Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan seriously nurtured the desire to be a cricketing hero. In small town India, where cricket and cinema are the twin intoxications that normally drive notions of heroism, the young boy of a tyre seller in Jaipur couldn’t realise the dream, so he shifted focus to acting, his other passion that he had been honing doing street theatre.
It is ironic, actually, that his entry into the field he would never make it big seems far easier, compared to his entry into the field that would eventually give him fame and fortune. For, the young Irrfan from Khajuriya village near Tonk district of Rajasthan was in no time in contention to play in the CK Nayudu Tournament — a stepping stone for under-23 cricket in India. Irrfan could never make it, some say owing to lack of finances.
His entry into the world of films, on the other hand, was far less of a fairytale story. He faced the camera for the first time in Pravin Nischol’s Doordarshan TV series Shrikant, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s novel Srikanta and starring Farooq Shaikh and Sujata Mehta in the lead roles. The show ran between 1985 and 1986, and made very little impact. Irrfan’s big screen break happened when Mira Nair came looking for fresh and interesting faces in National School of Drama (NSD), to cast in her 1988 film Salaam Bombay!. She picked Irrfan, a student at the drama school back then, for a small role. The film went to the Oscars, Irrfan was just about noticed.
What followed are years of struggle. For most of the Nineties, he was stuck with forgettable roles in television, ignored by bigtime Bollywood. Those were the days of mainstream perfection in commercial films, which told tales of the perfect hero setting things right in an unsettled world. Irrfan, with his unconventional face and persona, would seem too outlandish to be a hero. His rich voice and screen presence matched any screen villain’s, but at that point of time he was considered too young to be the traditional bad man.
Back then for a male actor in mainstream Bollywood to make a mark, you had to be either hero or villain. Irrfan was a misfit for both. There were a few interesting roles in the arthouse and crossover circuit — Basu Chatterjee’s Kamla Ki Maut (1989), Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990), Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990), and Akashdeep’s Ghaath (2000). But these roles, despite being well-acted out, didn’t give Irrfan the sort of traction he would hope for, to create an impact.
Interestingly, that happened with a ‘foreign film’ — which perhaps explains his sustained demand in the international market right till the end. When British filmmaker Asif Kapadia was making his directorial debut in 2002 with The Warrior, he was looking for a new face — preferably Indian and unlike any — for the title role. Irrfan fitted the bill. The film was an international success, and people who mattered in the film industry had noticed.
A year later, two films released within a span of months would turn the tide for the actor. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s debut directorial feature Haasil and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool in 2003 gave Bollywood a very different option in screen villainy. His small town goon-politician in Haasil and the brooding don in Maqbool, a Bollywood revisit of Macbeth, gave screen menace two very different hues.
It was the early 2000s, Bollywood was undergoing a churning, with new faces being welcomed. Most importantly, the advent of multiplexes had thrown open the genre of realism in entertainment. Actors like Irrfan were suddenly in demand. Over the next years, roles in Life In A... Metro, Rog, 7 and 1/2 Phere, Sunday, Mumbai Meri Jaan and New York worked at propelling his popularity.
The big bang role in Bollywood would come in 2012, with Paan Singh Tomar. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s remarkable real-life story of an athlete who becomes a dacoit under circumstances needed an actor who could be vulnerable and resilient at the same time, in projecting a complex torrent of emotions with understated ease. Irrfan’s effort won him a National Award as Best Actor. It also underlined an important fact that had been happening through the years — the actor was a brand on his own accord, not a mere prop in big productions for major commercial stars.
What worked for Irrfan in setting up his unique brand power was the fact that he managed to crack the international scene after The Warrior. Michael Winterbottom’s 2007 release A Mighty Heart saw Irrfan essay a Pakistani cop in the grim account of journalist Daniel Pearl’s killing. The film did not work, but when you play an almost parallel role in a film starring Angelina Jolie, you get noticed worldwide. The immediate outcome was his turnaround project — Danny Boyle’s 2008 global blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire. The film’s success and massive Oscar haul made everybody associated with it famous. Hollywood, forever looking for exotic faces, suddenly found a viable deal in Irrfan.
It helped Irrfan for two reasons. First, Indian and Asian origin directors such as Mira Nair and Ang Lee, with Indian and Asian characters, had grown in stature in the West. This translated to important roles in films such as New York I Love You (2009) and Life of Pi (2012). Secondly, Indian roles in mainstream Hollywood projects were no longer about playing the cabbie. The age of inclusion was upon Hollywood, and Irrfan bagged pivotal roles in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Jurassic World (2015), and Inferno (2016), besides voicing Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book.
