Struck down in his prime! These are terrible words to hear about an artiste. Even when someone far along in years passes on, there's a sense of nostalgia, but when a Philip Seymour Hoffman dies, or when Irrfan dies… There's such a sense of loss, of waste, of what-could-have-been, that all we can do to not lose it is hold on to a clutch of movie memories.
The Namesake, I think, was the first film that used Irrfan in all his Irrfan-ness. Up there on screen, he's always seemed a little spaced out, a little bewildered, with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights stare suggesting that his brain has issued a directive that the rest of his body is still struggling to process. It's as though he's just arrived from an alien planet and was attempting to get used to the manners and mores of a brand new world — and Mira Nair used this distanced quality to excellent effect. Irrfan plays an Indian who settles in America, and there are times you think he doesn't need to "act" one bit to portray the general unease so inherent in a first-generation immigrant: he just needs to be. He just needs to stand there, with the topmost button of his shirt undone, revealing the U-neck of the banian underneath — as he does in a scene where his son brings home an American girlfriend.
You know this man. Forget first-generation immigrants in other countries, we've seen this man in our own homes: the befuddled uncle or grandfather or even father, who we love but are also vaguely embarrassed by because they always seem one step out of sync with the rest of the world. The lazy word for this quality in an actor is "everyman", and Irrfan's special talent was to find something extraordinary in the ordinary.
He was an ordinary corporate drone in Abhinay Deo's Blackmail: a part as generic as they come. But Irrfan imbues him with so much specificity, aided by the little character detail that this man masturbates in his office bathroom, to pictures of his colleagues' wives. Look at his little ritual of tossing his tie around his neck, like a shawl, while pleasuring himself. (His deadpan face is hilarious; he could be typing out a sales report). Look at how he freezes upon discovering his wife's infidelity, and slowly tiptoes out of his own house, carefully picking up his coat from the chair he's draped it on. It's a masterful study of a small man, rendered in miniature.
In other words, like all great actors, Irrfan did not need a great movie to be great in. Proof? Three words: Sanjay Gupta's Jazbaa. On the surface, Irrfan seems to be playing the heroine's friend. On the side, he seems to be auditioning for the lead role in a Salim-Javed script.
There were hints of the masala hero inside Irrfan in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider, where he made a smashing entrance. Then Talvar saw him as a starry investigator: in the midst of a whole bunch of drawn-from-life people, he delivered a full-on movie-star performance. In Jazbaa, he transformed into a full-blown star. He got flavourful Kamlesh Pandey lines to chew on, and he spat them out with unbelievable flair: Neend mashooqa ki tarah hoti hai. Waqt na do to rooth ke chali jaati hai. It's not easy to walk this prose-poetry tightrope. The world-weariness he channels here made me think of another equally unconventional-looking (and tall) leading man: Amitabh Bachchan.
Then there's Anurag Basu's Life in a Metro, where Irrfan shared a superb subplot with Konkona Sen Sharma. He played one half of that most heartwarming of rom-com staples: opposites who end up discovering that they may be destined for one another. He's funny and sad and confused and philosophical, and he almost made me wish for an entire movie about these characters alone. He played another (almost) romantic leading man in Shoojit Sircar's Piku. It was an inspired choice to cast him opposite the radiant Deepika Padukone. She'd already proved she could be a good performer, but working with him, her game went up a few levels. A great actor does this: he makes the others around him great. It was possibly the closest Bollywood has gotten to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dynamic, of which it was said: He gives her class, she gives him sex.
A "greatest performance" is hard to settle on, but I'd surely consider Anup Singh's Partition-era tragedy, Qissa. Irrfan played Umber Singh, who decides to think that his last-born girl is a boy. The writing doesn't say why. Sometimes, there are no whys. It just is. Maybe we can point to the scene where Umber Singh's wife delivers a baby girl and asks him if he won't see the child. He simply says he's seen enough girls. As this "boy" grows up, Irrfan is incredible. He doesn't produce the simple effect of making you hate him for what he's doing to his "son". He makes you feel the morbid fascination you have when you run into a really gruesome accident. Your eyes are riveted to him even as your legs want to flee.
There are many other films, so many other films… There he was in Apna Asmaan, where he second-fiddled beautifully to Shobana. They played the parents of an autistic boy. He's one of those men (again, ordinary, but again, in this actor's hands, extraordinary) who've spent years at the same, small office, giving vent to frustrations with frequent alcohol and the occasional outburst. There he was in Paan Singh Tomar, as a soldier who becomes a sportsman who becomes a dacoit.
There he was in 7 Khoon Maaf, as a soulful poet with a sadomasochistic streak. There he was as the superbly named Saajan in The Lunchbox, another ordinary man stuck in an office whose file-filled ordinariness is crushing. There he was in Madaari, as another ordinary man, who loses his son in a bridge collapse. In the hospital scene, Irrfan shows us the tears that follow such a tragedy. Later, when government officials come with a cheque, he says, "Nahin chahiye compensation, beta vapas karo." There's not a trace of hysteria. The line is delivered in a monotone. The tears from the hospital are gone. Now he makes us feel the numbness.
Numbness, yes. That's the feeling now. As the grown-up protagonist of Life of Pi, Irrfan gets to say these prescient words: "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye." He wrote his own epitaph. Too soon, dear Irrfan, too soon!