Irrfan Khan (The Artist): A Very Personal Tribute

irrfan khan 1

“Darya bhi main, darakht bhi main … Jhelum bhi main, chinar bhi main … dair bhi hoon, haram bhi hoon … Shia bhi hoon, Sunni bhi hoon, main hoon pandit … main tha, main hoon aur main hi rahoonga”

  • Roohdar in Haider

In his piercing, shrill and slightly rough-textured voice, the words reverberate. Rare are the moments when the mainstream Hindi cinema attempts to be philosophical. And even fewer are the actors whose demeanour, voice and expression could give concrete shape to such mysterious rustlings of the being and non-being. ‘Roohdar’ was one such character in the movie Haider where all three fortuitously came together: the actor, the character and the question of mortality-qua-human existence. Words, they say, consistently fail to convey; they fall short of what man wants to say, but do we have any option other than words? Perhaps the desire has always been to find words only, against and after this affirmation of their eternal failure. In fact, what makes words fruitful is their very failure. Something essential is always left, it seems; and yet, what is said is the only testimony to what is left. Woe to man if s/he dares to speak! And the enigma is, man dares. Irrfan Khan’s acting was such an utterance.

Irrfan Khan, the actor and the artist, is dead. The news, which apparently seemed innocuous, took time to sink in. And sank it so deep that it tickled every pore of your being. Like cancer, the news wrapped itself around you with a subdued aggressiveness; strangling you, frustrating you and suffocating you until it wrung your entrails to the point that you puked the cry. Numb and able to feel the languid swallowing up of saliva down your throat, a bizarre sense of grief and loss overcame you. A disturbance, remote and inexplicable, lingered at the outermost edges of your being.

At this point, one asked oneself: What is it? Am I alright? Why am I feeling so sad? Did I know him personally?

Of course, I didn’t. I never met him; I haven’t seen all of his movies; I have never been a die-hard fan of his; I never followed him on Twitter or Instagram, and I never read his interviews. Though, for the last few years, I used to wait for his movies, it was never an obsession. In fact, when he shared the news of his diagnosis, it did not affect one much. It was a shock, but of a kind which easily rebounded off your robust sense of life. Neither did I wish him well-being or good luck, nor did I ever pray for him. Being so busy, like everyone else, with your own life, one never bothered about his recovery. Even during his convalescence, one was getting the updates from the internet, but without any real effort on one’s part. Against this background of personal and emotional indifference, it became impossible to make sense of why Irrfan Khan’s death felt like a personal loss. Or, we have misread it again. It is everything but personal, despite being so thoroughly and concretely drenched in the mode of the personal.

Numerous comments, tweets and a few obituaries have surfaced in the meantime; family members grieving, friends expressing shock, co-actors (national and international) conveying condolences and sharing their personal experiences of working with him, juniors paying respects, seniors extending tributes, fans posting his wallpapers, pics, updating WhatsApp statuses – in an attempt not to feel left behind even in this race to mourn immediately. Amidst all this, some journalists, film critics, scholars and veteran legends of acting have also made an effort to make sense of his passing away, his legacy, charisma, talent, magic, his struggle, his acting skills, versatility or his contribution to Indian and World cinema. For instance, writing in the Los Angeles Times, Lorraine Ali appreciated Irrfan Khan’s exceptional ability to render visible “grief, sadness and longing with such subtle elegance,” and how, in his acting, “the mere act of pouring tea from a thermos felt revelatory [italics mine]”. In the process, “he performed,” Ali further avers “that special trick of only the most luminous stars: To impart grace in the least graceful of places [italics mine]”. Corroborating Ali, Jyoti Thottam, in the TIME, commends Khan’s capability to “[add] a layer of unexpected depth and tenderness to an otherwise opaque character”. Taking Ali’s and Thottam’s ruminations further, Kal Penn, the Indian-born American actor, tweeted that he has “[n]ever seen someone use the beats of silence so beautifully to convey so much about who we are [italics mine]”. Other have acknowledged his art of “understatement,” his remarkable ease at using “the deadpan to such a great effect” and how, in his case, “less was always more” (Namrata Joshi, in The Hindu); his unfailing consistency at capturing the “extraordinary in the ordinary” (Baradwaj Rangan, on the; or his “everythingship” (Rahul Desai, on the

And finally, there are a few individuals who, earnestly enduring his death so as to be close to the loss, have consciously resisted the desire to give form to their mourning. This is the camp which should most interest us in order to see what his death means.

Mainstream Hindi Bollywood cinema have created ‘superstars’ who have been revered like demi-gods in India. As a popular medium of ‘entertainment’, it has captured the masses’ aspirations, dreams, life-stories, successes and failures in its rich and diverse trajectory for the last seventy years. Besides cricket, if there is a collective obsession Indians have, then it is definitely cinema. There have been cases where, once in a while, one came across a fan for whom a given movie star was second only to god. And s/he had the same emotional and psychological relationship with the star the kind one generally has with god. The cases of Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan etc. prove this. And we know Irrfan Khan was nowhere close to what these stars have achieved. However, there is something definitively unique about the nature of personal loss people have experienced in Irrfan Khan’s case. To the extent that it is ‘unique’, it is our responsibility to not let it crush under the debris of clichéd gestures, expressions, metaphors, or phrases. The future of Indian cinema, for me at least, directly depends on our courage to preserve our fidelity to the ‘event’ called ‘Irrfan Khan’. For he was the event.

