Salaam, Irrfan: Actor of subtleties leaves a giant hole in cinema

Topics Irrfan Khan

In pathos and humour alike, Irrfan relied on understatement
For two years even as he struggled with a neuroendocrine tumour, Irrfan Khan retained his sense of wit and poetry, describing the disease as “unwanted guests” sitting in his body. On Wednesday, the guests took them with him. The actor of Lunchbox closed his soulful, chalice-like eyes forever on April 29 at the age of 53, after being admitted to Mumbai’s Kokilaben Hospital the night before due to complications in his health. He is survived by his wife Sutapa, and sons Babil and Ayan. Only last week, Irrfan’s mother Saeda Begum, 95, had passed away in Jaipur. 

The departure of this master of subtleties leaves a giant hole in cinema, alluding to which poignant tributes poured in on social media. “My dear friend Irfaan. You fought and fought and fought. I will always be proud of you...we shall meet again...,” posted filmmaker Shoojit Sircar on Twitter, while actor Vidya Balan wrote “I didn’t know you well but I can’t stop crying today because your performances affected me in a very personal way... I guess thats your magic and that will always remain…”

Not long ago Tillotama Shome, his co-actor in several films including Angrezi Medium, recounted an instance in her career when Irrfan’s perceptive remarks had proved eye-opening. “He can see through me in ways that few people can,” she had said. Indeed, the actor will be remembered as a student of people and of life.

At his apartment in Oshiwara, no guests were ever made to feel “unwanted”. While publicists grew restless, Irrfan would walk visiting journalists all the way to the elevator after interviews, and offer a final wave just as the doors closed. His previous residence in Madh Island, serene and close to nature, more aptly matched the actor’s wandering-Bedouin spirit. Although he attained big success with Hindi films including The Amazing Spider-Man, he largely stayed away from the popular glare. 

The eldest son in a comfortable family that descended from the Nawabs of Tonk, he was raised in Jaipur. The films of Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah piqued his interest in cinema, and against his parents wishes, he stole off to the National School of Drama (NSD) to study acting. After playing an assortment of parts in television, his big break came with Hansal Mehta’s The Warrior. 

The commerce of acting rarely interested him. He said he lost money when he took up Hollywood films, paying almost 60 percent of his earnings in taxes abroad, and getting further taxed on the residual 40 percent back in India. But a thirst for variety in opportunities kept his one foot in Mumbai and another in Los Angeles. He was committed to the craft of acting, often staying awake until 3 am going through scripts, watching DVDs, and making notes. He searched relentlessly for that elusive "entry" into each character. For The Namesake. 

In pathos and humour alike, Irrfan relied on understatement. A good actor, according to Irrfan, submitted to the moment but still kept an eye on which light was on him. “You go through the emotion but you’re also detached from it. So there is both a person and a partition.”

His free time was spent revelling in simple joys — listening to Jim Morrison songs, playing cricket, and flying kites just as he did during his carefree boyhood in Tonk. The stylish way he used to roll his own cigarettes, his tendency to quote Bertolt Brecht, the musicality in his walk, and his bookish preoccupation with languages set him apart from other stars. Deepika Padukone, his Piku co-star, has attested to his magic often, calling him her favourite co-star. The man of few words would have approved of her online tribute. To convey her sense of loss on Instagram, Padukone posted a blank picture.

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