In Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut, there is a scene in which Dr. Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapur) is walking out and Irrfan Khan’s Amulya is chasing after him. He is a science correspondent and looking for a story in Dr. Roy. Dr. Roy dismisses and chastises him for turning to journalism after having studied astrophysics, with a Ph.D to boot. Amulya laughs with same dollop of droll that a large part of movie going audience will associate with Irrfan today. Amulya argues that something unique is required to be a scientist, it has to be in the chromosome, he recognizes that in Roy. He further explains – “I love science. I can’t leave science.” So, he thought why not become a messenger, standing on the shoulders of giants and to-be-giants, informing the world of their work. Now replace “science” with “acting”, and run the same sequence again. In that very Indian idiom, even the 1990 (the year the film came out) Irrfan Khan probably held a Ph.D, he had graduated out of National School of Drama and had a small role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! followed by Basu Chatterjee’s Kamla Ki Maut. But Irrfan remained in the fringes for long, till the new millennium kicked in. Today it feels like Irrfan had made that peace back then – he loves films, he cannot leave films but there were heavier names, more privileged than he was, so he shall remain behind the picket line and continue doing what he can, whenever he can.
With all due respect, it was not necessarily a fringe. Hindi films have always had a healthy but not always thriving parallel cinema movement. We find excuses to, and qualify filmmakers differently – “he or she is great in art cinema”, “he or she can make great mainstream entertainment that this other great filmmaker can only dream of”, which is in itself evidence of the existence of two separate schools of thought and movement in popular Indian cinema. But in an actor, we look for more. We want them to be renowned. We want kids to repeat their lines and adults to throng theatres on opening day. After all, as we watch, the one on camera makes the more powerful and instantaneous impact than the one behind. Directors can be neatly slotted but actors are tools who can thrive anywhere, and given the chance and talent, thrive they will. But somehow, Irrfan remained anonymous for more than a decade. We do tend to romanticize struggle. There are the geniuses and prodigies and one film wonders but we cherish a lasting story of struggle. Maybe humans are programmed to do so, some of our own cinema will point to this fact. In an unequal society, segregated by factors exclusive to us as a country, to celebrate the victory of an underdog is ingrained in us. Love and expression of grief have been pouring like a perpetual deluge since the news of Irrfan Khan’s passing broke and this reverence is of course testimony to his talent but also to the story of having seen a struggle realized, an almost lifetime of survival acquiesced to the demands of a once in a generation talent.
How many actors can suddenly spring on to the medium with films like Maqbool and Haasil, and then inspire us to return to their days of incipience. Those questions – where was he all this while and why has he been missing. Questions that betray our presumptions more than an artiste’s abilities. If we return today to something like Khuda Hafiz – part of the anthology TV series by Gulzar and this particular one adapted from Samaresh Basu’s short story Adaab – we can see an Irrfan Khan who is raw but no greenhorn, someone who can perform even within a scrunched frame and the camera almost bending down to land right on his face. It’s about two survivors caught in partition era communal violence and trying get a measure of each other and their identities. Is he Muslim? Is he Hindu? Irrfan’s character says “shakal se to tum…..kuch bhi nahin lagte ho?” (I can’t tell who you are by the way you look). It’s a pleasure to see a now established actor in the long and early days of his strife, making the most of everything little and inconsequential, not given too much to play with and yet nimble footed enough to physically mark his presence. Shakal se to tum kuch bhi nahin lagte ho. Almost a decade later, that will go on to define Irrfan Khan’s career. He became a star with no precedence based on looks, talent and versatility, for a whole generation. He could be anyone filmmakers wanted him to be. He was anyone that we wanted him to be. He was the bumbling romantic with bottomless wit (Life in a Metro), the truth spewing cab company owner who demotes himself to be a driver (Piku, my favorite Irrfan performance), a gifted athlete undone by a country in social and economic disarray (Paan Singh Tomar), an usurping gangster himself usurped by greed and guilt (Maqbool), a ghost guiding a human who wants interrogate the ghosts of his past (Haider). The list, like Irrfan’s malleability, is off the charts. Yes, filmmakers tried to typecast him but no one ever grew tired of Irrfan. If anything, we wanted more. Maybe that’s why this feels so incomplete.
Fifty three. In that same scene in Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Dr. Roy says that a man’s average lifespan is seventy and you can hardly do anything with fifty. “So much to do, so little done.” But Irrfan built a monument in those fifty odd years and leaves us with the feeling that his best was still to come. For he rarely delivered less than best, raising us as spoiled children. Maqbool can take several meanings – the accepted, the affirmed, the sanctioned, the endorsed, the chosen. Irrfan was the chosen one. The ever reliable conductor who took his sweet time to gather his orchestra, performed for no one and preserved that hunger until we were ready to fill auditoriums for him. All for no fault of his, and we are at once richer for what he has given us and poorer for an all star career bookended by decades siphoned off. Khuda Hafiz, our maqbool.