Tributes: The comforting Genius of IRRFAN
A powerhouse of talent, Irrfan excelled in making the ordinary seem special.
You know that movie that plays in the background while you fold your laundry? I usually have Shoojit Sircar’s 2015 gem, Piku, going on while I fold and separate clothes into neat piles, only looking up a couple of times when I want to see a certain crinkling of the eyes or an elfin smirk or that small little gesture that does not need dialogue. Irrfan plays Rana, a no-nonsense taxi company owner taking architect Piku Banerjee (Deepika Padukone) and her cantankerous dad Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) on a road trip from Delhi to Kolkata. Much comedy and drama ensue as Rana tries to make sense of Bhaskor’s obsession with his bowel movements. The film completes five years this year but time hasn’t dulled the magnetic effect of Irrfan’s voice—tender when addressing Piku and comically stern when frustrated by Bhaskor’s eccentricities. His presence in the film is comforting for both father and daughter and for the audience, which relies on him to break the tension.
Ritesh Batra’s 2013 directorial The Lunchbox is another such treasure which showcases the actor’s immense ability to move and connect with his audience. He plays the middle-aged Saajan Fernandez, who develops an achingly tender relationship with Ila (Nimrat Kaur) after the dabba she packs for her husband mistakenly lands on Fernandez’s office desk. The sheer humanity of Fernandez, transmitted so exquisitely through the actor’s eyes, the gradual smile that lights up his face when he opens the dabba full of homemade delights, or when he looks on agitatedly and half-amused as his colleague (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) blabbers on about the mundane—Irrfan simply leaves you with a sense of longing, loss, and hope. All at the same time.
Irrfan’s work in Batra’s film is one for the ages but the one performance that haunts me is Irrfan’s nuanced turn as an immigrant Bengali widower, Sunil Sanyal in HBO’s 2010 show, In Treatment. Sunil, who’s had to move in with his son Arun and American daughter-in-law Julia into their Brooklyn home after the recent death of his wife can’t come to terms with his new life. He has an uneasy relationship with Julia, at once jealous of and fascinated by her. Arun and Julia insist that Sunil see a psychotherapist (played by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne) to resolve his issues.
In the episodes that follow, Irrfan as Sunil conveys so much with his eyes and that wistful, “almost-smile”—a deep sense of loneliness, the paralyzing effect of loss and grief exacerbated by displacement, his discomfort with the ways of western society and especially of how women conduct themselves in it. Irrfan’s performance is a masterclass in acting. The give and take between him and Byrne is meditative as are his little gestures like asking Byrne if he could smoke and then proceeding to stuff tobacco in his rolling paper, which is a treat to watch.
“He thinks of the larger picture, every scene matters to him,” Tillotama Shome, who acted with Irrfan in the 2017 hit comedy-drama, Hindi Medium, told me about that phenomenal scene where she’s trying to pacify him after his child doesn’t secure admission into a school. “That scene was completely improvised, there was a lot of give and take…and that’s Irrfan’s biggest asset,” says Aseem Chhabra, author of Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, the Star.
His last film to be released was Homi Adajania’s Angrezi Medium, where he plays a father determined to get his daughter into a British university. A day before the trailer of the film was released, Khan recorded a voice message for his fans where he spoke philosophically about the difficulty of making lemonade when life actually gives you lemons. He signed off with an uplifting message. “Enjoy the trailer, and be kind to each other, and enjoy the film. And yes, wait for me.” The gifted actor battled hard and long with a rare neuroendocrine tumor that he finally succumbed to on April 29.
Irrfan will be missed but will shine on through his formidable body of work. As his character Ranvijay Singh, a student leader and hell raising goon in Haasil (2003), says, “Tumko yaad rakhenge, guru, hum . . . (I will remember you, boss) . . . I like artists!
We really like you too, Irrfan. And miss you. RIP.
Contributor Baisakhi Roy, a fan of Hindi films, cohosts KhabardaarPodcast.
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