Written by Naseeruddin Shah | Updated: May 3, 2020 9:55:52 am
“Irrfan Khan did a great deal with his life.”
It is difficult to put it into words what Irrfan’s loss means to me. I was not very close to him or his family but Irrfan is an actor I envied. Not everybody is aware of how long and arduous a struggle an actor like Irrfan had. He has played umpteen walk-on parts and small roles in television serials and movies before he gained any kind of recognition. What was truly inspiring about a person like him is that all those years of rejections did not embitter him or make him lose faith in himself.
When I meet actors who move to Mumbai and say, ‘I’m going to try for two years and if it does not work out, I’ll go home”, I tell them they should go back and not waste these two years. In two years, nothing is going to happen. Irrfan didn’t give himself any such deadline. He knew that this was his life’s vocation. He decided to do whatever it took to stay afloat. He barely stayed afloat for many years until films like The Warrior (2001) came along. That itself should be an inspiration for young actors who are not getting immediate recognition.
Death, I have always believed, is the most unimportant part of life. It doesn’t matter how and when you die. What matters is what you have done with your life. Irrfan did a great deal with his life. But I had to re-examine my earlier belief. In Irrfan’s case, the timing and nature of his death mattered. He had tons more to give. We had hardly witnessed the tip of the iceberg of the immense talent and commitment that was Irrfan. We are unfortunate to have missed out on the rest. But what does one do when confronted with a situation like this except to look upon Irrfan as an example — not only as the actor par excellence but also in the way he devoted himself to his family, the way he looked at life and his sense of gratitude for having had these years? He was a private person, like his wife Sutapa (Sikdar). There was not a trace of self-pity in him. He never mentioned the agony he went through. All he did say was that “it is astounding that such a frail body can house so much pain”. This, he said, without implying that he was suffering.
Irrfan Khan continued to inspire people till the end. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)
He continued to inspire people till the end. The way with which he fought the dreaded disease, the optimism he always had and the objectivity with which he approached it was startling to me. When the illness struck him, I didn’t know whether he would appreciate getting disturbed. So, I didn’t get in touch with him. But Irrfan sent me a message: “Knock knock, Naseer bhai”. So, I called him and spoke to him several times when he was in London (undergoing treatment). He knew the inevitable was coming, yet, he would say, “How many people has the chance to observe death coming at them? I’m lucky that I can see this thing approaching me and I can greet it.” It shook me up when he said this. I realised that this is the only way one can approach death.
Everyone knows about Irrfan’s work and it will survive forever. Without a doubt, he’ll be remembered as one the finest actors of this country. When you watched him act, you felt as if you could read his mind. He never made an effort to reach you. This is a strange paradox about Irrfan as an actor. An actor always makes efforts to reach out to his audience. Irrfan knew the audience would reach out to him. People who have known him only through his work have felt a personal connect with him. That’s the most precious thing an actor can do for an audience. A lot of actors can impress, awe or amuse the audience. Irrfan had the ability to enter into your veins and make you feel he is yours. That’s why this outpouring of grief over a person so many people didn’t know but who they realised is a gem. It shows extreme mastery of his craft and a confidence in his abilities. That’s why he achieved what he did. The intelligence that shone through in his acting is a rare quality. It gave a peculiar charisma to his performances. He reminded me of those Buddhist monks who draw intricate patterns out of coloured powder over days that requires absolute concentration. After they have made it, they just wipe it away. It does not matter if someone has seen it. What’s of consequence is that they gave their best to create that. Watching Irrfan act reminded me of these people. He never spoke of his own performances or boasted about his work. He just quietly did it. The fact that he was deprived of a chance to do more is what strikes me as unfair and makes me very angry at life. I must be grateful that I lived at the same time as he did and I could see an actor who is head and shoulders above other actors.
I met him first when he was doing a tele-film titled Jazeere (1991), directed by Govind Nihalani, with Ratna (Pathak Shah) and Mita Vashisht. It was based on Henrik Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf, which I found to be very obscure and abstruse when I tried to read it. Irrfan would often come over (to our home) to rehearse. That’s the first time I registered this lanky man who was all eyes. I used to teach at the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi, but I never had the opportunity to work with his class. Later, I acted in a film called Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One (1997). He had a tiny part in it but you could not doubt his authenticity. He stood out even without making any attempt to do so. When I watched The Warrior, I was in England. I was so moved, I got hold of his number and called him. He was very happy. Not many had seen the film in India.
