Irrfan Khan came to me the way angels come to the faithful, how Roohdar came to Haider—softly, providentially and without warning. In 2003, I was in college, trying hard to ignore my alienation in a Cornish town where the only thing Indian other than me seemed to be a Bangladeshi takeaway with Chicken Tikka Masala on its menu. Mark, an older student, who I had seen in class but never spoken to, stopped me in the street one afternoon to ask if I'd want to watch The Warrior (2001). He had just bought the DVD. "What's it about?" I asked. "I'm not so sure," he said, "but it has an Indian cast."
Familiarity is easy to invent when you are incredibly lonely, and for 86 minutes, I thought of director Asif Kapadia's locations—Rajasthan, the Himalayas—as home. The plotline of a mercenary forsaking violence reminded me of Ashoka. The Hindi dialogue satisfied my craving for the sound of intimate tongues, but, strangely, Lafcadia, the warrior Irrfan played, barely spoke. I was staggered by how he portrayed feelings such as guilt, regret, fear and courage with his body alone. Mark, I remember, said something like, "His face is the second subtitle track." I laughed. Irrfan's repertoire was hardly public knowledge. I could not tell Mark what other films he'd been in, but years before Irrfan would travel from Bombay to Hollywood, he helped me bridge my own east and west. He made me feel less foreign.
Coming to terms with the desperation of late adolescence, I see I, too, was acting then. I adopted a new accent. I wore my hair long. I acquired a taste for music I had never heard. I was performing my way out of isolation. If I'd seen more of Irrfan, I would have perhaps escaped that festering guilt of transformation. I would have known you're only 'acting' if you're aware that you are. I might have seen that performances are more convincing if you come to empathise and inhabit fully your new, possibly borrowed self. I would've learnt that becoming someone other affords the very real possibility of chancing upon your true self. If I'd seen more of Irrfan, I know I'd have been a better human being.
When I returned to India for the summer of 2004, Maqbool had left theatres, but a friend slipped me a VCD, saying, "You've got to see this." As a literature student, I felt I knew my Macbeth, and a few minutes into the film, I even congratulated myself at having pieced together the jigsaw of Vishal Bharadwaj's adaptation. Irrfan, though, made me forget my triumphs. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
Irrfan played Maqbool with an economy that has now been eulogised by reviewers and obituarists alike. In my mind, however, his measure far exceeded his acting ability. It made conspicuous the inner life of characters and opened doors that most actors usually leave secret. Maqbool, it's clear, is loyal to Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur), but his ambition confuses his devotion. When the sycophantic inspectors Purohit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Pandit (Om Puri) predict his rise, Maqbool is both upset and pleased. Clothing his character's desire with gestures, Irrfan raises his eyebrows and then smiles his wry smile.
Watching Maqbool at the age of 20, I instinctively wanted to imitate Irrfan's manner, not because it was rousing but because it was honest. Too young to know the rituals of adultery, I had always thought of them to be amoral, even gauche, but looking at Maqbool remove his hand when Nimmi (Tabu), Abbaji's much younger wife, reaches to hold it, I realised that infidelity, too, could be decorous.
While the film itself never threatens their illicit relationship with the gaze of an outsider, you see Irrfan involuntarily stiffen when Tabu is in the same frame as him. Watching him nervously scan all possible directions with his large eyes, you realise that the love he has found does improve him and his world, yes, but it also threatens to tear both to shreds. When Nimmi leaves Maqbool with a choice—he has to either kill her or her husband—his hesitation is understandable, but Irrfan's physicality conveys a horror instead. In a film where bodies are usually dispensable, he makes you dread the sight of blood.
While Shakespeare perhaps had ideas such as comeuppance in his mind when he had written Macbeth, Irrfan, on the other hand, makes you think that Maqbool's unravelling is caused more by the guilt of killing his master, less karma. When Maqbool imagines a corpse coming to life, Irrfan depicts his fear with a suddenness that reminds you of a pithy truth—what you feel matters more than what you have done. Seeing Nimmi go mad with grief, he surrenders to the inevitability of fate and cries when trying to soothe her. Irrfan, I still remember, made it hard for me to see Maqbool cry.
I never returned the Maqbool VCD to my friend. That summer, I would see the film twice again, and each time, I would marvel at Irrfan Khan's ability to repeatedly transform his character fully. The film's violence and elegant dialogue did not impact me as much as its protagonist's many dichotomies. At the cusp of adulthood, Irrfan taught me I could never be just one person, that I would forever contain within myself a multitude of selves—loyalist, lover, loser. All I now needed was Irrfanian authenticity.
By the time The Namesake came to Indian cinemas in 2006, I was struggling to find my feet. Having moved to Delhi, I was trying hard to shake off my nostalgia for England, a country that left me desolate and also enriched. While I had, of course, heard of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, diaspora literature had begun to leave me anguished. The prospect of a film adaptation, however, filled me with glee. I had faith in Mira Nair and Tabu, but far more importantly, the film had Irrfan, and for him, I had only love.