Irrfan Khan could never have been a ‘superstar’ or a ‘star’, primarily because he was an all-too-mortal seeker, whose inexhaustible seeking infused life into everything he came into contact with. As you read his last letter from London, you can witness his ‘receptive’ stance towards everything that was happening. He does not seem to be in a hurry of any sort. Irrfan Khan was not a perfectionist, but he delivered perfection by seeking to give form, in every opportunity he got, to the inner landscape of man. In fact, what made his performances stand apart or seductively beautiful was a certain lack of polish. Conscious of the mediocrity of the extraordinary, his was a style attuned to the impossible demands of the ordinary, the everyday – something that always exists in broken, jagged and discordant rhythms. Going over his rich repertoire of performances, one can easily sense that Irrfan’s native provenance was the primal in man, or as Kal Penn wrote “who we are”. Not any easy target to aim for. He endeavoured to capture the layered psychological, emotional and bodily textures of his diverse characters in their uniquely primal (or human) form. This is the reason why his ostensibly mundane, run-of-the-mill, meaningless gestures often became, as Ali says, so “revelatory”. It is the manner in which his routine, fractured but receptive presence ‘revealed or disclosed’ the stale and forgotten corners of a character’s subtle movements, simple gestures, inner ambivalences and their lingering beauty.

In this context, Naseerudin Shah makes a perceptive remark when he writes: “[Irrfan] never made an effort to reach you. This is a strange paradox about Irrfan as an actor. An actor always makes efforts to reach out to his audience. Irrfan knew the audience would reach out to him”. This is what made him unique amongst all the other great actors around him. He could inspire the audience to reach out to him, primarily because he passionately tried to reach out to his utmost limits – not by soaring into the higher skies but by going back to the primal – in a given act of performance. What inspired all of us, to use Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s words, was the “pinnacle of what art [in this case, acting] could achieve”. To see him act was to experience the nearness of the primal. Is it is a mere coincidence or sheer luck that Irrfan got opportunities to play such philosophically rich characters as ‘Roohdar’ in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider and ‘Pi Patel’ in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, in addition to many other where he was playing second fiddle to the main lead. Not to discredit the brilliance of his achievements as the main protagonist, it is also true that the more short, subsidiary and transitory his screen presence was, the more intense his performance turned out to be. His was a style geared to the temporal character of all beauty. It reveals itself only momentarily.

Though all-pervasive, all-engulfing and all around us, the primal, despite being so intimately ‘near’ to man, often escapes even the best. In the face of this failure, man can only wait; for someone who will come and make the primal his abiding creative abode. Once placed, the artist suffers an onerous process of training of the senses, the mind and the body. Even then, there is no surety that one will be able to capture it. And here resides Irrfan Khan’s specificity as a genius. Most often than not, the primal responded to his bowing. This lent a strange weightless lucidity to his performances. “It is easy,” warns Shah “to say Irrfan was natural”. It is a polite way of disavowing an artist’s sense of commitment to his or her craft. The lucidity came, I think, from the exquisite control with which he was able to nurture ‘intensity’ as per the needs and demands of a given character. For instance, all his characters, in The Warrior, Hassil, Maqbool, Piku, Kissa, Paan Singh Tomar and Qarib Qarib Single, are intense; though the expression and poise remain specific. This requires a remarkably amazing facility for existing within one’s limits as an artist, proving true the great nineteenth century German poet Goethe’s words: “[t]o live within limits… that is what makes the poet, the artist and the human”.

When a ‘superstar’ dies, we lose our object of desire; but when an artist dies, we lose desire itself. What unsettles us when an artist dies is the loss of desire. What brings man and the primal (or the absolute) in an intimate conversation is desire; it keeps us alive, it makes us beautiful, makes us tragic, it is what allows us to belong, to be rooted, it is what leads to silence, to utterance and it is what makes us mortal. Simultaneously, it (desire) is a unity of the possibility and impossibility of overcoming the abyss that separates man and the primal. The infinite expansive horizon of becoming is a creative fruit of this intimacy; it is our only access to the primal. What makes an artist great is the extent to which s/he could inspire ‘desire’, i.e. an intimate conversation, in the spectator (viewer or audience). That is why Irrfan khan’s death has unfolded as a personal tragedy for so many. For, his was an art which kept the intimacy in every individual human beings’ reach. With Irrfan’s passing away, we seem to have lost, not a particular object of desire, but our longing – longing for the beautiful, for intimacy with the primal, its tempting evanescent eternity. Consequently, in a certain sense, we experience the death of art itself. And this is true in the case of all geniuses, including Irrfan Khan. One can never mourn their death enough; it rather becomes a spectral presence with which negotiations need to be made persistently. It is not pain but something more that we are experiencing in the death of Irrfan; it is the loss of the primal which he brought to the screen via his exceptionally articulate and concrete acting – acting which not only includes gestures, expressions, eyes, bodily rhythms and facial dynamics but something much more than all of this. Once again, we must resist all endeavours to reduce him to his eyes or face or body: the genius exists in its full presence. The primal is everything but personal, despite being heavily drenched in the mode of the personal.

All attempts to engage with the ‘event’ called Irrfan Khan in terms of his long, long struggle, his hard work, his accessibility, his ability to connect with the common man, or in terms of his conduct as a human being will fail; not because all of this is incorrect, but because it is too correct a description. As Heidegger said, the aim must always be the true, not the correct. The correct has a tendency to conceal the true. At least, in Irrfan Khan’s case, we must not once again miss the true.

DJ Singh teaches English Literature at Punjabi University, Patiala. His research interests are Continental Philosophy (with special reference to G.W. F Hegel and Karl Marx), Critical Theory and Film Studies. Email: [email protected]



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