Remembering Irrfan: 10 Unforgettable Characters
Remembering Irrfan: 10 Unforgettable Characters

Remembering Irrfan: 10 Unforgettable Characters

The actor passed away three years ago, but he left us with an unforgettable set of characters, from Rana in Piku to Raj in Hindi Medium

From Shakespearean characters in Vishal Bhardwaj’s films to the lovable father in The Namesake (2006) and Hindi Medium (2017), Irrfan was an actor who sank into his roles so completely that it felt as though one couldn’t tell where the real ended and the reel began. The roles he played, both major and minor, have created one of the most impressive bodies of work in Indian cinema. They’re a testament to his enormous capacity for empathy and impeccable craft. 

Maqbool (2004)

In this adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Irrfan plays Maqbool, the right-hand man of the underworld don, Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur). The don’s wife, Nimmi (Tabu) and Maqbool are in love with each other. Torn between loyalty and lust,  Maqbool grapples with choices and guilt, all the while making us care for him despite the immorality of his actions. This is a searing portrait of ambition, despair and desire.

The Namesake (2006)

As a migrant in America, Ashoke is someone who tries to make a world for himself and his family that has the best of the India he’s left behind and the country that he’s embraced as his new home. Ashoke remains an outsider even after decades and though he is successful in his career, a considerate father and a loving husband, there’s a loneliness to this man who has been his family’s anchor. 

Paan Singh Tomar (2012)

Irrfan is Tomar, an Army man who becomes an athlete because they get more food to eat. He first wins race after race and then turns into a dacoit when his ancestral land is snatched from him. Whether skipping over hurdles or engaging in violent encounters with policemen, Irrfan moves with grace and points the viewer’s attention to a flawed system that villainises those it should celebrate. 

Irrfan in Paan Singh Tomar
Irrfan in Paan Singh Tomar

Qissa (2013)

As the patriarch Umber, Irrfan had the task of making us care for a man who is so desperate for a son, he forces his family to pretend the daughter born to him is a boy. Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) is made to dress like a boy, she’s treated differently from her sisters, and when she begins menstruating, Umber tells her she’s become a man. He even marries Kanwar off to Neeli (Rasika Dugal). It may sound ridiculous on paper, but Shome, Irrfan and Dugal’s performances made Qissa a powerfully moving take. This is one of those roles in which Irrfan plays a terrible man — Umber is selfish, violent and often reprehensible — and without losing sight of the character’s ugliness, Irrfan made us see the pathos under Umber’s anger and desperation. 

The Lunchbox (2013)

Saajan is a widower on the brink of retirement. He’s an unremarkable man, living an unremarkable life, until one day, there’s a mix-up with this lunch dabba. He gets tiffin that was made by Ila (Nimrat Kaur) for her husband and what follows is a heartwarming friendship. Confidences are exchanged between strangers who feel like they know each other even though they have no idea what the other looks like. As Saajan, Irrfan was a man who is an unexpected well of optimism. Nothing in life is ever as bad as it seems, as far as Saajan is concerned, and it’s a perspective on the world that’s come not from naivete, but experience. 

Piku (2015) 

Rana (Irrfan), the owner of a taxi business, has to drive cantankerous passenger Piku (Deepika Padukone) and her father Bhashkor (Amitabh Bachchan) to Kolkata from Delhi. For him, the trip is a respite from his mother and sister even if it does mean that he has to navigate the eccentric angularities of Piku and her father. The friendship between Rana and Piku is one of Hindi cinema’s most charming relationships. It’s unusual for a number of reasons. First of all, both Rana and Piku are mature adults. They’re confident and most importantly, their relationship is rooted in respect. Irrfan’s Rana is not the conventional romantic lead, but he feels very much like the ideal man for Piku. 

Irrfan in Talvar
Irrfan in Talvar

Talvar (2015)

As Ashwin Kumar, Irrfan is the Joint Director of the Central Department of Investigation (CDI) and appointed to investigate the murder of a 14-year-old girl. Her parents are prime suspects of the crime but Kumar is certain they are innocent. Embarrassed by his subordinates' carelessness and unprofessionalism, Kumar takes matters into his own hands and is on the brink of unraveling the truth when a new senior officer is appointed. It’s through Irrfan’s character that the audience sees the flaws in the system and the way justice is denied because of a tangle of red tape and ineptitude. 

Madaari (2016)

Nirmal’s son died when a bridge collapsed due to government negligence. In his attempt to exact revenge, he kidnaps the home minister’s son, intent upon finding those responsible for his son’s death. This film shows Irrfan as a common man who has been wronged and who has been pushed to a point of no-return by his circumstances. When he forces all those responsible to confess their crimes on air and returns the minister’s son safely, he shows that the pursuit of justice goes a longer way than vengeance. 

Hindi Medium (2017)

Raj (Irrfan), a self-made boutique shop owner, is on a campaign to be seen as posh because his wife wants their daughter to attend a prestigious English medium school. From moving to a rich neighborhood to behaving in a more ‘refined’ manner, they go to extreme lengths to secure their child’s future. The film floundered in many ways, but Irrfan’s performance went a long way to highlight the politics of language and class that are normalised. His Raj is proud of how far he has come and remains rooted in his justified self-belief even while his family is transformed beyond recognition. 

The Song of Scorpions (2017)

This film marks Irrfan’s last theatrical release, which makes it one for the books. As Aadam, the a camel trader who arrives like a knight in shining armour to save a damsel in distress, Irrfan presents a portrait of masculinity that’s as persuasive as it is troubling. Khan makes it impossible to dislike or suspect Aadam, even as his struggle to handle rejection hijacks his battle to earn his wife’s affection. His Aadam is a masterclass in masculine subterfuge. 

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