Excerpt: Irrfan Khan; The Man, The Dreamer, The Star by Aseem Chhabra
Ek aisa kalakaar jiski aankhein afsaane kehti hain.
In the fall of 2006, I was walking to my local subway station in Sunnyside, a middle-class neighbourhood in Queens, New York. It was early morning and I was running late for work. Suddenly, my cell phone rang and I stopped on the sidewalk. The call was from India.
‘Hello, is that Aseem Chhabra?’ I heard from the other end.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Sir, main Irrfan Khan bol rahan hoon, Mumbai se (Sir, I am Irrfan Khan calling from Mumbai.).’
My heart skipped a beat. Was it really Irrfan Khan? I wondered, excited like a schoolboy. It sure sounded like him.
Yes, Irrfan Khan had called me.
Earlier, in September 2006, I had seen Irrfan in Mira Nair’s The Namesake at the Telluride Film Festival, held in an exclusive ski town in south-west Colorado. Immediately after, I had written a long profile of the filmmaker for Mirror Buzz, a Sunday magazine that Mumbai Mirror used to publish. Naturally, the news peg was the world premiere of The Namesake. Irrfan had read my story, somehow gotten my number and called me in New York.
‘Kaisi hai film (How is the film)?’ I heard Irrfan ask. ‘Maine dekhi nahi abhi (I have not seen it yet).’
What had seemed like a regular morning suddenly seemed to be filled with promise.
I responded, ‘Irrfan Saab, kamaal ki film hai (It is an extraordinary film, Irrfan Saab). Your performance is heartbreaking. You made me cry.’
And I meant every word. Jhumpa Lahiri’s honest, strong writing, as interpreted by Mira Nair, had created the moving, raw, gentle story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguly. It had made a deep impact on me. As a first generation immigrant in the United States, I could relate to their struggles, their hopes, aspirations and disappointments. My path and story of immigration was somewhat different, but the heartfelt performances of Irrfan and Tabu spoke to me. I still cry watching Irrfan’s Ashoke desperately trying to connect with his son Gogol (Kal Penn), failing to do so and then accepting his life, the way it had shaped out for him, as his fate. The Namesake made me proud and comfortable. Finally someone understood my life.
I knew it then. The actor was a rare shining star who could light up the screen with his quiet yet towering presence — Irrfan Khan, Bollywood’s Roohdaar. Its Ashoke, Maqbool and Rana.
Ek aisa kalakaar jiski aankhein afsaane kehti hain. (An actor whose eyes narrate a sea of stories.)
It was only while researching for this book that I realized that the first time I had seen Irrfan on the silver screen was in Govind Nihalani’s 1990 film Drishti (I watched a pirated Video Home System tape of the film in New York). In the film, Irrfan plays the supporting role of a young musician who has a brief affair with a married woman, played by Dimple Kapadia.
A graduate of Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD), Irrfan dreamt of a film acting career like that of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Both the actors graduated from NSD and were 14 years senior to Irrfan. Upon graduating from NSD, Irrfan got a lot of acting work, but it was almost entirely in television, and he remained professionally dissatisfied. As I was living in the US during that decade, I missed most of Irrfan’s television work. In fact, I had forgotten his supporting role of a prosecutor in Vikram Bhatt’s sappy melodrama, Kasoor (2001).
It was Haasil (2003) that landed him the plum role (more on this later) in Maqbool (2003), Vishal Bhardwaj’s brilliant adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It was a powerful performance of a troubled Macbeth (or Maqbool, as renamed by screenwriters Vishal Bhardwaj and Abbas Tyrewala) working for an underworld leader in Bombay and in love with his boss’s seductive mistress, Nimmi.
There was no social media in the early 2000s, yet, even though living in New York, I was becoming familiar with Irrfan’s work. He showed glimpses of a rare shining star who could light up the screen, no matter what role he was playing.
In July 2005, I saw Irrfan in what was actually his first lead role — British-Indian filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001). Although Irrfan gave a haunting performance in the film, The Warrior was mostly remembered for the 29-year-old Asif’s visionary screenplay and direction. The film won two BAFTAs and also found admirers in the British film industry, including the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella, who stepped in to present the film. Miramax, the US-based indie distribution company, bought the rights to bring the film to theatres in the US.
However, The Warrior sat in Miramax’s catalogue for a while. The production and distribution company’s chief principals — brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein — did not know how to release a Hindi-language film in the US until the summer of 2005, when they dumped the English-subtitled film in a few theatres before their unceremonious departure from the once-hugely-successful company. Irrfan was not flown to the US to promote the film or attend its premiere. The Warrior died at the box office, and nobody talked much about Irrfan Khan at the time.
