How Irrfan Khan, among the few Indian actors to achieve crossover success, became ‘touchstone connecting two worlds’

It’s quite ironic that the actor who was once not paid for his work in a television show in India — reportedly because his performance was substandard — went on to become a global crossover star. But then Irfan Khan, who became Irrfan, didn’t really stick to the beaten track.

Television’s loss was definitely cinema’s gain. A famously truncated role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988 was just a teaser for things to come from the Irrfan reservoir of acting. It was Asif Kapadia’s lyrical The Warrior, three years later, that put the National School of Drama graduate firmly in the limelight.

Irrfan Khan dies at 53: A rare and magnetic talent that held filmmakers, writers and audiences in thrall

In a 2002 piece for The Guardian newspaper, Kapadia wrote about casting Irrfan. “As soon as we met, I knew we had our guy. He had a real presence and I knew he could carry the film… He was known for TV roles, but didn’t have the looks for commercial cinema. All the better for us, as there was no way we could’ve afforded him if he were a huge star.”

A few years later, Mira Nair’s beautiful adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake saw Irrfan play Ashoke Ganguly, an Indian raising a family in America. Speaking from her home in New York, Nair described the character as being “in a way far from his experience, and in some ways not”. The shoot for The Namesake also marked the actor’s first visit to the US.

“He was a stranger to America and a journeyman. He took that encounter with a new country, the new light and brought it into Ganguly’s world,” said Nair.

That role opened up the cinema world for Irrfan, who evoked so much sympathy for this character that it hurt.

Nair and Irrfan were consistent collaborators. She later cast him in her episode of New York, I Love You in which he played a Jain jeweller opposite Natalie Portman.  “He disappeared into the part with a twinkle in his eye, which he never lost. He could really play anything, but he had the good taste to play only what he wanted to play,” said Nair.

 How Irrfan Khan, among the few Indian actors to achieve crossover success, became touchstone connecting two worlds

Few other Indian male actors have so seamlessly straddled Indian and international cinema the way Irrfan did. AP Photo

Lanky, with big bulging eyes, a halting almost hesitant manner of speaking, and an aversion to looking directly at the camera or his co-star made him an unlikely candidate for a conventional Bollywood hero. But these very facets, as well as his self-awareness, became his cachet on the international stage. Few other Indian male actors, with the exception of Shashi Kapoor, Om Puri and Anupam Kher, have so seamlessly straddled Indian and international cinema the way Irrfan did. Award-winning, big-name directors such as Ang Lee, Ron Howard and Danny Boyle cast Irrfan in meaningful roles.

Many other Indian actors who have tried have been cast in blink-and-miss parts or delivered their lines as if reciting Shakespeare on a Mumbai stage or, worse, played to a stereotype of the awkward Indian abroad that made audiences at home cringe.

Irrfan played the police inspector interrogating Dev Patel’s character in Slumdog Millionaire, the owner of the park in Jurassic World, the adult Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel in Life of Pi, Harry ‘The Provost’ Sims in Inferno and a widower coming to terms with his loneliness in the HBO series In Treatment.

On his passing, Marc Webb, who directed him in The Amazing Spider-Man, tweeted, “In Irrfan, power and gentleness co-existed perfectly. When he sings to his new wife at the bathroom door in The Namesake or speaks of his father in Life of Pi, his talent is positively mystical. He is the most nuanced actor I’ve worked with.”

As impressive as these credits are, he infamously turned down offers to work with Stephen Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, opting to fulfil his commitments to Indian filmmakers.

If Hollywood tent-poles cemented his fan following in the West, Irrfan balanced it with fiercely original and independent cinema such as playing Saajan Fernandes in the Cannes favourite The Lunchbox (2013) and Umber Singh in Qissa which was feted at the Toronto International Film Festival (2013).

“When I started writing Qissa, I had Balraj Sahni in mind,” said Singh from his home in Switzerland. “But he had died many years before. So I thought: who is that actor in our time with that dignity, who does not degrade through performance and who doesn’t cheapen us. Irrfan’s name came to mind.” The duo also worked together on The Song of Scorpions in which Irrfan plays a camel trader.

“Emotions are not always black and white. We live in the contours and within the impermanence of emotions. He was able to inhabit that space, playing under the drama. That is what brought me to him again and again.”

Adaptable and versatile, he did not lean on loud Bollywood theatrics but was admired for being able to absorb the script and convey a lot even while doing little. For a filmmaker, that’s a dream, because such an actor would not seek to overshadow the script or grab extra attention. The less-is-more-school of acting was beautifully showcased in The Namesake, for example. As Irrfan’s co-star Kal Penn tweeted, “Never seen someone use the beats of silence so beautifully to convey so much about who we are.”

During a photocall for the film A Mighty Heart, at the 60th International film festival in Cannes. AP Photo

During a photocall for the film A Mighty Heart, at the 60th International film festival in Cannes. AP Photo

With the Slumdog Millionaire cast at the the 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. AP Photo

With the Slumdog Millionaire cast at the the 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. AP Photo

Irrfan’s versatility allowed him to be considered ethnically ambiguous, and not limited to playing a South Asian origin character. For years, Indians have found it difficult to be cast in American films due to their accent, which either points them out as foreigners or forces them to adopt an inauthentic intonation. But Irrfan didn’t appear self-conscious about his accent or his origins.

One of the things that also helped was his unique style of dialogue delivery.

Ang Lee has spoken of how, like Robert De Niro, Irrfan too was a mumbler. But it didn’t matter on important occasions, like in that seminal and emotional speech in Life of Pi where you hang on to every word.

Nair summarises Irrfan’s authenticity and commitment, two traits that distinguished him from peers whose attempts at crossing over were often embarrassing. “Over the years, I have entertained a lot of actors who are stars within the Indian context, but many are fearful of stepping out of their comfort zones. They have insecurity of not being gods here (in the West), notions in their minds that basically come from fear.”

She added, “Irrfan didn’t have that. I don’t even think he thought of ‘going to Hollywood’. He thought of himself as a solid, good Rajasthani man who would do work at home. Those who came to him approached him for his distinctiveness.”

Singh could think of only Irrfan and Om Puri as two Indian actors to effectively and successfully reach a global audience. “They had a similar integrity and authenticity. Irrfan was an actor who was not playing stereotyped Indian characters — typically loud, unsteady and restless. Thus the filmmakers and audiences learnt that he respected himself and the viewer, whether Indian or non-Indian,” Singh said.

In small and large parts he made his mark on The Darjeeling Limited, A Mighty Heart, Puzzle and Tokyo Trial as well, making the transition look effortless. As Irrfan’s Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle said in a 2010 interview to Time, “He is a touchstone connecting two worlds”.

Also readIrrfan Khan passes away at 53 — From The Amazing Spider-Man to Slumdog Millionaire, a look at the actor’s international work

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Updated Date: May 02, 2020 12:24:48 IST

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