The world knew him as Robert in the Puzzle. As Harry Sims in Inferno. As the nameless police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire. As the captain in a Mighty Heart and as the father in Darjeeling Limited. Two of these films won 12 Oscars – in 2008 and 2012. I have seen these western-released movies, but not all of his Hindi movies. His films make him the only actor in the world in British, American, and Hindi cinema who acted in an Ang Lee, Wes Anderson, Danny Boyle/Loveleen Tandon, Vishal Bhardwaj, Ritesh Batra, Govind Nihalani, Meghna Gulzar or Michael Winterbottom or Marc TurtleTaub film. IMDb reports Irrfan in a total of 151 roles, but this list doesn’t include his debut role as the letter writer in Mira Nair’s debut stunning Salaam Bombay, nominated for an Academy Award for the best foreign-language film in 1988. He was discovered at age 20 by Nair who went looking for a child actor at National School of Drama for Salaam. Nair chose him for “his intensity, his remarkable look, his hooded eyes” that some called a chalice, a tavern.
This Irrfan look never changed, no matter what genre or role he essayed nor on which continent he essayed it. It merely spoke words he didn’t find necessary to utter.
Images shouldn’t rely on words for meaning. Words sometimes limit meaning. Agnes Varda, while making Ulysse said: “l’image ne fait que de représenter, elle ne dit rien” (thé image can only reflect, it doesn’t say anything) but in Irrfan’s world, the image represented and said everything – about him.
I met him as Saajan Fernandes in the Lunchbox, the adult Pi Patel in Life of Pi, and Ashoke Ganguli in Namesake. In these three films, it is so natural as if he is not acting. In a Film Companion interview [with Anupama Chopra] he said “once you become a human being, you cannot be an actor”. But right after added, “but that’s not true”. And indeed, it wasn’t.
Irrfan was against formula in Bollywood, and didn’t rehearse for a role, nor do character research. He considered it premature and “folly” to be like that because that could reduce one’s possibility and uniqueness. He liked to dive into roles and convince by saying his lines: “Your whole being is your tool”. Acting shouldn’t be a job even if it was natural to ape or imitate or find confidence in resembling someone famous. No one in Bollywood was ready to give him roles because he was anti-hero, anti character and natural, unlike most commercial actors. Yet, he saw himself as an entertainer, too. But for him, art was personal, something reflective, revolving on life around him as a human being. He communicated his own POV through his stories, and if that did not happen, art wasn’t happening. For him, one becomes an artist only when one reflects. So, Irrfan sought to better himself, to understand his own perception and popularity didn’t destroy him but healed him. Popularity was a byproduct, and what was important was what he was doing: “Your job has to enrich your soul”. He was Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and actor rolled in one incredible human being. A character straight out of a Satyajit ray film! Straight out of cinema vérité!
So, I won’t remember him for leaving cinema and the world too abruptly, nor during Ramadan, nor so soon after his mother died. I’ll rather remember him for his heartfelt, prolific contribution to India and beyond. For acting so effortlessly, for showing the beauty of life in his actions and silent expressions. His brilliance and legend will continue to live onscreen. A man of few words, but a ‘volcano of talent’ [Shatrughan Sinha]. A man of memorable lines: “if you have no one to talk to, you forget”.
I will remember him for admonishing ‘introspection’ so bravely on an Arnab Goswami panel on religion, unlike most stars, where he took on Muslim fundamentalists, including a Grand Imam, arguing against “transactional religious interaction”, for “personal religious discovery” in his soft, respectful, reverent way “to discover yourself, to find God”. It didn’t matter he faced heavy criticism and even threats of violence in proposing that sacrificing animals stop. What mattered was his courageous stance on being kind to animals and people alike. It was only natural then that Irrfan refuse the role of a terrorist in Mira Nair’s great Reluctant Fundamentalist. In an HBO show In treatment, when the role was painful and too dark for him he didn’t want to learn the lines. He announced himself only as Irrfan, dropping Khan, in his desire to stand apart from any herd.
India’s great lyricist Javed Akhtar remembers him appropriately as “a voice, not someone’s echo”. Irrfan’s words to his wife of 25 years echoed his love: “What to say about Sutapa? She is there 24/7. She has evolved in care-giving and if I get to live, I want to live for her.”
His last film – Angrezi Medium – ran for only one day before the coronavirus lockdown, but will always be remembered for the regret he expressed over the ‘unwanted guests’ in his body [cancer he was fighting]:
“Hello, brothers and sisters. I am with you and not with you. This film, Angrezi Medium, is very special to me. I truly wanted to promote this film as passionately as we made it, but there are some ‘unwanted guests’ in my body and they’re keeping me busy. I’ll keep you informed on that front. There’s a saying, ‘when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.’ It feels good to hear, but when life really hands you lemons, making lemons is really difficult.”
Homi Adajania, the director, remembers him not wanting to be a star, but “he didn’t have to be because he shone brighter than anything in the universe”. He told people to “Enjoy the trailer and be kind to each other. Watch the film. And yes. Wait for me!”
But, in the end, “the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
I can never forget my cinematic encounters with him either. Nor Paan Singh Tomar who didn’t exist before Irrfan made him legendary.
Thank you, Irrfan, for showing the world that cinema doesn’t have to be all artifice. For making performance an art of the real you.