A tribute: With Irrfan Khan, less was always more

Irrfan’s appeal lay in precisely what he could not be: a textbook Hindi film idol. He was an alternate hero

Updated - December 03, 2021 06:20 am IST

Published - April 29, 2020 06:11 pm IST

 Irrfan Khan, a veteran actor in Bollywood movies and one of India's most well-known exports to Hollywood, has died. He was 54.

Irrfan Khan, a veteran actor in Bollywood movies and one of India's most well-known exports to Hollywood, has died. He was 54.

It was this same cruel month of April back in 2002. Irrfan Khan, despite more than a decade of struggle and the popular Tony and Deeya Singh serial Banegi Apni Baat behind him, had only just begun to make an impression on the Hindi cinema audience. But London-based director Asif Kapadia, who had directed him in his award winning debut feature The Warrior in 2001, told me that Irrfan was, “the Indian Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, Gary Oldman or Vincent Gallo… He can do anything he wants...I look forward to seeing him fly.” He said this for a piece I was doing back then for Outlook magazine on the new compelling actors on Hindi cinema’s horizon.


As that flight got cruelly grounded today, way too soon, for one of India’s finest actors and truly international talents, I look back with wonder at how prophetic Kapadia could be back then. In the more than 15 years that followed, one has been witness to some of the most trailblazing performances from Irrfan in a wide spread of roles and films.

Irrfan’s appeal lay in precisely what he could not be: a textbook Hindi film idol. He was an alternate hero. One wondered if Bollywood would be able to accommodate the Jaipur boy’s unusual persona. It did. He was an actor first who later went on to acquire the charm of a mainstream star without losing his rootedness. An actor with unconventional professional ambitions which were not restricted to Indian cinema alone. An actor who could transcend nationalities and boundaries and appeal to a global audience. An actor who could do anything, become anyone. Most importantly, one who would always be there for young filmmakers to narrate new stories in newer forms despite having been courted by international giants like Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle.

Cast members of the best picture nominated film 'Slumdog Millionaire,' (L-R) Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Freida Pinto and Madhur Mittal arrive at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 22, 2009

Cast members of the best picture nominated film "Slumdog Millionaire," (L-R) Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Freida Pinto and Madhur Mittal arrive at the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 22, 2009

It wasn’t easy to arrive at this point in life. His debut itself was jinxed: a cameo in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) eventually got chopped at the editing table. He struggled hard and long. However, the battle didn’t leave him weary, bitter or cynical. He didn’t show nor allow himself to wallow in it. “The recognition is making me feel pampered. It’s as if all these years of acting were worth it,” he had told me in one of the interviews.

He would look back at his time in the National School of Drama in Delhi as the one that provided him an atmosphere to “think and be involved in the craft of acting in a concentrated manner”. He appreciated the TV years to have got him to practice being in front of the camera and got him work to make a living from.

The films to truly get him noticed were Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil (2003), Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2004) and Nair’s The Namesake (2007). In Haasil , a love story set against the backdrop of small-town college politics, he played a student leader who betrays the young hero but walks away with the audience heart. He was smouldering and riveting as the Indian Macbeth nursing forbidden love and longing for his boss’s moll. And then just as unforgetttable as the gentle, introverted Bengali professor Ashoke, trying to strike roots and make a life in an alien land in The Namesake . In Paan Singh Tomar (2012), he played the eponymous character of the steeplechase champion-turned-dacoit with forcefulness, daring, simplicity as well as humour. It won him the National award for the Best Actor. He was bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2011.

In this file photo taken on October 07, 2016 (L-R) actors Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks pose during a photocall on the eve of the World Premiere of the movie 'Inferno' in Florence

In this file photo taken on October 07, 2016 (L-R) actors Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks pose during a photocall on the eve of the World Premiere of the movie "Inferno" in Florence

With Irrfan, less was always more. He could enter and live a character, depicting the many layers and nuances with just a few words and expressions. Irrfan let his eyes talk all the way as the eccentric, unpopular widower Saajan in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013). He was terse and spot on as the cop Ashwin Kumar, leading the double murder probe in Talvar (2015), even as his own marriage is on the verge of a collapse. In The Warrior (2001), the challenge for Irrfan was to depict the journey of a brutal warrior to redemption with minimal tools at hand. “There were probably seven pages of dialogue in the entire script. I found Irfan a master at saying a huge amount with a single look,” said Kapadia in the Outlook interview. Even in a relatively smaller role, of Roohdar in Haider , he became the political, emotional and moral fulcrum of the film.

