By Ronak Gupta
I recently watched Mira Nair’s quietly devastating film, The Namesake, perhaps for the first time. I say perhaps because I vaguely remember watching the movie when I was younger. It’s now obvious to me why I have little recollection of ever seeing it. The Namesake is not a film for someone who hasn’t quite seen the world, as I hadn’t at the age of 18, as cliche as that sounds. At 28, however, the movie unraveled itself to me in bits and pieces.
The isolation of living so far from home is not something you can simulate in your brain. It’s accrued over time by being away, even as you continue looking for a tether to the familiar confines of home, any object big or small, any relationship steady or transient. It’s this abject sense of longing that’s the defining characteristic of Nair’s film and the very fabric of its central character, Ashoke Ganguli, so delicately played by Irrfan Khan.
Irrfan doesn’t seem to do much in the film. But, he inhabits the character of Ashok to a maximal degree. Ashok’s deep sense of rootedness is his. Irrfan doesn’t need to act. He probably isn’t acting. He is just being. When Ashoke dies in the film, it left me with a sense of emptiness that persisted until the movie’s end. Quietly, slowly but steadily, Irrfan had established a pervasive presence in the film, in my head, and in my heart.
When I first read about Irrfan’s death, I stopped mid-sentence in a conversation and paused for a minute. I had to gather myself. My love for cinema is deep, my appreciation for its great practitioners even deeper. And Irrfan was one of the very best.
For me, his loss evoked a strong sense of deja-vu. It took me back to the time when I had just watched Brokeback Mountain, years after its release. I remember feeling profoundly sad at the thought of never seeing Heath Ledger in a new film. I had for long harboured hopes of Irrfan reuniting with Vishal Bhardwaj to give us another Shakespearean insight into love, loyalty, and loss; for another movie with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, trading dialogue and throwing cinephiles into a dizzying frenzy. Maybe we would have gotten an Irrfan and Pankaj Tripathi film, a certain masterclass in minimalism and the economy of gestures. But we won’t. It will take some time to come to terms with the finality of his death.
Before I watched a film to honour Irrfan’s legacy, I saw a supercut of his advertisements. Most of them are just Irrfan in a medium shot, delivering lines in a deadpan way that he had made his own inimitable style. Bollywood only gradually warmed up to the idea, but Syska, Hutch, and then Vodafone correctly figured that Irrfan on-screen is an arresting enough presence to simply cut off other riff-raff. A second viewing revealed that Irrfan wasn’t really saying ‘lines’. He was just talking to the camera, at us. Do we really need an energy-saving light bulb or a mini talk-time recharge, least of all from an actor breaking the fourth wall? It doesn’t matter. There is something incalculably magnetic about Irrfan even describing the most inane stuff. I can’t quite put a tab on it. I never could.
When it was finally time to pick a film of his to watch, I was spoilt for choice. So many of his characters had gnawed their way into memory and remained there, long after I had forgotten about the films. I was recounting his characters and then his films. There are the big ones – the effortlessly charming Rana from Piku, the titular Maqbool, and Paan Singh Tomar. In Maqbool, he played to the conflicted loyalties of his character with a combination of ferocious intensity and delicate vulnerability. In Paan Singh Tomar, there is regret and resentment hard-coded into his body language, more in his face, most in his eyes. Those eyes of his generally did so much heavy lifting, a sideways glance here and there between the many times he paused as he spoke.
Irrfan’s acting is often termed naturalistic, a term that belies the precise control he had on his craft. Many, including me earlier in this piece, have spoken about how he adapts to his characters and wears them like a cloak; that he isn’t ‘acting’ at all. It’s true though. When Irrfan’s on-screen, he isn’t himself. He lives through the character. He never gives the impression of role-playing anyone. But, what’s also true is that few actors have this ability and even fewer have the passion and work ethic to pull it off. Irrfan did, undoubtedly. And what great use he put it to.
His glowing career spanned decades and includes films from Bollywood and Hollywood as well TV serials that played on Doordarshan. Irrfan painted on a broad canvas. He had a peerless understanding of the pulse of a director, the tone of a film, and the rhythm of dialogue. He was never out of place and never miscast, be it in a popcorn multiplex release or smaller fare.
Irrfan made bad films bearable, and decent films good by his mere presence. Without him in it, both Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Single would hardly be the fun, light-hearted capers they eventually turned out to be. Then, there are the memorable cameos too. The oddball in Life in a Metro, who Irrfan keeps on the very cusp of being unlikeable and pitiable, the street vendor in Mumbai Meri Jaan who’s bruised psyche Irrfan captures pitch-perfectly and finally Roohdar in Haider, a character many remember long after the film. There, he obviously benefited from some fantastic writing, but he had no business stealing every scene he appeared in.
The satisfying jog down Irrfan’s filmography led me to a final destination I predicted I’d arrive at, all along the way. For a minute, I flirted with the idea of revisiting Karwaan, a breezy film elevated by Irrfan’s masterful duality of comedic and dramatic chops. But I quickly settled onto a film that remains one of my all-time favourites: The Lunchbox.
In it, Irrfan is Saajan Fernandes, an ageing government employee. We know what Saajan does for a living, but we don’t know who he truly is. This is gradually unveiled in the silent spaces that occupy the film. Irrfan’s wonderful restrained work lifts seemingly mundane moments and colours them with the revelation of Saajan’s personality. In his glimpses into the window of a family dining, we see a flicker of regret. In his reveries, we see romance and self-doubt. Even when he is annoyed, it’s a curtailed reaction, finely calibrated like the rest of his life.
Saajan might come across as a man wholly defined by his humdrum existence. But his ability to love and will to live are both dormant, not extinct. We see him slowly awaken from a state of near suspended animation to a realization that he isn’t walking towards an end, but inching towards a new beginning. Irrfan paints this renaissance journey, not with loud flourishes, but quieter subtleties. He depicts loneliness and resignation, hope, and despair without saying a single word. He causes so much noise without almost any sound.
Irrfan had long been associated with the term ‘brooding intensity’. But, over the years he built a reputation for being the coolest guy in a room, a reputation backed by Hollywood everyman Tom Hanks. He knew when to take himself seriously and when to let go, a quality amply evident in his interviews and appearances in AIB videos. In a wildly popular one, he proclaims, “I can do anything.” And when it came to films, he really could. In an interview of his, I was reminded of an incredible fact: Irrfan has worked with both Anees Bazmee and Ang Lee. But, what’s more amazing is that he didn’t phone it in either film and pulled off satisfying performances in both. The set of actors who can do the same is a null set.
While writing this piece I often had to go back and change tense in sentences – has to had, can to could. It’s settled in my mind now that Irrfan is no more. In an interview, he had said: “Your whole being is your tool.” Indeed, the great actors imbibe every role with tiny bits of their life, their experiences, misgivings, and longings. Through his many films, we have peeked into his life. What a life it must have been.