In 2005, Irrfan also appeared in a wacky comedy — Aditya Bhattacharya’s unreleased film, Dubai Return, which also never reached the audience in India. I watched it in New York, and a few years later I saw him in another delightful film — Life in a… Metro (2007), an ensemble piece directed by Anurag Basu, with a great comic track between Irrfan and Konkona Sen Sharma.
I first met Irrfan in the summer of 2007 when he came to New York on a junket to promote Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, based on the memoir of Mariane Pearl, widow of The Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl. As I later wrote in my weekly Mumbai Mirror column, with the release of A Mighty Heart, ‘Irrfan Khan became the first actor from India to have two films playing in the US at the same time. His Mira Nair vehicle, The Namesake, is on its last leg — still showing in theatres, and has earned over $13 million. And now Khan is in a key supporting role in A Mighty Heart (which is) playing on 1,355 screens across (the US).’
At the junket there was a crazy rush of journalists wanting to interview Angelina Jolie, who played Mariane Pearl in the film. Some of the journalists did recognize Irrfan, since they had only recently seen him in The Namesake. Seated at the round table in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, I asked Irrfan how he felt about being recognized by reporters who otherwise would have only been interested in celebrities such as Angelina Jolie.
Irrfan hesitated for a moment and then, with a smile, he promptly said, ‘I think I need more films. I wish I could get more films like this and people would take notice of me, until everybody knows me.’ The other reporters started to laugh along with Irrfan, given his frank response that depicted his humility.
At the end of the interview, where I was the only journalist of Indian origin, Irrfan and I had a brief conversation. Suddenly, he asked me in Hindi, ‘Kuch ho raha hai yahan (Is something happening here)?’ What he meant was, if anyone was actually noticing him in the US and whether he had a chance of getting more work.
‘Yes, definitely kuch to ho raha hai (Yes, definitely something is happening),’ I responded. ‘It’s not every day that an actor — even a Hollywood actor — has two films running in New York City.’
Irrfan seemed somewhat comforted by my statement, but the actor in him, who always wanted more in life, was still very curious about how to truly break Hollywood’s glass ceiling.
That opportunity finally came a year later. In early September 2008, I attended the world premiere of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire at the Telluride Film Festival. The film was a huge success with the audience. I had a sense that this film could be a winner. And then, two weeks later, it won the prestigious audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
In February 2009, Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars. When the Academy Award for Best Picture was announced, the film’s producer Christian Colson accepted the award. Irrfan was on the stage with his co-stars — Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Dev Patel, the kids from the film, and other collaborators, AR Rahman, Resul Pookutty and the director Danny Boyle. If you watch Christian Colson’s acceptance speech on YouTube, you will notice Irrfan standing in between Anil Kapoor and Loveleen Tandan — the film’s co-director. Anil is beaming, while Irrfan seems to be measuring the moment. He smiles, but is somewhat shocked and trying to grasp the magnitude of what had just happened.
A few years later, when GQ India magazine asked him why he was reserved on stage when his co-stars like Anil Kapoor were jumping with joy, this is what Irrfan said: ‘There was no reason for me to be like that, because I’m not such a big part of the film. If I was playing Dev Patel’s role, maybe I would have been dancing around. But for me, it was like, you know, somebody else is getting married and you’re the one doing all the dancing. Also, temperamentally, I just can’t. I don’t know why, but I’m a shy guy. Maybe I became an actor to deal with that.’
Despite being shy, from then on, Irrfan (and his other Slumdog Millionaire co-stars) did not have to worry about being noticed in the West. The success of the film led to Irrfan finding his manager and his agents in the US. The process of his crossing over to Hollywood was about to start, while he also continued to grow as an actor and a star in Indian cinema.
It was around this time that my trips to India, especially to Bombay, became more regular. And I often ran into Irrfan at Hindi film industry parties, at the Mumbai Film Festival, organized by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) and even once at the JW Marriott in Juhu where he was with a large group of friends.
As Twitter became a regular part of our lives, I would often interact with Irrfan, appreciating his work in a range of films, especially in Paan Singh Tomar (2012), which won the actor his first and only National Film Award. I reviewed the film directed by his friend from his NSD days, Tigmanshu Dhulia. In the review I mentioned that Irrfan gave one of the finest performances of his career, ‘comparable with his heartbreaking roles in The Namesake and the HBO series In Treatment’. I also wrote, ‘Khan is a national treasure, a unique gifted Indian actor who uses his eyes, voice and other facial features to display the humour and then pathos in his characters.’
