Adhiraj Kashyap is probably a trifle more passionate about an Irrfan Khan movie than many others. We share this story where Adhiraj express his views on the great actor, in remembrance of The Gem whose death anniversary was on 29th of April.
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
I want to start by affirming that this is not an essay on the brilliant actor that Irrfan was; nor is this a record of the numerous achievements he had garnered throughout his illustrious career. This is simply, if I may say so, a love letter from an admirer who has loved him dearly all his life; not only for the awe-inspiring artist that he was, but also for what he stood for as an idea.
My first memory of this man, as far back as I can remember, was watching him for a few moments in a film my father was watching on the television, back in 2007 or 2008. The film was called The Killer. I don’t remember anything about the film as there wasn’t particularly anything that could have left a mark. I was watching it only because it starred Emraan Hashmi and I was at that stage of my life when the libido count was striking quite high. The only thing I was waiting for was to see a kissing scene; and instead, I saw an actor who changed my life in many ways.
I remember watching this small scene where Emraan Hashmi was driving a taxi and Irrfan was sitting at the back, calmly and without uttering a single word. I didn’t continue watching the film as I got to know quickly that it wasn’t a typical Emraan Hashmi film I was looking for. But the honesty and earnestness of the performance of the man sitting on the back seat stood out, even in that unnoticeably small scene.
Till then, my whole idea of cinema was restricted to ShahRukh Khan only, like million others in our generation. I didn’t know at that time that cinema of a different sort could also exist. The reason Irrfan stood out that day in that particular film was because he was different. He was different from anything I’ve witnessed before. He stood on his own, as an individual power, as an individual form of energy; devoid of any kind of shadows of ‘acting’ that was known to me till then.
My first full-length film of him was Billu. My reason for watching that film was quite obvious. It starred Shah Rukh, even though in a cameo. I went in for those few minutes of Shah Rukh and came out with thousands of remarkably unique moments of Irrfan. It took me a few days to actually gulp the fact that there existed someone whom I could like more than Shah Rukh, that too within the same frame. It felt like blasphemy at first. But that was the power of Irrfan and his ‘realistic’ and ‘effortless’ acting- terms that have become synonyms to the man ever since. It fueled my thirst to explore other performances by this magician of an actor that I had just discovered and that’s how my lifelong love-affair with this man started.
I would quickly grab any Irrfan film I could lay my hands on. Within quite a tiny period, he opened me up to a whole new world of cinema that was hidden from me under the gigantism of commercial Hindi films. It was way more authentic, layered and felt more life-like rather than some fake world which had no interrelation to the world we lived in. He would leave an indelible mark even in the smaller parts he played in the mainstream movies.
After I went to Delhi for higher studies, the spectrum enlarged even more and I, slowly and steadily, delved into world cinema. Robert De Niro became another hero and Martin Scorsese laid foundations to the journey I was eventually destined to take. The world of international films enticed me so much that it refused to leave my mind. Filmmakers like Ceylan, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Farhadi, Bong Joon-ho, Satyajit Ray, Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Kubrick etc. pulled me into their worlds in such a manner that I ended up wanting to become a filmmaker and enrolled myself into FTII.
I am yet to discover a whole lot of cinema and also myself in that very process. But the seed of this unwavering quest was sowed by Irrfan. If it wasn’t for him and the cinema he endorsed, the course of this journey would probably have been very different.
It is unavailing to even remotely try to talk about his acting prowess. His mastery over the craft of acting is unparalleled. He is unquestionably the greatest India has produced in our times, perhaps the greatest ever. His screen presence is at par with all the brilliant international stars like De Niro, Brando, Jack Nicholson, Marcelo Mastroianni, Bruno Ganz, Ricardo Darin, Song Kang-Ho, Tonny Leung Chiu-Wai and countless others.
Khan’s portrayals were not merely ‘realistic’ as most people simply put it to be. They were much more than that. He had the expertise to understand the world he was supposed to be a part of and that was because he had immense knowledge of not only acting, but of cinema in general. He understood the craft of filmmaking more than any of his contemporaries. He often talked about filmmakers like Kieslowski, Godard, Truffaut, Kubrick etc. – filmmakers most actors wouldn’t even care to explore.
Irrfan always tried to inflate the balloon of knowledge and that’s what set him apart from the rest. His versatility is no secret, but the nuances he brought in each of his performances forged an exceptional realm of his own in the world of cinema. I can’t think of anyone who even remotely comes close. Be it the two-minute scene in Salaam Bombay! Or the entire journey of the character in The Warrior; be it the less author backed roles in Piku, Saat Khoon Maaf and Life in a Metro or the complex characters in The Lunchbox, Paan Singh Tomar, The Namesake and Maqbool; he always landed a sense of integrity in everything he did.
I was a bit overwhelmed to see how personal his demise felt like to everyone. That’s when I truly realized the robustness of the legacy he has left behind. He struggled to get even an iota of recognition for more than 15 years. But he didn’t give in, not for a single moment. He stood by the cinema he believed in and welcomed success only by being engaged in that. He rendered wings to our dreams and desires, and brought in our vulnerabilities into his characters he portrayed, making themso relatable. He made us see reflections of ourselves on celluloid and diminished the distance between the 70 mm screen and ‘us’; helping us walk that distance holding our hands like a father in that process.
There was so much more this powerhouse of talent could have delivered. He was just starting to get his due. But fortunately, what he leaves behind is his incredible body of work for admirers to see in the future and be in awe of. We are fortunate enough to be part of this era- ‘The Irrfan Era’, because generations to come won’t be able to believe that an actor of his calibre could have really graced the silver screen. It would have been wonderful if we could see more of him. But perhaps, he was the ‘Hero’ we needed, but never really deserved.
Take care, Master!
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Adhiraj Kashyap is professionally a filmmaker, currently studying Film Direction and Screenplay Writing at FTII. A few of his short stories have been published in a bunch of national and international magazines, such as “In Parentheses” , “Indian Ruminations”, “The Universal Journal”, “East India Story” etc.