Irrfan ruled not because he was a Khan but because he dropped the title and outpaced the other three Khans of Bollywood by his sheer class.
A tome on Irrfan Khan, India’s most complete star of all time, has hit the shelves. Seasoned film writer Shubhra Gupta’s Irrfan Khan: A Life in Movies, has opened up some wonderful conversations about the lanky actor who was popular in the West but an unmatched star in Asia. Top filmmaker Mira Nair had once described Irrfan as a Praying Mantis, a slender predatory insect that waits for prey with forelegs folded like hands in prayer. The book explains why Irrfan was a true star and worked his way up in the Mumbai movie mecca and carved a niche for himself beyond the Hollywood bubble. Gupta talked to multiple directors and actors to gauge the multiple layers that make Bollywood, an industry clogged with never-ending adaptations, sequels, prequels and spin-offs to understand Irrfan who was a genuinely surprising and talented actor. So let me start with Nair whose Namesake brought the best out of Irrfan despite the fact that was new to the US and travelled to that faraway land for the first time to shoot with a much seasoned Tabu. And he excelled brilliantly. Nair admits in the book that Irrfan was not going to be the conventional hero, singing and dancing.
Nair told Gupta: “I don’t think he ever wanted that, and he certainly knew that he was not that. I don’t think he came to Bombay with hopes of being a hero which were dashed to the ground.” Nair told the author that he felt Irrfan made a difference every time he walked into the sets. “He could do Paan Singh Tomar with Metro, and–of course–Piku. He made himself belong and took us on a journey of really high craft. Sometimes the films weren’t always as high crafted but he was always. But that’s what Irrfan did differently from the high-calibre actors that entered Bollywood, and stayed that way; he showed us he could do anything. And what he didn’t want to do, he didn’t do.
He isn’t prancing around trees and singing because I don’t know if he could do that. I think he knew, without ego, that he had something very special in him and he wasn’t going to fritter it away.” Irrfan was indeed different; I remember what he told his relatives when he was undergoing treatment for cancer in a London hospital. Khan said the disease and its treatment had opened up a new world of genuine, super genuine and fake relationships. “There is no star effect, all I see now is genuine human relationships,” Khan told a relative in Delhi. Khan said his condition was almost like a Bollywood script, he now knows who is his friend, and who is not.
He has told his family members that he is understanding the true value of human life, now that he has been diagnosed with cancer. “It is a strange feeling, I am realising how the world is unfolding, changing in front of me. It is a new life, a new world that I never thought I would see. Relationships are acquiring new meaning for me,” Khan told his relative. I returned to the book and the portion on Nair where she said some very strong lines for Irrfan: “[For Americans] he’s in the realm of Jean-Paul Belmondo or Marcello Mastroianni or Omar Sharif, even—clearly from some other culture but having great appeal to be seen as anything from an Everyman type to a very quiet and intelligent sort of sex appeal.” The author goes on and on, speaks to multiple people–did she write that she did painstakingly long zoom calls during the pandemic? –and gets some great answers from celebrities who worked with Irrfan, an actor who never took the easiest buck. He was like the New York Times effect on man, remember the song Staying Alive by the Bee Gees? The prolific actor made an indelible mark with movies like Namesake, Maqbool, Madari, Piku, Paan Singh Tomar, Lunch Box, Jurassic World, Inferno and Life of Pi. I remember one incident in South Delhi’s predominantly Bengali neighbourhood of CR Park–home to his in-laws–where Irrfan wore a burqa to step out to savour pani-puris. When he was being treated in London for a Neuroendocrine tumour, shortened as NET, an abnormal tissue growth arises in the hormone-producing nervous cells (or neuroendocrine cells) of the body, fans prayed across India, some even posted on Facebook that they would undertake the arduous Sabarimala Temple walk to pray for Irrfan. No wonder he was special, look at the number of people who spoke about Irrfan and his 30-year career in the movies. Shyam Benegal, Naseeruddin Shah, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Rajat Kapoor, Mira Nair, Shoojit Sircar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Nikkhil Advani, Homi Adajania and Pankaj Tripathi are among the people whom Gupta interviewed for the book. It is a herculean task. Vishal Bhardwaj, who worked with Khan on films such as Maqbool (2003) and Haider (2014), told the author that he felt it was destiny which brought him and Irrfan together because some other actor was meant to be playing Maqbool. “When I watched the trial of his film Haasil, I was blown away by his performance. Somewhere in my heart, I wished I had seen Haasil earlier. But by that time the other actor was finalised. Somewhere along the line, when we came closer to our shoot, we had some date issues with the other actor. Immediately I contacted Irrfan. He heard the script, loved it and came on board. It was destiny.” Bhardwaj told Gupta that Irrfan was a great actor and a very evolved human being whose worldview about politics and religion was very evolved. And once they started working together, they gradually got close and became friends. “Itna khoobsurat insaan tha dil se (He was a beautiful person at heart); there was no malice within him. And to add to that, he had a khatarnak (deadly) sense of humour. He could find humour in anything.” Bhardwaj narrated one incident to the author about Meghna Gulzar and said it was Irrfan who helped Meghna by agreeing to do Talvar. He told Bhardwaj that if not for Meghna–then on a low–but for Gulzar. In short, his selection of films was not only based on the role. He would look at the intention of the whole film, then want to be a part of it. “I used to find it odd that sometimes he was so natural in front of the camera, it seemed like he wasn’t even acting. So I had my doubts about whether he had even come prepared or if he just walked in front of the camera without any preparation or homework. He always used to say that one percent of what we do behind the camera translates into twenty per cent on camera. He used to be very subtle in his approach; he was so natural.” Tillotama Shome, who had done a film called Shadows of Time with Irrfan, recollected the times when Irrfan was not actually a superstar. And then Qissa happened. “I was already feeling so vulnerable with just being in Bombay, being who I am and, by then, Irrfan was Irrfan, the great, celebrated actor who everybody wanted to work with. My part was so tough that in order to also enjoy playing it, one just had to do so much homework every day.” “So, my relationship with him was always very tense and I never thought of him as a friend. I knew we were just colleagues. But I perceived that he was also charming me. And I wanted to fight back and to engage with him because, secretly, I felt he was accessing something which was very aspirational for me–the idea that I have, the notion of an artist, as some kind of conduit between worlds. There was something; I can’t explain it in words, Shubhra, which is why I find it very difficult to talk about Irrfan. But for me, he was a body, a medium, a vessel, and I felt that there were galaxies that he was communicating with.” I could go on and on but then the pages will run out. I think I must end this one with words from the legendary Naseeruddin Shah about Irrfan, the one thing that comes to his mind every time he thinks of Irrfan: “His eyes are the most memorable, absolutely. Fantastic eyes. They spoke a million things, they were transparent when they needed to be, they were hard and cold when they needed to be. And his gentle nature. I think he was a very gentle person by temperament.” Shah should know.
Irrfan ruled not because he was a Khan but because he dropped the title and outpaced the other three Khans of Bollywood by sheer class. It’s like staying relevant, it’s like having the courage to ask Vishnu the road to Allah. A brilliant book, especially for those keen to make it big in Bollywood.