Bollywood is replete with stars and superstars. The Rs 100 crore+ powerhouses who roar at the box office with or without talent. And then, there is a minuscule minority of actors who stand out for their unmistakable passion for their craft.
Irrfan Khan, who passed away at 53 in Mumbai after a protracted illness on April 29, belonged to that rare tribe of performers, who brought respectability to Hindi movies with riveting performances, noticed far beyond the Indian shores.
Straddling the diametrically opposite worlds of Indian and international cinemas with the consummate ease of a trapeze artist, he switched sides seamlessly with his ability to make everything he did onscreen look organic. In his demise, the world cinema — not merely Bollywood — has lost someone who truly belonged to the endangered species of natural actors. He gave his best shot to whatever he did, without ever discriminating between a Hollywood extravaganza and a low-budget commercial kitsch back home, and invariably stole scenes in film after film, howsoever, small his role might have been.
If Bollywood needed to turn over a new leaf at the outset of the new millennium with the new-age audiences showing uncanny aversion to the age-old formula films, it found a worthy flag-bearer in Irrfan.
With films like Haasil (2003), Maqbool (2003), Life In A Metro (2007), Paan Singh Tomar (2012), Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster (2013), Lunchbox (2013), Haider (2014), Piku (2015), Talvar (2015), Hindi Medium (2017) and his swansong, Angrezi Medium (2020), he helped create a parallel power centre of high-calibre, “Everyman” actors along with the likes of Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who were just biding their time to burst on the scene. They worked in tandem with a whole new breed of auteurs, right from Vishal Bhardwaj, Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap to Hansal Mehta and Tigmanshu Dhulia, who infused a fresh lease of life to Indian cinema with a new sense and sensibility of film-making.
However, what set Irrfan apart from his peers was the way he made an impact on the international cinema, especially Hollywood, crossing milestones which were crossed by few Asian actors in the past. Even though he had bagged a small role in Mira Nair’s globally acclaimed, Salaam Bombay! (1988) quite early in his career, it was his The Warrior (2001), The Namesake (2007), A Mighty Heart (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Life of Pi (2012) only in the new millinium that made an otherwise squeamish Hollywood sit up and take note of him. By the time he got Hollywood biggies, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Jurassic World (2015), he was more than a crossover Asian actor. He was by then an international star in his own right, arguably bigger than any of his predecessors from the subcontinent who had tried their luck in the American film industry.
Like most success stories in tinsel town, stardom did not come on a platter. He had to toil hard for years despite getting his early breaks in films like Salaam Bombay! and Kamla Ki Maut (1989) in the late 1980s. Even though he had come via the venerable National School of Drama, good opportunities eluded him for years. By the 1990s, the parallel cinema movement spearheaded by Shyam Benegal, Saeed Mirza and others of their ilk had run out of steam and the commercial Bollywood had come under the complete sway of mushy, romantic musicals, which paved the way for the phenomenal rise of the Khan triptych comprising Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan.
Barring an occasional Ek Doctor KI Maut (1990), an actor like Irrfan hardly found anything of substance in the La-La land of Bollywood. He, therefore, had to, willy-nilly, turn to television to keep the actor alive in him. Thankfully, the idiot box still offered a platform for good actors back then and Irrfan made the most of his limited opportunities with serial likes Chankaya (1992), Chandrakaanta (1994), The Great Maratha (1994) and Banegi Apni Baat (1995) but he was beginning to realise that it was only a passing phase for him.
As the millennial audience began to get tired of bubblegum romances and mindless actioners in the era of multiplexes and yearned for stories rooted in real life, Irrfan rose to the occasion and never looked back. In retrospect, regardless of his awesome repertoire, he still had a lot more in him as an actor than what he gave to the audience and the industry. It is a pity — and, of course, a monumental loss to cinema — that he was nowhere his peak when he chose to call his final pack-up in life. It was no time to go, man!