I miss Irrfan Khan in person. Though so far I’ve not had the opportunity to miss him on screen. He was so prolific and did so many films before ill health suddenly felled him, that we continue to get a deep insight into his skills even as he slowly recovers in far-away England.
Earlier this year we saw him in Abhinay Deo’s Blackmail and we will soon see him in yet another international project Puzzle where he plays a protagonist alongside Kelly Macdonald. I had spoken to Irrfan about Puzzle and he was thrilled to be doing a pure Hollywood romance. A genre he hadn’t attempted before. Doing roles that surprise Irrfan as much as they surprise his audience is most crucial to the actor. Also, playing a central character has never been a central issue for Irrfan. However Puzzle which we will hopefully get to see soon, is not just a walk-on part that Indian actors get and are usually happy with. This is much bigger. This is a major slice of the cake that Irrfan had cut for himself before destiny dealt a cruel hand, though luckily not a fatal blow.
This weekend there were many moist eyes in the audience at an international awards function in Bangkok when Irrfan won his last of a slew of awards for his performance in Hindi Medium. When he had won the first of many awards this season for Hindi Medium there was no sign of illness, only a feeling of gathering expectations and rightful pride as he said to me, “Hindi Medium has been able to crack the magic of marrying content with popularity. I am happy that the bridge has been crossed from 'critic' to 'popular' on my own terms. I didn't have to go down the so-called ‘massy’ route. Though I won for Hindi Medium, I was even nominated for the popular category for Qarib Qarib Singlle.”
Then, destiny took a sharp unexpected turn. While I patiently await his return I got a chance to see another one of his films, an Indo-Bangladesh co-production called Doob: No Bed Of Roses, an arid yet somehow satisfying look at a crumbling marriage set within the Bangladesh film industry. The film is afflicted a sense of intellectual self-importance. The camera is self-consciously erudite. The language is stylishly laconic. While Irrfan’s character, a filmmaker named Javed Hassan, goes through his demoniacal struggle that finally kills him as he watches his life and family come part, I could see Irrfan grappling successfully with his character’s complexities and emerging a winner. This is an actor who never fails a film, although the film, for whatever reason, may finally let him down. I found Doob: No Bed Of Roses to be way too closely inspired by Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool. Also the whole idea of a 50-year old filmmaker throwing his reputation marriage and family away for a fling with a friend of the filmmaker’s daughter required a lot more compassion and empathy than the director is able to muster. But Irrfan’s faith in out-of-box characters remains unshaken. He not only acted in Doob, but he also agreed to co-produce it. Just like he co-produced Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox which worked a lot better globally than Doob.
In this disappointing (yet, I repeat, intriguing) Indo-Bangladesh co-production directed by Mostofa Sarwar Faroki, Irrfan has spoken his own Bengali lines. Irrfan was rightly proud of what he had done in Doob. “It’s my first Bengali film, hence special. And yes, I’ve spoken my own Bangla lines. I must say it was a challenge because the Bengalis are very particular about how their language is spoken. One wrong pronunciation and you’re doomed. I play a man who has an affair with his daughter’s friend. It’s something I’ve never attempted before, hence interesting. It is always a pleasure to be part of an international project. I hope the film is noticed in India.” The West reacted with lavish praise for Irrfan’s performance in Doob, while India remained cold to its wry exposition on infidelity. Irrfan never stops being hopeful about the endless possibilities open to actors and filmmakers in Indian cinema. During our last conversation he excitedly observed, “What I like about current filmmaking trends in India is the diversity. There are so many kinds of films being made. Of course the big-ticket blockbusters will always dominate the box office. But other kinds of films are also getting an audience.”
I can’t wait for Irrfan to return to cinema and show us how one actor can straddle effortlessly from Doob to Hindi Medium to Puzzle without missing a single beat.
This is truly unique. Irrfan is unique.