When I posted my review on Twitter, Irrfan responded, ‘thank U. it took more than a decade to get a part like this. He’s my inner voice.’
Irrfan’s eyes remain one of his most striking features and he has learnt to depict a range of emotions using them. Mira Nair told me she was first drawn to Irrfan’s hooded eyes.
In 2016 Tom Hanks was in Cancun, Mexico, promoting Ron Howard’s film, Inferno. Asked about Irrfan Khan, his co-star in the film, he said, ‘I’m just beguiled by his magic eyes. He has a physicality to him that is so specific and endearing.’
Irrfan Khan, by all accounts, has an unusual and fascinating filmography. I loved him in Life of Pi (2012) and The Lunchbox (2013). In both the films, Irrfan’s characters live with so much pain, regret and a deep sense of loss that it is impossible not to cry with them. I can watch some of the scenes of The Lunchbox just to admire Irrfan’s quiet, meditative performance — heartbreaking — until he starts to feel the joy of falling in love.
After its premiere at Cannes in May 2013, The Lunchbox also premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, and a week later, at the TIFF. The first screening in Toronto at the Roy Thomson Hall ran into technical problems. To engage the audience, Irrfan, the film’s lead star, stood on the stage for nearly 40 minutes with his director Ritesh Batra, conducting an impromptu Q&A session. ‘No producer or director wants to cast me in love stories,’ Irrfan said, responding to someone who had asked him how he felt about playing a romantic character. ‘They don’t see love in me. The first time I came to TIFF was with Maqbool, and now with The Lunchbox. Both the films are love stories. Maybe because of TIFF I will be in more love stories.’
The packed auditorium with over 2,500 people — mostly South Asians from the city and its suburbs — had not yet seen the film, but still they waited patiently, loving every moment of that extra time in which they got to hear their favourite actor speak. No one complained that the screening was significantly delayed.
That Irrfan had made his mark in indie, art house cinema in India became even more evident when, in the same year, TIFF also premiered a second film of his — Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost — director Anup Singh’s Punjabi-language gender-bending folk tale about the Partition, dislocation and regret. At The Lunchbox after-party, I congratulated Irrfan for having two films at the festival. He seemed a bit concerned about how the audience in India would react to Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost. But he was also basking in the fame and recognition, as more and more people walked up to him at the party to shake hands, take selfies or just stand there and look at the star.
In May 2015, I saw Irrfan in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, in which he plays the owner of a taxi service in South Delhi who, quite reluctantly, takes an eccentric old man with troubled bowel movement (Amitabh Bachchan) and his fiercely independent, short-tempered daughter (Deepika Padukone) on a road trip to Kolkata. Irrfan’s Rana is stuck between a strange father-daughter duo. They love each other and yet are constantly bickering over small things. It was the first time I saw Irrfan’s eyes sparkle with humour, as he would stare at the father and daughter in total disbelief. I tweeted about it and Irrfan responded by thanking me. ‘It’s a special film for me too,’ he wrote.
While watching Piku I also sensed something new about Irrfan. He actually had quite a bit of sex appeal. Until then I had not thought about Irrfan as a sex symbol and no other filmmaker had explored that aspect of his personality. He had depicted flashes of romance in his earlier films, including a few warm moments with Tabu in the otherwise deeply sad film, The Namesake. In Maqbool, he and Tabu had some seductive moments. Irrfan usually comes across as an intense actor, very likeable, but mostly because he surprises us with his performances. But in Piku I saw Irrfan’s Rana slowly fall in love with Deepika’s Piku, especially when the two quietly exchange glances during the road trip. For a Hindi-language film, their romance takes a very long time to blossom, but it is real, and very believable.
Actor-director Tigmanshu Dhulia, his friend from NSD, also had similar thoughts on Irrfan’s sensual appeal. ‘Irrfan’s got a great sex appeal and he triggers the sensitive side of women in an intellectual way. He’s not for frivolous women, but for those with substance. Any woman who has some intellect will find Irrfan really attractive.’
I know I do not fall into the category of a ‘woman who has intellect’, but I think, with Piku, even I developed a man crush on Irrfan. To me, he is one of the sexiest and coolest actors working in Hindi cinema.
