Irrfan Khan is ill, and he has posted to say that he has a rare disorder. Shall give you more details in a week, and please do not speculate, he adds. Fine, we shall not throw up guesses and rumours.
Irrfan Khan is undoubtedly one of my favourite actors. I have always described him as the “Best of the Khans”. He is way ahead of Saif Ali, Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman. Irrfan is not just a disarmingly natural actor, but also an endearing human being -- honest and humble to the core. I recall him saying once that the body does not lie. He was referring to romantic roles. The other day, when I spoke to him in Mumbai over the telephone and hoped that he would always remain an actor, not become a star, he quipped: " This may be only because of reachability". What he meant was that being an actor (not a star) might limit his access to a wider range of audience. A star could have a greater appeal in a country like India, where viewers are swayed by an image -- how dashing or how pretty one is. The actual character gets shoved into the shadows. A dilemma all right – it must be for an actor like Irrfan, whose captivating screen presence and a wide array of roles have made him such a great attraction.
Incidentally, I have never met Irrfan on Indian soil. My first brush with him was at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival (which closed down in 2014 after eight editions) in 2010 where he came with Tigmanshu Dhulia's classic Paan Singh Tomar. Playing a steeplechase champion runner with several medals to his credit, Tomar soon gets disheartened when his uncle usurps his village land – and nobody is willing to help a former icon. Tomar has no choice but to turn into a rebel (not a dacoit, as he would insist in the course of the movie).
Paan Singh Tomar was a great work, inspired by a real life hero. However, the Tomar I met at Abu Dhabi was shorn of all the pretension. He was warm, friendly and down-to-earth.
Some years later, I would meet Irrfan again at Abu Dhabi, where he was on the jury along with one of his favourite directors, Anup Singh. Irrfan had worked on Singh's Partition saga, Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, where the actor essays a father dislodged from his home and hearth in Pakistan, and adding to this tragic misery was his failure to beget a son. So, he dresses up one of his three daughters as a boy and raises him as one. But when a girl falls in love with the young “man” , an unimaginable emotional trauma strikes the family.
Irrfan would return to Singh's camp once again with his The Song of Scorpions – which I saw at the 2017 Dubai International Film Festival. Portraying a rugged camel dealer – as rugged as I saw him in Paan Singh Tomar – he falls in love with a beautiful Rajasthani scorpion singer (Golshifteh Farahani), endowed with the magical power to draw the poison of a deadly desert scorpion out of a victim's system through a special song. Unfortunately, the trader, dejected by the singer's coldness towards him, asks his friend to rape her – turning the movie into a typical Shakespearean tale of love and jealousy and revenge and, finally, forgiveness.
Of course, Irrfan has played breezy roles. As a rich Chandni Chowk businessman in Hindi Medium, he was a terrific laugh telling us about India's obsession with English and uppity English-speaking classes. His sarcasm bundled in wit was exhilarating. So too was his joie-de-vivre in Qarib Qarib Singlle and Piku – where as a man taking his “fiancee” on a grand India tour to meet his former lovers and as a cab company owner driving a pretty woman and her constipated, grumpy father from Delhi to Kolkata, Irrfan was mesmeric.
His parts in Lunchbox (where he finds love packed in his lunch), in Maqbool and in Haider had a touch of the sardonic. While in Lunchbox, I saw his romantic frustration, I glimpsed his notoriety in Maqbool -- forced to murder a man who was like his father. Irrfan has donned many other caps: as a cop in A Mighty Hearty, Slumdog Millionaire and in Talvar, as a spy in D-Day and as a Bengali immigrant in America in The Namesake. Quite a canvas it has been for Irrfan Khan, and I am sure there is much more to come from a man who is among the very few in Indian cinema to have braved a totally new path. Call it the Irrfan path, his upcoming work will be Blackmail.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, and may be e-mailed at email@example.com )