Understatement extended to his comic and romantic roles as well like the fabulous chemistry of his with Konkona Sen Sharma as the mismatched couple in Anurag Basu’s Life In A Metro (2007). He was perfect with his timing, both comic and romantic as the straight-faced cab owner Rana with whom the father-daughter duo, Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, travel all the way to Kolkata from Delhi in Shoojit Sarcar’s Piku (2015). I haven’t seen another actor use the deadpan to such a great effect as he did.

There are odd scenes featuring him which refuse to leave my mind. How he breaks your heart when he writes to Ila (Nimrat Kaur) about his old age and thanking her for giving space to him in her young life in The Lunchbox, or squabbling with his mother (NSD actor Nutan Surya) in a finely tuned scene in Piku that defines what give and take between two actors should be all about.

Irrfan Khan in ‘The Lunchbox’

Irrfan Khan in ‘The Lunchbox’

I have often told colleagues about how all the obituaries I have written over the years have been of senior people whose work I have admired from a distance without having had any personal connect. With Irrfan one has had the privilege of having had several encounters, up close but never prying and private, including a most memorable lunch that I was forced by him to invite him for at the Indian Women’s Press Corp in Delhi where he floored the women journalists and the staff alike.


Every interview with him was marked with his personal touch. That intense, piercing gaze didn’t just leap out from the screen, but followed me while interviewing him. Questions were posed even as mine were answered. Why do you post so many food pictures on Facebook? How is The Hindu doing in Mumbai? What is the state of the nation like? Where is India heading?

He and his wife Sutapa Sikdar (who gamely let us call him ‘the thinking woman’s sex symbol’ after his light romantic turn in Piku ) defined the secular, liberal bedrock that the nation has always stood for and will hopefully in the future. I remember Irrfan writing a piece for me once about fringe groups trying to curb freedom of expression. The exchange we had on it lies saved in my Inbox. For eternity. I pulled out one para from it which still resonates.

Irrfan Khan, a veteran actor in Bollywood movies and one of India's most well-known exports to Hollywood, has died. He was 54

Irrfan Khan, a veteran actor in Bollywood movies and one of India's most well-known exports to Hollywood, has died. He was 54


He writes: “It’s really sad to see that after so many years of civilisation, of evolution, religion is not helping us coexist. The basic philosophy of every religion is pure but it’s getting abducted and misused by those who control the masses. My point is, why give so much importance to an individual’s religion at all? I think religion is a very private, personal matter between you and God and it should remain so. No third person has any space here.”

The last time I met the couple was for an interview together before the release of his film Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) in a sea-facing suite at the Novotel hotel in Juhu. It had been a busy day for him giving pre-release interviews, wolfing down a late lunch and deciding on his wardrobe for a promotional trip to Delhi. There was the usual fun and banter but he also looked distinctly thin and pale. Who was to know then that the neuroendocrine tumour would be detected just a few months later in March 2018 and it would be the last I’d see of him.

In a curious way I have associated my own journey in film journalism with that of Irrfan’s in cinema. He has provided me some of the most treasured memories. He was the one who made me go all the way to Madh Island — the one and only time I have been there — for an interview to mark his golden 50s. We joked about how I spotted Govinda on my way to meet him: his return birthday gift to me as he would put it. My first top league international film festival was Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 in his good company. Irrfan was the toast of India there with The Lunchbox and his new film Qissa , that didn’t just premiere there but also went on to bag the Netpac award. He was the one to have generously got me my most cherished interview ever — with the rebellious Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani — with whom he was shooting in Jaisalmer for Anup Singh’s The Song of Scorpions.

On-screen brothers in ‘Hindi Medium; and ‘Angrezi Medium’: Deepak Dobriyal and Irrfan Khan

On-screen brothers in ‘Hindi Medium; and ‘Angrezi Medium’: Deepak Dobriyal and Irrfan Khan

There have been other markers. My last review before I quit Outlook was an Irrfan film, Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa . The last film I saw and reviewed before the lockdown was his again: Homi Adjania’s directorial Angrezi Medium . On Friday, March 13, at PVR Juhu. He can’t not be in my thoughts when I walk in to a multiplex next to view a film, whenever in the near or distant future that may be.

In the midst of the helpless bereft feeling engulfing the world at large the unfairness of his death will be specifically difficult to accept and reconcile with. After all, this was just the first act of his long journey into cinema. Who will script the next two acts now?

‘As a student in the 1980s, Irrfan was obsessed with Naseeruddin Shah’

This is an excerpt used with permission from the book Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star by author Aseem Chhabra, printed by Rupa Publications.

While he managed to get admission into NSD, Irrfan took a while to shed his shy, introverted personality. His NSD friends remember him as someone who did not mingle much with others. There was a quieter but focused side to him. It is also possible that since he was from a small town, he was perhaps a bit uncomfortable in the presence of others who came from big cities.

