood westerns. Two years ago, Abhishek Chaubey helmed Sonchiriya, an under-rated but brilliant tale of dacoits with a golden heart. Both these films turned spectacular because their star cast has some of the greatest actors of the extant era. If every actor in Sholay is brilliant, Sonchiriya rides on the enormous talents of Manoj Bajpai, Ranvir Shourey, Sushant Singh Rajput and Ashutosh Rana.
But, Paan Singh is memorable just because of one actor—the searing, the spectacular, the brilliant Irrfan. And therein lies Irrfan’s greatest contribution to cinema—the ability to make a film work with his sheer presence, not through Baahubali-esque set-pieces, Bachchan-esque drama, Singham-Dabangg brand slam-bang or Shahrukh style mush but by being the sum total of all the actors and genres of his age.
Khan’s cinematic journey promised a lot more. But, a few weeks ago, Khan had put out a video, talking about his health and upcoming film—Angrezi Medium. “I am here but still not here,” he said in a cheerful voice. “Some foreign elements have invaded my body and the fight is on. Let’s see what happens in the future.”
“All my life I heard ‘if life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.’ But, I have realized that sometimes when your life is a lemon; it is not easy to make it juicy. But, what option do you have!” As destiny would decree, his last film had to be pulled off theatres because of the countrywide lockdown due to the coronavirus threat.
Our skies will miss you, Irrfan. But, may you soar on some other firmament.