With the passing of Irrfan Khan, yesterday was probably one of the saddest days I woke up to this year. Irrfan’s robust film and TV résumé boasts more than 150 credits, but my first experience of recognizing his genius was in his lead role in Maqbool, an Indian retelling of Macbeth. His performance was so delicate and nuanced, even in his morally conflicted character. He beautifully breaks down the psychology of this human torn between love and loyalty. His trademark style is his restraint: Irrfan has never needed heavily loaded monologues to shine, though this man shines through any kind of writing—he is able to affect whole scenes with just his eyes. Two of his distinctive features are his warm, deep eyes and his infectious cheeky smiles.
When I found out that Irrfan was going to be part of Slumdog Millionaire, I suddenly felt like my street cred rose. I didn’t have any scenes with him, so I asked Dev Patel to tell me about his experience with Irrfan so I could vicariously live it through him. In many ways, knowing that actors like Irrfan were going to be in a film mainly led by a cast of newcomers gave us a solid sense of support, almost like our performances would be shepherded and elevated by these amazing stalwarts of Indian cinema. It was a big deal that Irrfan agreed to play the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire—and he is the opening scene of the movie. It opens on him, Saurabh Shukla, and Dev, and it grounds the film right away.
But if I’m honest, as much as I enjoyed his performance in Slumdog, I actually enjoyed his presence on the promotion and awards circuit a lot more. His humanity was his star quality—not the fact that he was a celebrated performer and had won many awards and all that incredible stuff. He seemed to be more content being able to do good work than boasting of his achievements. I don’t think he had a fake bone in his body. I don’t think he knew how to pretend nor cared about pretending. Did he have insecurities? I am sure he did, and he openly spoke about some of them. In the world of celebrity and entertainment, it’s very, very rare to find this kind of solitaire—someone who stands his ground, who shines in the quietest but brightest way, who doesn’t shy away from vulnerability, who knows where he has come from and is open to where it might lead him. If there were someone for a young actor like me to emulate, then it would have to be him, and that would mean setting an extremely high standard for myself.
Dev and I would talk all the time about his ability to stay so grounded. We were just two bumbling kids running around on the red carpet and losing our minds when Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie would pass by. Irrfan, on the other hand, was so poised and so utterly dignified; it gave my overenthusiasm a little calm. I’m so glad I have this one photographic memory of his grace: It was captured in a snapshot from the SAG Awards that rests on my bookshelf. It’s Irrfan, Dev, me, and Anil Kapoor. You see Irrfan’s smile and his humility standing tall corner left—like he’s been there, done that, has experienced the highs and the lows. He just knows that this is beautiful and just another moment that is part of life. But it is also fleeting, and we will have to move on afterward.
Promoting movies after Slumdog Millionaire was quite lonely. I had become very accustomed to the six to seven months of familial feeling with the Slumdog team. Once, I was at a film festival in Abu Dhabi promoting my second film, and Irrfan was there promoting one of his own as well. I remember walking through the hallway of the hotel after a barrage of interviews, and I saw him walking towards me. It’s hard to describe that sense of extreme joy and that familiarity I felt in my heart: Here’s a person I actually know and respect immensely and who knows me and will probably know a thing or two of the lonely experience. He said, “I heard you are doing a great job. Hang in there.”
First of all, that note of approval from him meant the world to me—Irrfan Khan said I was doing a great job! Secondly, how soothing it was, even for a minute, to be greeted so warmly and to be assured that it was all going to be okay. I hope he knew that his presence brought a unique glow to a lot of lives. It certainly put a spring in my step for the rest of the day.
As I reminisce and celebrate Irrfan with people who knew him too, there seems to be a common thread in all of our conversations. He was a hard worker who was committed to his craft with every passionate fiber of his being. No wonder he could churn out unforgettable performances, film after film. He wasn’t drawn to fame but wanted freedom from the trappings of celebrity; he knew how short-lived all of that was. He took risks and stood by them; when they didn’t work, he also took full responsibility. But mostly he came in quietly, did his job quietly, left quietly, and somehow left an astoundingly loud and powerful impact. Like his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, beautifully said: “I have not lost—I have gained in every which way.” We have all gained—and how lucky and blessed we all are to have had Irrfan for 53 glorious years on earth.
I’m going to be watching Paan Singh Tomar tonight. He brought so much grace and humanity to his performance as a loyal army man and athlete who is pushed to the edge, forcing him to turn into a rebel. He won a National Film Award for that role. In The Lunchbox, he plays a widower who develops an unexpected relationship with a woman packing her husband’s lunch boxes that reach him instead. Even in a smaller role, like in Piku, he takes your breath away. He makes you smile; he makes you feel warm.
Irrfan had a unique style that just cannot be copied. However dark the character he played, you couldn’t stop yourself from finding some strange love for them and him. But above all, I think the kinds of performances he gave and the kind of roles he chose made the everyday human feel seen and heard. No matter who you are, he made us all feel like we had a story to tell.
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