As a non-Bengali who only wanted to find delight in books, films and music, growing up in Calcutta was never easy. Through much of my adolescence, I felt like an impostor, appropriating a culture and language that was never mine. Irrfan, I found, was being subjected to the same scrutiny that I had become accustomed to over the years. Some Bengalis, I heard, had taken umbrage to how he pronounced "Jamshedpur". A more grievous sin was him saying "duta" instead of "duto" (Bengali for two) at one point in the film. Having confused the two a number of times myself, I felt for my hero.
Hearing of Irrfan's death, I was again reminded of Gogol's loss. I again felt like crying. Irrfan, I felt, would not have been surprised by suffering. I assumed the pain of his characters had seeped through all his pores.
It didn't take long for Irrfan's Bengali accent to grow on me. His Ashoke Ganguly resembled a fair number of geeky middle-aged men I was used to calling "Uncle". Their clothes were simple but their ambitions were not. After a near-fatal accident, Ashoke migrates to the US for a career in academia. We don't gauge if America instantly proves itself to be a land of plenty of him, but when he comes to ask for the hand of Ashima (Tabu) in marriage, his two-tone wingtip shoes do suggest a new affluence.
Unlike Maqbool, where the passion shared by Tabu and Irrfan was volatile, even violent, the love they piece together in The Namesake is gentler. Ashima has uprooted herself to be with him, and Ashoke's attentiveness proves his empathy. He makes her tea when she's cold. He turns to smile and wave at her when going to work. After a fight, he pacifies her with the sweetest nothings. Years later, he asks her why she had agreed to marry him. She mentions his wingtips. He looks crestfallen. She asks, "Why, would you like me to say 'I love you' like the Americans do?" Instantly, we see Ashoke's face light up. As he says, "Hain (yes)", his smile, goofy and guileless, is altogether disarming. It is Irrfan who shows us that with love, youth can have longevity, too. Oddly, he takes only a second to do that.
Irrfan surely made me a better lover, but in 2006, a year when my dislocation had made me stubborn and combative, he also made me a better son. Soon after Ashima has given birth to their first child, she wants to raise him in India. Calling the US "a land of opportunity", Ashoke says, "he can become whatever he wants." (Strangely, a line that holds true for Irrfan, the actor as well.) Ashoke knows that the gulf of culture that separates him from India and Kolkata also separates him from his own children.
When Gogol (Kal Penn) is about to graduate from high school, Ashoke gifts him a book—The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Gogol, seemingly disinterested, doesn't clock the tenderness of this somewhat on-the-nose gesture, but it was in Irrfan Khan's portrayal of an awkward and lonely father that I found a new affection for mine. Seeing Ashoke's acceptance of his son's aloofness broke my heart. By making conspicuous even the pride he swallowed, Irrfan now made me see my tragic flaws.
As the years went by, Irrfan busied himself with Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Paan Singh Tomar (2012) and Life of Pi (2012), while I, for most part, wallowed in a newfound depression. The Lunchbox released in 2013, a year I was almost wholly down and out. Irrfan's Saajan Fernandes seemed immediately relatable—grumpy, introverted, melancholic. Seeing the widower Saajan smoke copiously in his balcony, I thought he, too, like me, used his cigarettes to measure time and loneliness.
On the verge of retirement, Saajan is asked to hand over his responsibilities to Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), but having worked with an exemplary rigour for 35 years, he is not prepared to willingly bequeath the fruits of his diligence as inheritance. It's only when Shaikh tells Saajan he is an orphan, does the reticent senior start handing files over. Saajan's empathy, Ritesh Batra and Irrfan ensure, is perceptible, yet it takes several letters, sent to him by a stranger in his lunchbox, for him to fully soften.
The lonely know this only too well—if the world must intervene, it'll do so unexpectedly. Saajan never expected that the lunch Ila (Nimrat Kaur) made her husband would reach him, and he certainly wasn't prepared for the candour of her letters. He did, however, meet her openness with warm humour and honesty of his own. Though they had not met, we see Saajan worried sick about Ila in one scene. Even his anxiety is quiet. Irrfan never needed to overplay his compassion. His presence guaranteed it.
At its heart, The Lunchbox was a film about the inevitability and irreversibility of ageing. In one of his later letters to Ila, Saajan writes that his bathroom had started smelling like his grandfather. Even though Irrfan was only in his mid-40s when making the film, he made mortality seem palpable, but often all it took was a sudden display of joy—that wry smile—for it to also seem surmountable. Feeling my sadness lift, I thought Irrfan's Saajan wasn't laughing at death in the end, he was happy despite it.
When Ashoke dies in The Namesake, Gogol visits a morgue to identify his body. He then goes to his father's Cleveland flat and wears his wingtips. He buries his head in his pillow and weeps inconsolably. I remember crying when watching that. Hearing of Irrfan's death, I was again reminded of Gogol's loss. I again felt like crying. Irrfan, I felt, would not have been surprised by suffering. I assumed the pain of his characters had seeped through all his pores. In Maqbool, for instance, when dying, Irrfan sees a bird in the sky and the sun shine brightly on him. The sun, I know, hasn't stopped shining on him since.