Like most Indian children who gained consciousness in the 1990s, the first image of Irrfan Khan is from his TV work: either his deliciously villainous turn in Chandrakanta or the fractured, abusive father in Banegi Apni Baat. However, it took me a decade (and a little more) to register his magic.
In 2006, I was an impressionable newly admitted college student. I am a Bengali who has lived across India thanks to Baba, a marketing professional. And so, I was struggling to breathe between two worlds: I was not Bengali enough and I was not a local either. I took my eighteen-year-old dislocated heart to a sparse theatre to watch Mira Nair's The Namesake. Until then, I was unaware of Tabu and Irrfan's collective charms, but was enamoured of Nair's Monsoon Wedding. Two hours later, I emerged from the theatre weeping and walked straight to the bookstore in the mall to pick up a copy of the novel. Three days later, I finished the book in the middle of the night and wept again. Irrfan and Tabu had returned to me in Jhumpa Lahiri's words. The film, the book, Mira Nair, Tabu and Irrfan together bonded my dislocated heart with my parents for good.
The Namesake was my story, a movie that had captured the life of a dislocated Indian within India. On-screen, I found my parents in Irrfan and Tabu. Irrfan's Ashoke, in particular, settled under my skin forever as my Baba. The scene where Gogol declares his intention to change his name remains with me to this day. Irrfan's casual wave, picking up his cigarette box, and passively asking his son to do what he wants, followed by him smoking on the balcony alone, reminded me of my Baba. This was a scene that had taken place in my home and my life umpteen times. His wave to Tabu's Ashima at the airport and the tilt of his head asking her to leave is something I have seen Baba do ever so often. It is unusual to find one's own story on screen or in a novel. But it's a rare privilege to find your parents etched for posterity by beautiful actors. I could not have asked for a finer craftsperson than Irrfan to embody the single most important man in my life.
My love affair with Irrfan had only just begun. I returned to his earlier works, the ones I could access. The Warrior, Haasil and Maqbool, along with the one episode of Star Bestsellers, were the ones that stayed with me. I studied him like a film student (although I was a lawyer-in-training). He was someone new every time I saw him on screen. While the eyes were the same, the glance held an arresting but new soulfulness each time he played a different character. The smile was perennially wonderful, yet its language was a novel acquaintance for me as he took on new personas. His walk (swagger sometimes) took on a unique rhythm with each character. And his silky voice danced to distinct tunes in accordance with the story being told. Acting to us was associated with routine machismo and femininity, the ritual of Hindi films. And here I was being spoilt rotten by a soft clay-like actor, who was a shape-shifting boggart (Harry Potter reference, although he did not scare me).
In the years that followed, I sought out Irrfan experiences with the same enthusiasm I reserve for Roger Federer. 7 Khoon Maaf, Paan Singh Tomar, Qissa, Thank You, The Lunchbox, Talvar and Hindi Medium have remained with me. Along with these, his turn as a distraught widower in America taking therapy in the HBO series In Treatment is an understated masterclass in sublime artistry.
Piku, in particular, shone because he reminded me what the confluence of three different instruments could do when they produce music with both symmetric and well-defined tones. While Deepika Padukone's Piku remained the central character and the film inspected her relationship with Amitabh Bachchan's Bhashkor, it was Irrfan's Rana Chaudhary who brought both the soft lullaby and the pitch-perfect folk tunes to harmonise the multiple notes of the film. To say Irrfan stole the show will be a disservice to the film and the other stellar actors. However, when I came out of the theatre, I knew Irrfan had made the experience his own and, in turn, given us another piece of himself that we are to carry with us forever.
However, Irrfan the actor could not be separated from Irrfan the person. In a world where knowing oneself is a perennial journey, to say we know someone else is a stretch. But with Irrfan, there was a certain sense of familiarity because his candour about this long road to success made him one of us. He never was a superstar, but he became the household star. We were comfortable having him in our drawing room for everyday conversations while revering his skills in singularly personal ways. He came across nonchalant about himself in his interviews, refusing to take himself seriously, acknowledging his fallibility while distancing himself from his successes. These were qualities few had or sought, given there remains an unhealthy demand to be larger than life.
Last year, in the middle of the night, I found that Irrfan Khan had passed away. I sighed and then rolled back to sleep. Except, sleep never came. I was an admirer of his work, and I continue to be. And this admiration was more than surface deep. In playing Ashoke Ganguly in The Namesake, he assured me that we, the audience, and he, the artist, had reached a place where there was nowhere else to go in that one moment. That morning, a year ago, fresh into the pandemic, there was truly nowhere to go. I have not returned to his films for a year because my eyes continue to well up, knowing his next adventure will not come. But someday, one day soon, I will be able to see him on screen again. Irrfan did much for himself and our country, and in his departure a significant void remains in my heart. I never met the man, yet somehow I have met the man. He has left me with enough memories to cherish and, a year on, I continue to live under the shadows of his 'Overcoat'. To this day, Irrfan Khan, to me, will be a version of my Baba, a sentiment I hope is shared by another dislocated Bengali child somewhere in this world. And in my heart, I continue to say, thank you, Mr Khan. Thank you ever, ever so much.