Often, men in India cinema – or heroes, as we have come to address them as, thanks to years of conditioning – are accused of ostentation. And rightly so, to a certain degree. From the first full-length motion picture, immortalising the legend of Raja Harishchandra, to the scores of films produced by Bollywood in the years to come, it is the ‘hero’ who has always been at the front and centre of all action.
Hero-worshipping is an age-old practice, seasoned through decades of film making, in our country. A vicious circle if you may, broken only in those rare circumstances when a man, sure of his talent, confident in his skills, and humble to the core has graced the screen, sharing the spotlight with the ‘unsung’ heroines of Indian cinema.
Today, India, a country that is bounded by cricket and cinema, mourns the loss of one such star. Irrfan Khan, who put Indian cinema on the global map, passed away at the age of 53 after a long-drawn battle with cancer.
A master storyteller, the actor is best known internationally for roles in Life of Pi (2012), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and The Namesake (2006). And closer home, for content-heavy performances in Life in a… Metro (2007), Paan Singh Tomar (2011), The Lunchbox (2013), Haider (2014), and Piku (2015).
In a career spanning almost 30 years, featuring more than 50 domestic films, Irrfan has not only delivered some of the most heartwarming films in Bollywood but also painted a more realistic and relatable image of the modern Indian man - One who is not scared to share screen space or afraid of the women in his films eating up his personal limelight.
Playing the foil to worthy women
Remember Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of the famous Shakespearean play, Maqbool? Based on the timeless tale of Macbeth, retelling the horrors brought upon by greed, gluttony, and guilt, the film failed to make its mark at the box office but it went on to garner rave review from the audience worldwide. It even earned Bhardwaj international acclaim, making a splash at two of the most revered film screenings: the Toronto International Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival.
To jog your memory, just Google Maqbool playlist or even the film’s poster – the search might surprise you with a ravishing glimpse of Tabu, enjoying equal attention on the poster. Of course, the plot called for the spotlight on Nimmi aka Lady Macbeth (the character played by Tabu) but it also takes a certain understanding and respect for film making, for a hero to play a foil to the storyline (and in this case, to Tabu’s character).
Besides, it also requires a certain bravado to take on a negative role – especially at a time when the line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ was distinct – and make the audience still sympathise with the flaws of the character.
More meaty and substantial roles
Born in Jaipur to a Pashto speaking Muslim family, Irrfan’s career trajectory includes a slew of supporting characters. Small in screen time, but in no way insignificant.
In fact, it was one such supporting role, in Anurag Basu’s Life in a… Metro, that propelled him to the attention of commercial filmmakers and even earned him a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor. The 2007 ensemble drama, which had many other Bollywood’s popular faces doing the heavy lifting, saw Irrfan sharing the screen space with the dynamic and versatile Konkona Sen Sharma.
Rooted in relationships and the fleeting nature of it, the film, simply put, was a collection of short stories – interconnected and overlapping. Which means, every possible chance of getting lost in the web of narration, as one prominent name after another took over the screen. From Shilpa Shetty to Kangana Ranaut and Kay Kay Menon to yesteryear’s superstar Dharmendra, the cast was star-studded, say the least.
And Irrfan especially was pitched against the enigmatic Konkona, who is known for her contribution to contemporary parallel cinema. But the actor shined. In the small screen time allotted to Monty, he delivered an unforgettable performance, marking the beginning of a new phase in his career.
The turning point
It might have taken him some extra years and a few detours before reaching where he is now – the face of Indian cinema outside of the country – but it was all worth it.
Irrfan once said, “I want to entertain people, but with some substance. The day I become conventional, something inside me will die.”
Until his very last breath and the last project that he worked on, the actor-entertainer maintained his signature originality. Far from conventional, his movies made in the latter half of his career – The Lunchbox (2013), Piku (2015), Qarib Qarib Single (2019), and the last one, Angrezi Medium (2020) – stand out for their off-beat theme, a slice of life stories, realistic characters, and more importantly, for putting women at the heart of the narrative.
If a Bafta-nominated, The Lunchbox, is better remembered by fans for Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur) and the unique friendship she develops with Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) over the exchange of messages through dabbas (lunchbox), it is proof that the Indian audience is more than ready for women-centric content. A credit, in parts, ought to be attributed to the magnanimity of Irrfan.
Sharing the stage with an icon is one thing – he starred alongside Amitabh Bachchan in the wildly successful Piku – but braving critiques and fans as part of a cast that includes Deepika Padukone, Bollywood heartthrob and the queen of commercial cinema – calls for confidence and a certain candour.
Irrfan had both. The reason his loss leaves behind a void in Indian cinema. Rest in peace, one of the greatest actors of our times.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)