The NSD men’s hostel was located on Vakil Lane. ‘ Hostel mein bilkul bekaar sa kamra tha uska, chhota sa, kone mein ,’ his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia says. Tishu, as his friends and now Hindi film industry colleagues call him, was two years junior to Irrfan (class of 1989). Most first-year NSD students apparently had to share rooms, with a couple of them staying in each room. But Irrfan had managed to get one of the two single rooms.

Actor Vipin Sharma, also an NSD graduate (class of 1983), has the same reaction when he remembers Irrfan’s room. ‘It was in the corner, and we had to pass by his room to gothe bathroom.’ ‘There was a window. I have that image of Irrfan, sitting inside the room or by the window, smoking beedi.’ Vipin believes that Irrfan deliberately chose that room. ‘From the beginning he seemed aloof, but maybe he needed his space,’ he says. ‘In retrospect, I now think that is the reason why he chose that room. Perhaps he wanted to stay in his own world.’

Irrfan’s class had a total of 18 students, most with scholarships, and all coming from different parts of India. Two close friends Irrfan would go on to make were both from big cities—Mita Vashisht from Chandigarh and Sutapa Sikdar from Delhi.

The students would spend long, intense hours with each other—holding addas at the teashop at Mandi House, eating parathas at 2 a.m., arguing, competing, rehearsing plays and collaborating.

Speaking about Irrfan, Mita remembers not noticing him in the beginning. ‘He was a lanky guy with a curly mop of hair, really skinny, with bags under his eyes. But he had an incredible grin. It was a very shy grin and completely wicked. And he had this voice. I am someone who likes textured voices. It wasn’t a deep voice; it was a twangy voice like a banjo.’

Mita recalls an anecdote from when they were still in the first year. One morning, Mita and Irrfan came to blows in class. She cannot recall what they fought over, but this much she remembers: ‘He said something and I said something. Next thing I knew, we were hitting each other and the class had to draw us apart.’

Another person I spoke to about Irrfan Khan was his NSD teacher Ram Gopal Bajaj— affectionately called Bajjo Bhai—who was also a graduate of NSD (class of 1965). ‘Irrfan sabse sehma hua tha ,’ Bajjo Bhai recalls. ‘I see a connection between him being lean, with bulging eyes, angry and yet sehma hua ke kuch kar nahi sakta . My feeling is that Irrfan didn’t have a friend in class, except for Sutapa. He was basically a loner and that is why I noticed him.’ And then he adds, ‘There was some kind of inner gentleness in that boy, which perhaps carries on.’

However, Irrfan did stand out in one way. He thought hanging out, drinking chai at addas, having late night conversations and arguments with classmates was a waste of time. Since Sutapa was from Delhi, she had been exposed to theatre and the arts. She could see the hunger in Irrfan to learn fast, the desperate desire to catch up with the rest of his peers, and soak up as much as possible so he could be at par with them.

Tishu agrees. ‘I have seen Irrfan’s growth over the years,’ he says. ‘He had come from Jaipur, where he didn’t have a lot of exposure to philosophy and ideas. But by watching, observing, reading and discovering world cinema, he grew rather fast. I have many friends, but in Irrfan, that development is remarkable.’

‘He would always be reading books; there was always the latest script of a play in his hand,’ Sutapa added. ‘I don’t remember any other classmate who would carry so many scripts and books in their hand.’

Tishu and Irrfan first connected over their common interest in films. Tishu was seriously interested in directing films and wanted to use the NSD training as a stepping-stone to the Hindi film industry. And Irrfan wanted to act in films. They would spend a lot of time watching and talking about Hollywood films starring actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and the works of Martin Scorsese. Together they would discuss other international filmmakers, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

One thing Irrfan’s NSD classmates remember is his obsession with Naseeruddin Shah. In the 1980s, the young students at NSD had a few role models—actors with independent spirits who were pioneers in the new wave or parallel cinema movement, and Naseer was definitely one of them, along with Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Om Puri.

‘We would all tease him about it,’ Mita Vashisht says. ‘It was like, “ Arre yaar Irrfan, Naseer ko chhod do (Please, Irrfan, forget about Naseer).” But it was how he wanted to approach a role, the way he wanted perform. We often saw Naseer in his performances.’

Years later Irrfan was honest enough to confess to Naseeruddin Shah how much the senior actor had inspired him. ‘I am glad he didn’t try to become another Naseeruddin Shah, and discovered his own identity,’ Naseer says. ‘He told me, “My mother used to curse you.” So I asked, “Why yaar?” and he said, “ Tum uss Naseeruddin Shah ki nakal kar rahe ho. Woh to pahunch gaya, aur tum kahan ho ?” So finally when he made it, I said, “ Yaar, apni ammi ko mera salaam kehna. And tell her ki main itna bura example nahi tha .”’

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