Juggling his acts between the varying shades of The Lunchbox (2013), Haider (2014), Piku (2015), Talvar (2015), Hindi Medium (2017), and Karwaan (2018), Irrfan had clearly reached his best phase of career in Bollywood.
At the same time, in veteran director Marc Turtletaub’s 2018 Hollywood drama Puzzle, Irrfan finally got to play the hero, opposite Kelly Macdonald. The film won critical acclaim and found favour among the niche audience.
Irrfan’s finest hour — in Bollywood as well as Hollywood — was just. Which makes his demise an irreparable loss for us, on the other side of the screen.
The 53-year-old actor is survived by his wife Sutapa and their sons, Babil and Ayan. For the record, the actor has been ailing ever since he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumour a while back, and has been under medical attention for the same.
For his fans, Irrfan will live on. Incredibly, on the screen. — IANS
10 times Irrfan Khan proved he is master of versatility
Irrfan Khan was a true on-screen chameleon who smoothly transformed from a top athlete to a bandit to a common man looking for a bride to a doting dad in films. The actor is no more, but his memorable roles in Bollywood films will stay forever in the hearts of his millions of fans.
Here’s a guide to his top 10 Bollywood films:
Paan Singh Tomar
He brought the life story of the late Paan Singh Tomar, a champion athlete who later became a bandit, to the big screen. It wasn’t easy to get into the skin of Tomar, who later came to be known as the ‘Bandit King’ of the Chambal Valley.
“Two months before the shoot, I took physical training from a Delhi-based national-level coach on Steeplechase. It was difficult but enjoyable. I also undertook lessons on voice modulation and pronunciation as I had to speak in local dialect,” Irrfan had said in a 2012 interview with Indian Express.
The film, helmed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, fetched him National Award for Best Actor.
The 2013 film was a romantic movie but not the usual one with actors lip-syncing to love ballads. He played a lonely man on the verge of retirement. But before his office days are over, a mistaken lunchbox delivery changes his life.
“I long to explore romance in different ways. I don’t often get that chance. This concept of love, we misuse the term. Love is a pure connection, a strong longing,” the actor had said in an interview to The Star in 2014.
It was essentially a father-daughter film that was appreciated by many for Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone’s natural acting. But Irrfan knew how to make his presence felt in the Shoojit Sircar directorial that had released in 2015. He played the role of a man who ran a cab service in Delhi. His profession makes him join the fun yet emotional ride with the father and daughter in Piku.
“The script was so new. The flavour of the film, the emotions were all so new and fresh. That attracted me. Also, the team... Shoojit and Juhi (Chaturvedi, the writer of Piku). I was dying to work with them,” Irrfan had told India Today in 2015.
The 2004 crime drama about passion and power was an adaptation of the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. In the Vishal Bhardwaj directorial that had Ames like Pankaj Kapur and Tabu attached to it, he played the title role — right-hand man of an ageing don.
Life In A... Metro
The multi-starrer had multiple stories in one film dealing with topics like extramarital affairs, love and heartbreaks. He essayed the role of a straightforward man desperately looking for a bride.
“I did not do any preparations for the role. My preparation was that I did not prepare for the role. I had complete faith in (director) Anurag Basu. The kind of character it was, it had to be done spontaneously. The only preparation was to think like a man who has not met a girl even though he is 37 years old now and still has not touched a girl. So one can imagine the desperation one feels when he has not touched a girl,” he had said in an interview to movietalkies.com.
The 2016 movie showed him as a grieving father who later kidnapped a top politician’s son.
“I play a man who feels the system has collapsed completely and there is a need for a reform. My character is not based on any one individual. Nor is the film an attack on my political ideology,” Irrfan had told IANS
In the 2017 comedy-drama, he played a rich businessman who did everything — even pretended to be underprivileged — just to get his daughter enrolled into an English school. His co-star was celebrated Pakistani television star Saba Qamar.
The 2018 movie took the audience on a fun road trip with Irrfan, Dulquer Salmaan and Mithila Palkar’s characters. Irrfan portrayed the friend who everyone would want in real life too. It showed his comic side and romantic sides too.
With a focus on student politics, the 2003 movie showed him as a student leader of Allahabad University that fetched him Filmfare Best Villain Award.
The 2020 film was a spin-off to Hindi Medium. Angrezi Medium, primarily a father-daughter story, was one of the last films that released before the Covid-19 lockdown virtually closed down the film industry.
He played a sweet shop owner and single father set to fulfil his daughter’s dream to study in London. — IANS
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