Irrfan Khan, a cut above the rest

Published : April 29, 2020 14:43 IST

Irfan Khan, a 2015 picture. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Two years after he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumour, popular actor Irrfan Khan breathed his last on April 29. He was admitted to Kokilabhen Ambani Hospital in Mumbai following a colon infection. He was 53.

Even as his brave battle with the “rare disease”, as Irrfan himself revealed to his fans back in September 2018 remained inconclusive, Irrfan was a winner till the end. An indefatigable man, he faced life’s challenges with the same intensity of purpose that he brought to the silver screen.

Four days before his death, his mother, Saeeda Begum, had breathed her last in Jaipur. Irrfan could not make it for her last rites because of the lockdown, but he bid adieu to his mother through video conferencing. Unusual at it may seem, but Irrfan had always fought many stereotypes. He hailed from a small town, Tonk, the only Muslim town of Rajasthan, to carve out a luminous career in the world of television and cinema. It was particularly remarkable as his hometown had only two cinemas in his childhood, and new movies often took up to six months to release after their screening in Mumbai, Delhi and Jaipur. The most glowing acknowledgement of his success came when the Rajasthan government made him the brand ambassador for the Resurgent Rajasthan campaign in 2015.

Success took time in coming to him. For long he had to make do with unremarkable roles, often with unfashionable directors. He took the staircase to success with some out-of-the-box comedy for Doordarshan in the days when the state-run channel was known for playing serials such as Buniyaad and later Ramayana and Mahabharat. His Banegi Apni Baat, penned by fellow National School of Drama graduate Sutapa Sikdar, who was later to become his wife, is still recalled for its perfecting timing and taut editing. He also fared in serials such as Chandrakanta, Bharat Ek Khoj, Srikanta, and Chanakya.

His film career was not as lavish, at least in the initial days. Roles came as crumbs in films that failed to satisfy his appetite. For the record, though, he played his part in Salaam Bombay, Ek Doctor Ki Maut and Such a Long Journey. He had to wait some more before being able to lay his hands on an eye-popping role in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior. The film got tremendous response at international film festivals, and finally the Indian film industry saw magic in Irrfan’s intense eyes, brooding charisma, and understated expressions. In came Haasil, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s college drama set in Allahabad. His villainous streak got him new admirers. And nobody could deny what he had accomplished.

A year later, he had the role to die for, in Rog, a film with the Mahesh Bhatt stamp. Girls could not take their eyes off him, and critics did not fail to notice his incandescent screen presence. Irrfan was well and truly way above competition; the staircase he had to take helped him polish the rough edges of his work in relative obscurity. He appeared in public gaze as a truly chiselled product.

He stayed there until the end, a no mean achievement in the industry where new deities are foisted every Friday. With films such as Metro, The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire, Pan Singh Tomar, Piku, and The Lunchbox, he had more on his plate in a few years than many are able to notch up in a lifetime. Add to that his significant international work—he was seen in Inferno, Jurassic World, Life of Pi, The Amazing Spider-Man besides Slumdog Millionaire—and Irrfan could have been the most luminous international star from India. He, however, preferred to sign off quietly, with a low-profile Angrezi Medium.

He left the same way he had arrived. In between, life was an orchestra, and Irrfan did not get a single note wrong.

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