There are many aspects of Irrfan Khan, the personage, that demand the need for long discussions and admiration from a viewer – his acting, his effortless charm, his solitaire attitude, and his immortal legacy on Indian cinema. There is an equally long and divisive debate requisite for his films among fans – which one is the best? Which role of his makes the biggest impact on the film industry as a whole and on the person watching the movie? Which film deserves more recognition? I say there is no correct answer. When you’ll go down the road to find the answers to these questions, what you will find will only surprise you more and perhaps, you’ll return as just a tad bit more appreciative of the man’s acting prowess.
Even his most venal characters possess a unique sense of authenticity that keeps one awake long after the movie ends. It may be when middle-aged accountant Saajan Fernandes’ jaded approach towards life in The Lunchbox that strikes a fear in a young mind – Is this what life has in store for me? It may be the sense of dread that creeps within as one watches Maqbool unravel on the screen. Hell, even his portrayal of the self-proclaimed “mastermind” womanizer Vikram Chopra in Thank You stays with you – in the form of a prayer that you never end up with a partner as narcissistic and insufferable as him.
Yet only one film of his comes close to capturing just how impactful his mere presence could be on screen. And the funny thing is, it’s not really his film. Listed as one of Khan’s many cameos, Haider masquerades around as an Indian retelling of Shakespearean classic Hamlet but deep down, it’s really a social commentary on the conflict in Kashmir Kashmir, one that rose to its peak in the 1990s as insurgency permeated throughout the state.
The play’s iconic phrase, “To be, or not to be”, in which Hamlet soliloquises his own turmoil on choosing between life and death, is utilised to showcase the plight of the family members of Kashmiris that were captured in the army’s crackdown on militants and in a moment, is transformed into something much more. Hum hai, ki hum nahin. It is a question as much as it is a howl of anger – are we the same citizens that were granted rights in the Constitution of the country or are we not? Are we deserving of dignity, humanity, just a simple answer or are we not? Do our lives, the lives of our loved ones, matter or are they too little in comparison to the towering stature of the state? It is in search of an answer to this question, that Haider (played by Shahid Kapoor) stumbles upon a possible clue to the mystery of his father’s death.
A moving figure lumbers through the shot of snowcapped dunes and for a millisecond, you think it is just a figment your eyes are playing at because of disability glare. Instead, it turns out to be a person clad in all white garments, leave his black cap and glasses, and Khan’s rugged face appears on the scene set to tense background music, as though it is a warning call to the viewer of what lies ahead in the film.
A quick search on YouTube and an inquiry from any Khan enthusiast would tell you that this scene has a fanbase of its own. To me, his entrance has always served a dual, almost paradoxical purpose: the arrival of a mysterious personality with intentions that are yet to be revealed and the disclosure of the information that Irrfan Khan, the man, the myth, the actor, is in this film. Back in 2014, the theatre hall had erupted into applause and whistles at his entrance. Nobody knew what his character could be playing at, it was just the sheer glee and confidence of the audience now being aware of his presence, assured in their faith that Khan will deliver no matter how the film ends.
Prior to the film’s release, curiosity over the adaptation of the spirit of King Hamlet in this scenario had gripped me. Watching the film for the first time, it made me even more bemused – would it be practical to insert a literal ghost in a movie about communal oppression? As Roohdar’s – as well as Khan’s – presence in the film is explained just a few minutes after his entry scene, all answers were provided in a grim yet breathtaking manner.
To describe Roohdar (spirit in Urdu) as a ‘person’ is a disservice to both the essence of the film and Khan’s art. Revenant, he comes along to haunt you with the brutalities faced by captive Kashmiris in detention camps and the tragic end that meets them. In his own words, he is omnipresent and omnipotent, he is Sh’ia, he is Sunni, and he is the Pandit. Khan’s delivery of the now iconic dialogue hardly make you think that these words are exaggerated. As the viewer, you truly believe every single word he has uttered, every single action he is performing. Vishal Bharadwaj, the director, uses this intended bewitchment as a cunning tool to propel the story further. The audience has been wholly enchanted by Khan’s angsty eyes and mystical storytelling of the bond between him and Haider’s father, rooh and jism, dariya and paani, not once do we stop and mull over the fact that he may be lying about his father’s wish for revenge. Nor does Haider.
Roohdar is not riddled with the question Haider and the protestors ask – he walks on this earth as a dead man. He knows that in death and in life, pain is something that remains constant; you just learn to live with it. He is not only there to ask for bequeathed revenge on his jism’s behalf, but also to bestow this bleak epiphany on his son. Hum hai ki hum nahin. The question never needed an answer, and Haider knew it as well. It was Roohdar’s job to tear the veil of illusion away from his face and say it: there was never any hope. The State never cared about him, Haider’s father, Haider, or wrongly accused Kashmiris. It is Roohdar who serves as the final crack in Haider’s already teetering sanity.
It has almost become a platitude, saying Irrfan Khan doesn’t play his characters, he becomes them. Watching his performance in Haider, though, affirms that Khan did in fact live as Roohdar. Almost half of his ten minutes of screentime in the film are filled up by his narration over chopped up scenes and see him with black snow goggles in the other half. This time, rather than his eyes being the focal point of his expressions, it is solely his voice that commands the screen. His strained speech possesses a certain numbness that only stays with those who have nothing to fear, because they’ve seen the worst of horrors life has to offer. For an actor to give a performance that can be considered as one of his career-bests with such little time and only his voice to serve an impression speaks volumes about Khan’s ability. This role, to me, proved how for a long time no actor will come even close to the way Khan captivates the screen.
Is Roohdar in Haider Irrfan Khan’s best performance to date? To be so, or not to be so – it all depends on one’s opinion. But it sure is the perfect example to show just how rare of an actor he was. Several of Khan’s roles sit comfortably in my heart’s corner for characters I have a deep personal attachment to. Not all though, have made me feel an insurmountable wave of emotions, like Roohdar did.
In hindsight, I realize Irrfan and Roohdar are one and the same. They live inside everyone, a part of life that comes forward when summoned. They know something mere mortals aren’t equipped to comprehend. When they are in front of you, only them and their words matter, and when they disappear, you’re left with thoughts best described in wordless silence. They were, they are, and they always will be.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.