It wasn’t easy being Irrfan Khan. Nor is it easy for me to write this piece without recalling the genuine, easy going acting legend that set a benchmark so high, no one in Hindi cinema tried to get there.
I recall Irrfan Khan’s reaction to a simple question that I had posed to him at the premiere of The Namesake in Mumbai. Is Hollywood important to him? He simply shook his head and said, “Let this just work out..it has been so long…” And left the statement incomplete. His signature style was that; to leave a sentence half complete as he gets lost in his thoughts. He expects you to understand. He had to wait for a very long time before mainstream cinema woke up to his talent. Once it did wake up though, his body of work went beyond films in India, and he successfully carved an identity of his own overseas, without hype and hoopla.
Irrfan Khan was the most secure actor I had come across. Which is why he never put on airs and always spoke from the heart, both on and off record. While his commercial cinema is familiar to most, several performances of this stellar, versatile actor crossed international and cultural borders and isn’t quite known to many. Here’s a list of some of his underrated gems:
The Warrior (2003)
Asif Kapadia’s film is how it all began for Irrfan. After a cameo in Salaam Bombay, he had to wait to find work worthy of his talent. In this British film that swept awards at festivals and won Best British film, Khan features as a warrior that gives up being an enforcer and has to escape a bloody hunt. Khan got noticed by filmmakers and casting agents for his innate ability to act without melodrama, an uncommon trait amongst Indian actors. This is also the year that Ashvin Kumar’s road trip adventure drama, Road To Ladakh released at international festivals; featuring Khan in a pivotal role. With virgin locations and a feel of a road trip rarely taken, this film showed just how Irrfan could say so much by speaking so little.
In Treatment (2008-2010)
In line with quality tv programming from HBO (now called prestige TV) In Treatment features Irrfan Khan as a Bengali widower that is seeking psychoanalysis in New York. An extension of nuances that he perfected as Ashok Ganguly in The Namesake, Khan brings to life the hesitation, inherent shyness and discomfort that an Indian man who has just lost his wife would feel in discussing his innermost thoughts with a stranger. In the West, he was hailed as the most compelling performance and the most interesting patient in a show that is about a psychoanalyst and his everyday challenges.
Anup Singh’s poignant film won several international awards including the Netpac Award at TIFF but it didn’t get much time to play out in Indian theaters. Based on a folk tale, the film’s compelling emotions play out like a fairy tale on canvas. Irrfan Khan plays a headstrong father who has lost everything in the Partition. He plays a Sikh man without obvious exaggerations that one associates with a ‘sardar’. Qissa is an acquired taste but it offers a clear idea on the range that Irrfan Khan had as an actor. Singh has also directed Irrfan in a poetic love story featuring Iranina actor Golshifteh Farahani. Well received, this film won Khan praise from critics at Locarno Film Festival where it premiered. It also prompted him to look for dramas and love stories beyond trappings of mainstream romances.
Tokyo Trial (2016)
Irrfan Khan is incredibly subtle in this memorable limited series available on Netflix. Khan plays a Bengali judge that is part of the prestigious panel of judges that has the history-defining task of passing verdict on war criminals from Japan’s government after the Second World War. As developed by Japan’s state TV NHK, this series examines the complex concept of a victor’s justice, and judge Pal, as played by Irrfan Khan, weighs in with a balanced judgment. A masterpiece in interpreting historical drama, this series shows just how far and wide the impact of Khan’s versatility had reached.
Khan has also acted in the unreleased film, Dubai Return by Aditya Bhattacharya. Word in the industry was that his performance in this entertaining crime caper was brilliant. For those who like to know, remember his performance as a typical Gujarati businessman in New York, I Love You, starring alongside Natalie Portman. Khan will also be remembered for his presence in Doordarshan’s top TV shows like Chanakya, Bharat Ek Khoj and Zee’s cult soap Banegi Apni Baat.
Most importantly, this actor — that saw the definite curve of content beating stardom coming years before others — will be remembered for making Indian actors relevant to international film and TV.