Film companion Irrfan Khan obituary

Irrfan Khan is no more. A brilliant career has been cut short. It’s a cultural tragedy. Not only has the future been robbed of talent, talent has also been robbed of a future. There are no answers, only questions: Why is it always the trailblazing comet in a sky full of stars? Why is it always the story in a land full of tellers? If movies are an escape from life, why does death have to damage the screen? It hurts. It’s not fair. It can’t be right. It makes no sense.

But they haven’t quite invented a term for this feeling. This sick feeling, when a great artist leaves us. This irrational feeling, that leaves us commoners lost and jolted by the revelation that our heroes aren’t immortal. This broken feeling, when someone is gone despite never really being there to begin with. What is this distant closeness called?

Is it grief? But I never knew him. I liked what he did, I admired who Irrfan Khan was. Is it heartbreak? I never thought about him a lot. And deep inside, I knew this was coming. Since the announcement of his illness two years ago, the eternal sunshine of Irrfan’s spotless aura has gently faded out of my mind. Visually, it has felt like the reverse of Roohdaar’s famous entry in Haider – the music dims, his face recedes into the background till his body becomes an unrecognizable blur in the snow. Is it personal? But I know I’m not the only one who thinks that Irrfan was at the forefront of Bollywood’s everyman revolution. Even my Whatsapp group, with college friends who are naturally not as invested in the Indian performing arts as me, is flashing mournful and vaguely accurate phrases: Common people’s actor, understated hero, the best. Is it melancholy? But the world is already in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. What is it then?

The Netflix series You introduced a term that perhaps comes the closest to describing this feeling. Everythingship, in a romantic sense, means “a relationship but more”.  A bit of everything and all of nothing. When calibrated to a sense of spiritual loss, Everythingship acquires a different context. The definition of despair is reflected in the manner of influence. Irrfan, for the two decades of my cinephilic life, changed a bit of everything by revealing – and revelling in the shadow of – nothing. For years, I never recognized the significant impact that Irrfan had on my sensibilities. He’s good, I’d think, and file him away in the “respect” section of my brain. I’d forget him if I had no one to discuss him with. I never realized that when I watched him on screen, I automatically expected more from every aspect – the other actors, the direction, the composition, the production value, the sound – of his frame. I never realized that every time I was disappointed with a film or another actor, it was because they were being measured on a mental scale of 1 to Irrfan in my head.

I never realized that the cacophony of masala cinema started to seem futile because Irrfan’s lilting voice had begun to turn every piece of dialogue into the poetry of verbal reaction. I never realized that only a handful of films truly managed to outline the mundanity of his nuance. I never realized that my adolescent love for the movies matured into adult companionship the moment I first saw Irrfan in and as Maqbool. I never realized that the deadpan lessness of his gait made me want to think about a scene rather than be “seduced” by it. I never realized that an artist could be everywhere even if my focus was nowhere. I never realized that he made me want to be more than “blown away” by a story. I never realized that Irrfan Khan had moulded my relationship with modern Hindi cinema…by simply being more.

They haven’t quite invented a term for this feeling. This sick feeling, when a great artist leaves us. This irrational feeling, that leaves us commoners lost and jolted by the revelation that our heroes aren’t immortal.

Reels have been written about Irrfan’s celebrated roles – his stoic loneliness in The Lunchbox, his conflicted parenthood in Qissa and The Namesake, his gritty elegance as Paan Singh Tomar, his ghoulish intrigue in Haider, his principled villainy of Haasil and Maqbool, his effeminate sinisterness in 7 Khoon Maaf, his dignified buffoonery in Hindi Medium and Life in a…Metro and Qarib Qarib Singlle and Karwaan, his haunted pragmatism in Talvar, his wry masculinity in Piku. And for good reason: When the surroundings matched his presence, silence became a narrative language.

But, much like his performances, Irrfan has simultaneously stood out and blended into my life. For some reason, I readily remember the roles that left me wanting “more”: the fleeting moments and the extra syllables of a career that has left us pining for more. As a Malayali tea-vendor in Mumbai Meri Jaan, he wore such terse terror on his face when bullied by the police that I’ve long associated the haplessness of big-city migrants with this cameo. I remember the empathy in his tone while his Pakistani cop character dealt with a panicked, pregnant wife – played by a global superstar – in A Mighty Heart. I remember the meta joy of watching him, our Khan, embrace King Khan in the final seconds of Billu. I remember the sly ambiguity on his brow when, as the adult Pi in The Life of Pi, he narrates his tale to a gobsmacked writer. I remember him, even when I forget him. 

Even the still photographs of Irrfan had a strange effect. The colour looked monochromatic. The edges looked wrinkled. Those big round eyes would stare back at me, compelling me to pronounce his name in a way that acknowledged his slow-burning transcendence: I tend to drawl, pausing before the “fan” in Irrfan. Again, I never realized it. Just like I never realized that the everythingship of his legacy needed to be realized. Now it’s too late. Irrfan Khan is no more. It’s not fair. It hurts. As it must. Because he has always – always – been the cinematic manifestation of a relationship…but more. 

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