Irfan Khan (1967-2020)- 'I Define Acting As Not To Act At All'
I first met Irrfan Khan at the Cairo International Film Festival around 2010, if my memory serves me right. I tried to make an appointment for a one-on-one but it was difficult with the crowds surrounding him all the time. Finally, he agreed to sit down at the restaurant of the hotel we were residing in and let his guard down. To tell you the truth, Irrfan preferred his silence and his space. But this time, unable to refuse an elderly Indian journalist, he let himself go.
This tall, dark and not-so-handsome young man with his large, brooding eyes, his long silences, broke every rule in the Bollywood book that crafted its hero either as a romantic hero, or a six-ab youngster oozing machismo, or, the handsome prince who arrived to rescue his damsel in distress. But he was made for different roles in films made across the map – India, Bangladesh, the US, the UK and everywhere that charted out a career flooded with a range of characters that set the trend for out-of-the-box heroes like Nizamuddin Sheikh among others.
I have not seen all his films but my introduction to this great star was with the International film The Warrior (2001) directed by Asif Kapadia. I loved the film for its entire landscape and the story in which Irrfan portrayed the title role just when he was about to give up his career as an actor.
A much younger Irrfan Khan portrayed Lafcadia, a warrior in feudal Rajasthan who wants to give up the sword. I then saw Maqbool and could not decide whose acting I would vouch for. I did not like his performance much in Mahesh Bhatt’s Rog which thankfully, turned a turnip at the box office.
I did not get the chance to watch all his films because they had rather irregular releases and some of them were pulled out of the theatres soon after their release. But which actor can really take pride in delivering a magnificent performance in every film?
At the Cairo interview, he said, “I define acting as ‘not to act at all.’ An actor must be mentally, intellectually and emotionally connected to a given situation or story. He has then to relive that situation and story through his body and mind. Acting means doing, to actually enact something without any pretensions. For example, if a particular shot needs me to lift a cup, I will lift the cup the way the character and the situation demands, not any which way. Things are effective when they are actually done and not pretended. The line between pretending and doing is quite thin. To blur that line, an actor must practice working around himself.”
Irrfan Khan bagged the National Award for Best Actor for his performance in Paan Singh Tomar. About one of very offbeat roles, Irrfan said, ““I heard about Tomar and his extra-ordinary achievements first from Tigmangshu Dhulia. 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. It was a different experience because you need to be convincing in all aspects to resemble the person that you are essaying. The character required me to be physically fit. Hence after the shoot, I would exercise. Chambal is a beautiful place, so I would go for jogs in the evenings.” He went on to add that the film has changed his way of looking at life, discipline and commitment.
He stepped into production but perhaps it was not the right step for him to take. The example is the Bangladesh-India co-produced Bengali film called Doob (No Bed of Roses) which Irrfan, who portrayed a famous filmmaker Javed Hassan who leaves his wife and daughter for his daughter’s young friend, turned out to be a very badly made film. What films has he made? No answer. What is he working on after the film he was making with Nitu was shelved? No detailing. Where are the hangers-on such as his assistant, his permanent crew discussing some script with him? Silence. There was absolutely no ambience of Javed being a part of the Bangladeshi film industry and also a prominent figure with a long track record in films. But the film bagged the Kommersant Jury Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2017. After a point of time, Irrfan appeared quite confused about his own role in the film.
As an about-to-retire accountant in The Lunch Box, Irrfan Khan’s role is a brilliant example of an ageing, introvert widower who falls in love with a woman he has never seen through an accidental switch of the lunch box. The film was screened the International Critics Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and later won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award also known as Grand Rail d'Or.
The Lunch Box was Irrfan Khan's highest-grossing film till Hindi Medium broke the record. The Lunchbox was nominated for the Best Film in the English Language category of the British Academy Film Awards 2015. The universal drawing capacity of Irrfan Khan, the actor, is another reason why it was a festival hit and an Indian hit. The film was screened at the International Critics’ Week at Cannes and later ended up making more than Rs.20 crore in India. It also won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award, and was screened at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.
I will never be able to ask him ever now whether he still longs to fly kites like he used to, when he grew up in Rajasthan in a middle-class family. I will never know whether he could continue with his passion for reading anything he could lay his hands on. I will never know why he kept his family life so very private that few know he was married to Sutapa Sikder, a Bengali lady who he met during his National School of Drama days and was content within the privacy he opted for despite the stardom that surrounded him. Sutapa became a script writer and the actor leaves behind two son, Babil and Ayan. He would laughingly admit that he could not speak Bengali though his wife is one. He had got a scholarship to study at the National School of Drama, Delhi, in 1984. He laughingly admitted that he cannot speak Bengali though his wife is one. Will he learn to speak Bengali wherever he is now?