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Irrfan Khan – A Personal Tribute

April 30, 2020 | By

Irrfan Khan was the unique incandescence in a plethora of excesses in Hindi cinema. He passed away on 29 April 2020. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag writes a heartfelt tribute.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox (Pic: IMDb)

I am at a loss of words. Literally. As I just started writing an obit of sorts on Irrfan Khan after his sad demise yesterday, my sister texted me with the news that Rishi Kapoor slipped away as well. Today morning. Both of them have an uncanny end of season, flowing to foreign shores for treatment and deteriorating suddenly with ailments that take their toll too quick, to desperate.

It reminds me of the withering away of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioini in the end of July, thirteen years back within a span of few hours. They were giants of world cinema. Irrfan and Rishi are the prominent stars, without a doubt, in the Indian sky.

Writing obits and tributes are painstakingly degrading jobs. It tears away a few veins and numbs you before you may gather the pieces again. When Max von Sydow passed away on the 8th of March this year, it took me nearly a month to clear my head to look at him without my filtered glasses. What gushed out was emotion – raw, unadulterated. At the end of it, there is probably no reason to provide a laundry list of life events or also a filmography when you actually cared about only a few acts of creation.

Sydow is a genuine love, a shadow as we grew up silently into vacuous men hiding beneath the copious dew drops of our existential crises. As the Knight crossing lands and cutting his own lengthy spectre Sydow had no chinks in his armour. Or there may be a few and we ignored them. In The Face, his brooding eyes and slanting, slashing, breath-taking eyelashes keep you active, rooted, immobile. Only later you know that those eyelashes were false. Just as life is, in parts and at times in its entirety.

Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar

Irrfan Khan in and as Paan Singh Tomar (Pic: IMDb)

Eyes define actors. More than their smiles may be. Extreme closeups on the face capture the eyes more than the lips, any day, for any one. It is the eyes that classify Om Puri’s luminance. It is them that he can mask in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and still be so palpable, so effective, so radiant. It is the eyes of Nawazuddin Siddiqui that shine with bright luminance, in Manto and also in a few others. It is the dream in Apu and Amal, the intensity of Feluda and the helplessness of the doctor that makes Soumitra Chatterjee’s eyes so versatile, so redolent.

And, it is the eyes of Irrfan that bulge and speak, at the verge to explode, at the simmering end of a journey. In a career of almost three decades it is the last half that we noticed him. With awe, with reverence as he snatches the light from beneath the bosoms of beautiful damsels and the noses of rambling superstars. We ignored him far too long, far too. Never realised he was the unique incandescence in a plethora of excesses in Hindi cinema.

If the Khans, the Kapoors, the Khannas or the Bachchans have their highways to success so there had been petite roads for the Naseeruddin Shahs and the Om Puris riding the waves of a modernity in the Indian cinematic shore. It took one Amol Palekar to show how it looks to be a hero and to be different, how to be real in a world strewn with unrealistic visions and expressions.

Piku (2015)

And yet, Palekar didn’t have to wait for long. He was taken up in the cradle of directors who wanted to breathe a daily life even within dreamy moulds. For Irrfan it was a long wait, on the streets as a letter writer and with one ‘r’ in his name. I read somewhere he was inspired by Mithun Chakraborty and decided to take up acting as his career. Mithun was refreshingly different and yet Irrfan never had the glory and ride to success as Mithun had. His story, and no mistaking it, is like the average student of the class, always quiet, but never quite. And that is why he could become bigger and better than an occasional Manoj Bajpai or the garish Nana Patekar. It is because of Irrfan that we acknowledge a Nawazuddin so readily. It is because of him that in a personal conversation even Soumitra Chatterjee tells me that probably he would have liked Irrfan as Manto more than Nawaz’s painstakingly brilliant rendition. “When he was in Kolkata once, someone called him up so I could speak to him. I told him how I loved his acting in The Lunchbox. He thanked me and said that he would tell this to the entire unit of the film, and that this is an award to him. I am indeed, a big admirer of his acting,” Soumitra Chatterjee told me this morning.

The Lunchbox (2013)

Every actor, even the greatest has limitations of repeating oneself. Because we are so ungratefully ruthless to ask for variations when we ourselves are so horribly recurring. Even the filmmakers and writers can afford signature styles when we disparage an actor as having mannerisms. In India, the number of films an actor needs to boil his egg is so disturbingly hazardous that he becomes ‘real’, like us – a reiterating noisy gramophone. Irrfan is no exception, but he doesn’t need to worry, there are many others before him alluding to similar misery and yet holding up the ante.

To me, where Irrfan swells and thrives, draws close to our hearts and retains his renaissance of wonder is the way he can bring in wit to his performances. Not comedy, neither humour if the script doesn’t require it, but plaintive wit. Plaintive, because you know how difficult it is to extract in most of the mainstream scripts. Eyes equate to wit for him.

Rog (2005)

As I close mine, to look for Irrfan not on the YouTube miniatures, but in the inner contours of memory it is Ashoke. The fleetingly repressed, inherently shy, unobtrusively detached hero of The Namesake. We never had much in common apart from the nightmares of telephone rings in foreign soils late at night. Yet, when he says to his son how everyday has been a gift since the birth of his son, I could and can even more, now, relate how days are wasted in the bandwagon of stupefying desires – desires to ‘become’ leaving behind the ‘being’. In the half-finished smiles hanging from the corner of frozen lips Ashoke becomes me, us, many who ever had been sons, who at times have become fathers as well.

Irrfan Khan, with his body of work that is neither obese, nor an oversight, will freeze to me with that hope – a hope for all the middle-goers, who all dream of flying low.

The Namesake (2006)

More to read

Om Puri – The Luminance of a Natural Actor

Chetan Anand: Exploring the Unconventional to Make Landmark Films

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema

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Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at
All Posts of Amitava Nag

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