There have been times when a film was somewhat flawed, but Irrfan’s performance had the ability to ensure that it was worth watching. I felt that about D-Day (2013). The film had an intense, tightly edited and thrilling opening sequence, but while the plot became a bit jumbled, Irrfan was exceptional in it. I loved how he carried Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (2015) on his shoulders — a strong ensemble piece — giving a very nuanced performance. And then, partially because of the success of Piku, he appeared in a few more sweet middle-of-the-road romantic comedies such as Hindi Medium, Qarib Qarib Singlle (both from 2017), Blackmail, Karwaan and a small American indie film, Puzzle (all released in 2018).
Of course, Irrfan has acted in many more films — some perhaps not the best career choices, but every actor has to make compromises to earn a paycheck. For every loud Thank You (the 2011 Anees Bazmee comedy) and over-the-top Jazbaa (Sanjay Gupta’s 2015 film, which was supposed to re-launch Aishwarya Rai’s career) — both of which were trashed by critics and did not find much of an audience — there was a film like The Song of Scorpions (2017), which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival or No Bed of Roses (2017), Bangladesh’s official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. He has also acted in a few A-list Hollywood films, including The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016).
Along the way he also started to produce films. So far he has produced a few projects — Madaari (2016) and Qarib Qarib Singlle — both with his wife Sutapa Sikdar and Shailja Kejriwal, a friend from the days Irrfan was working in television. And he was also given the title of producer for the Bangladeshi film No Bed of Roses.
Between 2015 and early 2018, Irrfan Khan acted in sixteen projects, including a mini-series, Tokyo Trial (2016), in which he played the role of Radha Binod Pal, one of the three Asian judges appointed to a tribunal to try Japanese war criminals after the Second World War. The three years were the busiest in Irrfan’s young career as an actor. And it seemed nothing could stop him.
I began to work on this book in the late spring of 2018. By that time Irrfan was out of the country getting treatment for a rare form of cancer, a neuroendocrine tumour. His early messages shocked all of us, but I had faith that he would be back. I began to talk to people who he had worked with, starting with Tigmanshu Dhulia, and then Meghna Gulzar.
I felt that I should talk to Irrfan, at least to inform him that I was working on this book. I wrote to his manager and she told me that in the past Irrfan had been contacted by publishing houses to write his autobiography and even by other authors who wanted to work on his life story. But at all times he was ‘dead against it’, she said. But perhaps he was in a different place, she added, and might be open to a book on him.
I sent a long email detailing my proposal for the book and I was told Irrfan would call from London where he was getting treatment. That call happened a few weeks later. I asked him how he was doing and he responded that he was better. ‘Mujhe pata nahi yeh kaisi kitab hogi (I do not know what kind of a book it will be),’ he said to me, sounding fairly cheerful. His voice was strong, and listening to him I could tell his condition was improving.
The call lasted about ten minutes. Irrfan declined to be interviewed for the book. ‘I am not in the right space just now,’ he said, and I did not insist. And then he went on to recommend some people I should talk to as well as a few online and print interviews with him that he had liked a lot.
During the fall of 2018 we exchanged a few more messages. He seemed cheerful at all times. Many film personalities I spoke to and interviewed for this book — Mira Nair, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Shailja Kejriwal, Vipin Sharma, the Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki and Satish Kaushik — everyone told me they had met him in London and he was definitely responding to the treatment. Mira met him at a café and he borrowed her friend’s bicycle and rode it around the block. Shailja told me that Irrfan and Sutapa would often go out to eat or see plays in London.
All of that was encouraging and gave his well-wishers a lot of hope.
During a WhatsApp conversation with him I ended by saying, ‘I hope you are doing better.’
His response was sweet and moving. ‘I am not thinking about it at all. Whatever’ll happen will happen for the best.’
I knew he was going through a difficult time, and I wanted to respect his privacy.
So I did not pursue the possibility of an interview.
This book is an attempt at appreciation and a celebration of one of the finest actors of our time, a prince among regular performers. It will take the readers on the journey of Irrfan’s life and career, mostly looking at his key films.
According to IMDb.com, Irrfan has acted in 155 projects, most of which are films, and there is some television. Obviously, it is not possible to cover every film, and even top actors sometimes work on projects that are best forgotten. But in Irrfan’s case, there are many remarkable films where he continually got the opportunity to shine, flex his acting muscles and share the vulnerable side of him that many Hindi film actors rarely get to do.
Most of these films are available online or on DVDs. There are some rare ones that I hope the readers will discover and perhaps (re)visit.
This is Irrfan’s story, told through many voices and from many perspectives. It is an impossible feat to capture a man in the pages of a book; however, the attempt here is to present the incredible man, thinking actor in his various shades.
We are fortunate to be living in the times of Irrfan Khan, a genuine man, a good human being and an exceptional actor.