THE WARRIOR, Irfan Khan, 2001, (c) Miramax
I got to know him better during Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003). The film went through various permutations of casting. Then some light of inspiration struck Vishal. He decided on Irrfan in the titular role. For Irrfan, Maqbool was the beginning of his recognition in India. He was in his early 30s then, acting alongside Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur and me, but he held his own. When I used to watch him act, I used to think of Mozart and (Antonio) Salieri. Salieri used to tell God “Why am I the patron saint of mediocrity? Is this fellow’s random scribbling superior to my hours and hours of labour in composing music?” I must say that when I watched Irrfan, that’s how I used to feel. I wished that when I was his age, I had been that good. I really admired him in an unqualified manner. I don’t think there is another actor I admired as much as I admired Irrfan. But that was not just because of his acting. He was also a gentle, affectionate and generous man. I treasure the moments I shared with him. I consider myself fortunate to be among those who witnessed Irrfan’s ascent.
One great teacher of acting once said there is no such thing as talent but there is such a thing as lack of talent. Lack of talent occurs when you are not in your right place. All I can say is that Irrfan was at his right place from the beginning and he recognised this fact. That’s why he didn’t give into disappointment and disillusionment. He knew where his place was. That was his special quality, one that does not come about by chance. It comes from empathy, from an understanding of life and from a tremendous amount of compassion. It’s easy to say Irrfan was a natural. There is no such thing as that. Even Michelangelo had to work at his painting to master his craft. I’m certain Irrfan put in immense amount of labour into his craft. There is a great amount of preparation, hell of a lot of self-doubt that you don’t let on and a great deal of heartburn involved to become a good actor. Thankfully, he was conditioned by life, not by Hindi cinema. I have not seen an Irrfan performance when he looked out of place, with the possible exception of some scenes in Life of Pi (2012) where he attempted an American-Canadian accent. That didn’t quite work. He confessed as much when I spoke to him about it. “Mein try kar raha tha (I was trying something), Naseer bhai,” he said.
Actor Irrfan Khan and Tabu in film MAQBOOL. Express archive photo
This reminds me of an incident from the Maqbool shoot. There is this scene in the film between Maqbool and Kaka, played by Piyush Mishra. It’s the famous Shakespearean scene where Macbeth is confronted by Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. In Maqbool, when Kaka’s body is brought to the pyre, Irrfan kneels down in a show of grief and the dead body opens its eyes. When we were rehearsing the scene, Piyush was lying on the pyre. Irrfan sat down near him and I was standing behind him. I didn’t realise that the rehearsal had begun. After a while, Irrfan toppled over backwards. I reached out to support him. I assumed he’d lost his balance. And those morpankhi aankhen (peacock-feather-shaped eyes), as Ismat Chughtai describes Saadat Hasan Manto’s eyes, turned towards me and said: “Naseer bhai, I am trying to act. Why are you helping me?” I don’t think this has ever happened to me that I watched an actor perform and took it to be real. His scenes of emotional outbursts, passion or anger always surprise you because of the way he approaches a scene.
I have never watched him on stage. I tried very hard to get him back on it though. But he was reluctant. He would come and watch my work on stage but he would never take part in it. I realised that it was probably because like Robert De Niro or Daniel Day-Lewis, Irrfan invested very heavily emotionally in his performances. It is not possible to invest emotionally to that extent on stage every night. It is my assumption that that’s why Irrfan quit theatre. That’s why actors like Day-Lewis and Marlon Brando quit the stage — not because of the success they got but because the stage made a demand on them that became impossible.
Irrfan Khan in a still from Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota.
I’m thoroughly embarrassed by Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota (2006), a movie I directed. Irrfan’s part in it got mercilessly chopped for various reasons until practically nothing was left of it. Not once did he complain or make me feel that I had given him a raw deal. He only spoke about it with affection. He agreed to do the movie at my bidding without talking money or asking what his role was. I do regret that I never got a chance to make it up to him. Maybe, when we meet in the big study up there, I will be able to make it up to him.
Irrfan’s story is truly inspiring, from the beginning to the very end. I can only quote Faiz Ahmad Faiz to describe his time with us:
Un aseeron ke naam Jinke seenon mein fardaa ke shabtaab gouhar Jail-khanon ki shoreeda raaton ki sarsar mein Jal jal ke anjum-numa ho gaye hain (To those prisoners/in whose hearts the firefly hope of a bejewelled dawn/ burns like starlight- frenetic and tumultuous/ in long nights of incarceration; From Mustansir Dalvi’s translation) Irrfan’s legacy is like a constellation of stars. It is there for every actor to draw upon and take inspiration from. He is truly the actors’ actor.
(As told to Alaka Sahani)