Irrfan Khan: A rare artiste departs
Fame and greatness aside, Irrfan Khan remained till the end a person who had the ability to laugh in the face of danger
Something about Irrfan’s very being—from his films, from his interviews—seemed always to radiate a wisdom from beyond our world, a joy that surpassed the mundane. His bulbous eyes hinted always at a profundity that in eclipsing the limits of the material he worked with, somehow managed to improve it. Those eyes seemed to hold a thousand emotions that could rise and fall as he willed, sometimes within mere seconds, sometimes at once. He could play a dacoit (Paan Singh Tomar) and somehow, not evoke hate. He could play the madcap owner of a dinosaur theme park (Jurassic World), and somehow, make the job seem relatable. He could help murder someone (Maqbool), and somehow, evoke empathy. This was possible because in playing one of us in a film, he somehow managed to fill the character with every one of us.
Is it a surprise then that his passing away feels as personal—like a reminder of our own mortality? Actors, even if we think otherwise, are mortals too, and like us, are forced to leave this world. Their filmography is often intertwined with our lives, serving as milestones of change. Maqbool (2003), The Namesake (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Lunch Box (2013), Qissa (2015), Piku (2015), Hindi Medium (2017)… Such films dotted our lives, tracing our highs and lows. While we mourn the death of most actors by sinking into nostalgia before swiftly moving on, Irrfan’s passing away doesn’t feel like a distant loss. This is because his value isn’t only in the excellence of his performances in many, many films like Life in a Metro, Maqbool, The Namesake, Paan Singh Tomar…
His value stems from some of his personal choices too. His regular downplaying of the importance of fame, for one. Or how he stands as a contemporary example of how Bollywood success needn’t always be inherited. Or how about the fact that his excellence spanning years doesn’t suffer the stain of a single controversy? The tributes have started pouring in, and not so surprisingly, most talk in awe, in mourning, at the person he was, the person we have lost.
In describing good actors, the word ‘effortless’ is often easily used. He was an effortless performer. If this word weren’t so overused, it would be a fitting summary of Irrfan as an actor. He could communicate grief, joy, confusion, surprise, elation, reflection… without ever being fussed. In Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, for instance, he sells a heart full of love and vulnerability, as they say, effortlessly. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar (who acted with him in Thank You), mentioned this very facet in an interview. As Akshay exclaimed almost self-deprecatory astonishment at Irrfan’s ease in performance, the latter’s understated response—a beautiful mixture of pride and humility—is why he’s as loved, as missed.
Fame and greatness aside, he remained till the end a person who had the ability to laugh in the face of danger. Upon learning of his cancer diagnosis, he wrote, “Little did I know that my search for rare stories would make me find a rare disease.” This is rare humour from a person rarer still. This loss hurts, and it’s only appropriate that we take refuge in a line from one of his own films: “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”