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Irrfan, gem of a Khan

 | March 26, 2013

For a man who said he would not prostitute for money, the challenge for Irrfan could be daunting in the days to come.


Irrfan Khan is one of the finest actors I have seen anywhere in the world. The natural ease with which he performs is amazing. He never seems to be acting. Rather, he appears to get into a character and disappears into him.

A couple of years ago, I had called him the best of the Khans in India – miles ahead of Aamir, Salman, Shahrukh and Saif. While Aamir and Saif have excelled in some roles (Earth and Lagaan/Omkara), the other two Khans have been singularly disappointing. But Irrfan had caught my attention, and he still catches my eye.

He looked every inch Pi in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yan Martel’s classic work, Life of Pi. In Tigmanshu Dhulia latest film, Irrfan was Gangster, a gangster who had lost his little kingdom and was out to seek revenge – an emotion he skilfully contrasted with romance.

In an earlier Dhulia movie, Irrfan was Paan Singh Tomar, a celebrated steeplechase runner who is pushed into the ravines and a life of a rebel (“We are not dacoits, we are rebels”, he quips in the film.) by an unfeeling administration. Both Irrfan and the movie recently won prestigious national awards in India.

But years ago, teenage Irrfan pumping air into tyres at his father’s decrypt shop in Tonk, a hundred kilometres from Jaipur, would never have dreamt that someday he would grab eyeballs and draw notice not just in India but also outside.

Films like Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (in the role of a Pakistani policeman) and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (also as a cop) among others have given him an international exposure, experience and perhaps a certain sense of fulfilment. Also accolades that are truly genuine. And richly deserved too.

At home, movies such as Yeh Saali Zindagi (by Sudhir Mishra) and of course Saheb Bibi Aur Gangster Returns (Dhulia) in recent times have got men in Mumbai sit up and take note.

With an increasing number of directors and producers (Hollywood giants like Fox are now producing Indian films) realising that there is a growing patronage for non-formulaic Bollywood song-and-dance fare, a new kind of cinema, sensitive and meaningful, is emerging. And actors like Irrfan fit marvellously into this picture.

Though, the actor’s recent work has been quite memorable, I think he – in the past – did many eminently forgettable movies. Yes, these were punctuated by some outstanding cinema. He was brilliant in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool (inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth) as he was in Mira Nair’s The Namesake.

But why did he at all get himself into films that did little for his career?

One can guess an answer from some of the words he spoke during an interview some days ago: “An expensive car is a luxury”, he replied when asked about his struggle to buy a second hand one.

“The kind of responsibilities I have with my family, it doesn’t make sense for me to spend that money. My brothers are not well-settled, close relatives are still struggling in life and I feel the need to support them. So given a choice, I would buy an old Ambassador but my son wants a luxury car”.

For a man who said he would not prostitute for money, the challenge for Irrfan could be daunting in the days to come.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]


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