Whenever an actor or filmmaker dies, everyone talks about their favourite films of or by them, and usually everyone picks one. But today, many tributes to Irrfan (he had dropped the surname Khan a few years ago) mention multiple movies. That is, in a way, his lasting legacy — that you simply cannot pick one favourite.
The most brilliant actor India has had in decades, he had a chameleon-like ability to simply become anyone on screen. He could be a sardonic taxi company owner in Piku and he could be a rebel athlete in Paan Singh Tomar. He could be the wildly, hilariously inappropriate Monty in Life… In A Metro and he could be the quiet, elderly romantic of The Lunchbox.
And yet, he wore his talent lightly.
In a 2010 episode of Walk The Talk with Shekhar Gupta, Irrfan spoke openly about how he didn’t do justice to the script of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool. He felt that his tweaks and his way of making the script his own, which he did in other movies and which all actors do, didn’t work in this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that it lost its magic.
That understanding of a script, and the humility to recognise that it was bigger than him, was one of the things that made his every performance a masterclass. It was as if he knew he could play any role, and he was just sort of casually hanging around, waiting to show you what he could do if you only asked.
A look back at Irrfan’s incredible repertoire of films and what makes them so special:
Paan Singh Tomar (2012): Based on the true story of a star steeplechaser and Army subedaar-turned-rebel, who only takes to the sport because it will give him more food, the movie is made unforgettably powerful with Irrfan’s performance. And even in a movie like this, which feels like a punch in the gut, the actor manages to deliver some gently, sadly funny moments, such as when, after a race, the first thing he does is demolish multiple bananas. The movie won Best Feature Film and Irrfan won Best Actor at the National Film Awards.
Maqbool (2003): Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s crime drama Macbeth starred Irrfan as Maqbool, trusted lieutenant of mafia don Abbaji or Jahangir Khan (Pankaj Kapur) and clandestine lover of Abbaji’s mistress Nimmi (Tabu). With these two and Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri along for the ride, Irrfan was the baby among the veterans, so to speak, and wasn’t even the first choice for it, but you couldn’t tell from watching the film. The ambition, the ruthlessness, the tenderness, the hunger for power — he conveys all of this in a way that makes Irrfan the actor melt away, leaving behind only Miyan Maqbool.
Life In A… Metro (2007): One of the first out-and-out comic roles the actor did was that of Monty, a gauche man who somehow manages never to grate. It’s a delicate balancing act, but he does it beautifully. There’s a fantastic scene in which Konkona Sen Sharma’s Shruti, whom Monty had met before via a matrimonial site, tells him the reason she rejected him after their date was because she caught him looking at her breasts. Monty is genuinely bewildered by this, and explains that he is 38 (although he says 35) and has never been with a woman, and Shruti was so beautiful that what was so wrong if he looked, for just a second? It’s brilliantly done, because while, of course, we all know that ogling and harassing are wrong, his question is so innocent, so guileless and so plaintive, that you root for him.
The Lunchbox (2013): A mix-up involving the dabbas of a married young homemaker and a widower close to retirement from his mundane job as an accountant is at the heart of Ritesh Batra’s exquisite epistolary romance. Irrfan, as Saajan Fernandes, plays a quiet, elderly man, not given to wild flights of fancy or much conversation. But through his letters to Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and through his unlikely friendship with his overly chatty Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the nuances of Saajan’s life and personality are gently teased out by Irrfan. Filmmaker Udai Singh Pawar, who began his career as an assistant with Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Saali Zindagi (2011), which starred Irrfan, tells ThePrint that “most of the scenes I remember from his films are of him just looking at something or someone, or into the distance, and you feel so much. Lots of his roles aren’t verbose, but he’s so effective. He was never ‘acting’, just being.” And this was never more true than in this movie.
Haasil (2003): Set against the backdrop of bloody student politics in Allahabad University, this Tigmanshu Dhulia movie came the same year as Maqbool and together, these two movies were what made Indian audiences really sit up and take notice of him. His turn as Ranvijay Singh, the leader of one of two rival factions in the university, is chilling and powerful, and it is partly, as Pawar says, because “Irrfan understood that if you want to really be a good actor, you have to be well informed, not just about your craft, but also about what’s going on around you.” He adds, “It all boils down to his education, knowledge of his craft as well as what was happening around him. He was a voracious reader, his house, that time on Madh Island, was covered in books of all kinds and he’d actually read most of them.”
The Namesake (2006): Very honestly, Jhumpa Lahiri’s book The Namesake wasn’t a favourite of mine – it was a bit of a drag, and the ‘diaspora’ theme felt so done. But Mira Nair’s screen adaptation was one of those rare instances of the movie being so, so much better than the book. It brought that same ‘diaspora’ theme alive in a way the book just couldn’t, and the reason was the performances by Irrfan and Tabu. Both actors brought a quiet dignity to the heartbreaks and struggles of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, a first-generation Bengali immigrant couple in New York.
Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017): A rom-com set in the age of dating apps isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Irrfan, but he was wonderful in this movie. Jaya (Parvathy Thiruvothu), a young widow, is encouraged by her friends to join a dating app, where she meets Yogi (Irrfan), or Yogendra Kumar Devendra Nath Prajapati, an unsuccessful poet who has not let his lack of success get to him. He brags that his three ex-girlfriends are still madly in love with him, and Jaya agrees to go with him on a trip across India to find out. The awkwardness of travelling with someone you don’t know well, and of falling in love with someone whom you’ve kind of friend-zoned, all come together beautifully, and Irrfan, as the cheery, somewhat socially inept poet, feels like someone we all know.
Piku (2015): As the sardonic, seemingly impatient but actually very patient taxi company owner Rana, who drives the perpetually cross Piku Banerjee (Deepika Padukone) and her bowel-obsessed, eccentric father Bhaskar from Delhi to Kolkata, Irrfan was almost an unlikely choice, given that Padukone and Bachchan are megastars in the pure Bollywood sense. But he more than holds his own and in fact, Padukone has gone on record to say Irrfan was her favourite costar, because of how they played off of each other.