Irrfan Khan, the man with the magic eyes
The actor struggled for years after graduating from NSD, with bit roles on TV, before emerging as one of the finest actors of our generation, writes his biographer
Irrfan Khan grew up in a middle class family in Jaipur, where the idea of acting was not something they would dream about. In fact, he barely saw any films as a child and teenager. His father had a tire shop. His mother wanted him to teach and get a job close to home.
But Irrfan wanted to fly. And so he left home to join the National School of Drama in Delhi. He had dreams of becoming a film actor like his role models – Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri.
With his NSD classmates he was shy, quiet. perhaps because he felt he needed to catch up, to read more, watch more films. And he worked hard to get there.
“I have seen Irrfan’s growth over the years," his NSD friend and filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia told me when I interviewed him in 2018 for my biography of Irrfan. “He had come from Jaipur where he didn’t have a lot of exposure to philosophy and ideas. But by watching, observing, reading and discovering world cinema, he grew rather fast. I have many friends, but in Irrfan that development is remarkable."
While at NSD he was approached to play an important role in Mira Nair’s first film Salaam Bombay (1988). But that role fell through. Irrfan was devastated, but he did not give up.
After getting trained at NSD, Irrfan struggled a lot. He wanted to act in films, but the parallel cinema movement was nearly dead. And the mainstream Hindi film industry was not ready to embrace a tall, lanky actor, with hooded eyes.
So he did a lot of television work, with occasional small film roles – Drishti, Ek Doctor Ki Maut (both 1990). Television kept him afloat in an expensive city like Bombay, but he was bored and dissatisfied through the 1990s. When he heard from someone that Subhash Ghai had noticed him on a TV show, Irrfan waited to get a call from the filmmaker. That call never came.
Irrfan’s greatest qualities were that he was patient and persistent. He always wanted to be challenged. These qualities saw him through the difficult years, until thanks to his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia, who was working as a casting agent, Irrfan landed with the lead role in a young British Indian filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s project The Warrior (2001). His days of struggle were finally over.
About The Warrior Irrfan said that he finally realized what it meant to live and breathe a character for a long period of time. Television work involved just repeating what worked, day after day, with no room for growth as an actor.
Over the years as Irrfan’s career took off in India and later in the west, many directors made use of the actor’s deep, somewhat tragic eyes. Tigmanshu improvised a dialogue during the Haasil (2003) shoot, bringing in a reference to his eyes. During the promotion of Inferno (2016), Tom Hanks said this: “I’m just beguiled by Irrfan’s magic eyes."
But Asif was the first to recognize this physical attribute in the actor. In The Warrior immediately after the credits role, the screen is filled with Irrfan’s intense hooded eyes as his character watches his son practicing martial arts. And for a while we do not see his full face.
Those eyes took him far – whether he was projecting the loneliness of his character Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox (2013), as he rides a local Mumbai train; or earlier in his greatest performance as Ashoke Ganguli in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006), when he accepts his failure to reach out to his son Gogol (Kal Penn).
But after all the success he achieved, Irrfan was impatient for more challenges. And that is why he took time off from his busy scheduled to work on the Every Bollywood Party Song video with the All India Bakchod team. And he eventually set out to redefine his Bollywood image, by acting as a romantic, comic character in films such as Piku (2015) and Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017).
When Hollywood came knocking on his door he jumped at the opportunity. Surely the money was good, but he could not resist the chance to act with names like Ang Lee (Life of Pi, 2012) and earlier with Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart, 2007) and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008). And while he worked on some of Hollywood’s biggest franchise projects – The Amazing Spider Man (2012) and Jurrasic World (2015), he even accepted a small indie film Puzzle (2018), where he played an eccentric rich man, and Kelly Macdonald’s character’s puzzle partner.
I met Irrfan for the first time when he came to New York to promote A Mighty Heart. In between interviews with him and his co-stars, including Angelina Jolie, Irrfan pulled me aside and asked me in Hindi “Kuch ho raha hai yahan? (Is anything happening here?)" This was his second film opening in the US within a few months. The Namesake was still playing in some theaters.
“Haan zaroor ho raha hai. Aapko ab log pehchante hain yahan (Yes, definitely something is happening. People now recognize you here)," I said to him. He seemed somewhat satisfied. After all this is what he had wanted for a long time.
That tall, lanky young man from Jaipur, full of dreams, had come a long way. And he was ready to start a new phase in his journey. Alas no one could have predicted that journey would end so soon and suddenly.
His fans will miss him. But at least they have his films to revisit and watch one of the finest actors of our time.
Aseem Chhabra is the author of “Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star" (Rupa Publications India).
FIRST PUBLISHED29.04.2020 | 04:05 PM IST