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Birthday boy Irrfan Khan turns 50 today

It was an unintentionally howlarious moment. Film: Drishti. Director: Govind Nihalani. Story: A married woman slides into an affair with a brooding, classical singer sort. And when the affair’s out, the husband yells, “When you gotta go, you gotta go!”

Go where? The scant audience for the discourse on for whom adultery tolls, had laughed uproariously.

The husband was Shekhar Kapur, the wife Dimple Kapadia, and Mr Classical Songster was enacted by the then-barely-known Irrfan Khan.

In fact, Nihalani’s Drishti (1990) is quite representative of the fringe-dweller phase of Irrfan. Since then, the actor has dropped Khan, and now goes by his first name Irrfan on the credit titles. The extra ‘r’ was added to Irfan around 2012, either whimsically or for numerological good luck reasons.

If you ask me the name he was born to in a Muslim Pathan family of Jaipur – Sahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan – sits perfectly on him today (January 7), as he lights up a birthday cake with 50 candles. Doubtless, his cool interior-decored home in an Oshiwara high-rise will be already packed with orchid, rose, geranium bouquets and buckets of bubbly galore.

For years he had lived at the far-flung Beach Residency in Madh island, counting directors Sudhir Mishra and Ketan Mehta, and Deepti Naval among his neighbours. A Beach resident, also related to films, says, “Oh, he’s a no-hassles guy and would give quite a few sane inputs at the society meetings. He would be obsessive about two things – swimming in the pool regularly and spending time with his family.”

Irrfan with wife Sutapa Sikdar.
Irrfan with wife Sutapa Sikdar. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

Married to Sutapa Sikdar, a fellow graduate from Delhi’s National School of Drama, they are parents to Babil and Ayaan. The elder son, Babil, lately served as camera assistant on his father’s cross-country romedy Qarib Qarib Singlle.

Right, so if Irrfan has figured in the gossip sections of tabloids at all, it was a decade ago while co-starring with Manisha Koirala in the tear-jerker Tulsi: Mathrudevobhava (2008) picturised largely on the wintry locations of Ooty. If the Manisha-Irrfan rumours and the weepie are banished from your memory, it’s just as well.

Those days of canards and ill-fated projects are over, partly due to the actor’s tenacity to live and let live within the Bollywood glamfront. And more than that, because of his chameleon-like ability to blend into the colours of a gamut of characters, be it the underdog, the working class hero, a top cop and more.

Plus of course, there’s his impersonation of the Chandni Chowk nouveau-riche trader who strives for an upmarket status in Hindi Medium, the sleeper success of 2017.

Now there’s a twist of fortune which has upped his market equity. So far, corporates in B-town have been tight-fisted in bankrolling his lead-role films which have been on the medium-budget scale. Hopefully, re-thinks are on.

Aware that he’s a factor to contend with, trade talk is that Irrfan frequently asks that he should be part-producer of his projects. Besides his fee, he should be allocated a share in the profits, a practice which has been so far limited to the A-listers, in particular Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan, and Akshay Kumar.

Apart from that, the sahabzaada hasn’t been pushy. At least, one of his finest opportunities to shine a light came chancily. I’m speaking of Mira Nair’s adaptation of The Namesake (2006), which was initially offered to Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee.

Irrfan and Tabu in The Namesake.
Irrfan and Tabu in The Namesake.

Uncertain about playing the Professor Ashoke Ganguli and his wife Ashima who age in the course of the film, exit Bachchan Jr and Ms Mukherjee. Enter Irrfan and Tabu, who made for perfect casting. Evidently, Hollywood casting agents could see that and both were cast for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012).

Piquantly enough, Irrfan had made his first feature film, in the brief appearance of a letter-writer in Nair’s Salaam Bombay(1988).

Of his stock of approximately 80 features so far, the breakthrough signifiying that he has arrived to stay, was struck initially by the 2001 British film The Warrior directed by Asif Kapadia (who went on to win Best Documentary Oscar for Amytwo years ago). At home, the sudden impact was struck with Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil (2003), in which Irrfan raised the bar of screen villainy in the role of a scourge of the politics-ridden Allahabad University.

Irrfan’s acting style has been patently low-key and laconic. His voice is close to a pressure cooker at low simmer, his eyes maintain a disconsolate gaze, his hair is often casually rumpled. And his body language can be flexible, from a languid gait to an athletic sprint. Underplaying pays. After all, in close-ups, the camera can exaggerate every split-second of a facial flicker.

On occasion, though, as in Ritesh Batra’s deservedly lionised The Lunch Box (2016), Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the flamboyant office underling stole the scene away from Irrfan’s involuted, due-for-retirement Saajan Fernandes. It happens.

Clearly, Irrfan has been in his best form with the more venturesome directors. Evidence: Tigmanshu Dhulia (Haasil was followed up by Paan Singh Tomar 2012 and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, 2013), Vishal Bharadwaj (Maqbool, 2003; 7 Khoon Maaf, 2011; Haider, 2014), Anurag Basu (Life in a Metro, 2007), Nishikant Kamat (Mumbai Meri Jaan, 2008) Sudhir Mishra (Yeh Saali Zindagi, 2011) and Shoojit Sircar (Piku, 2015)

Schooled for starters by the decidedly atypical filmmakers, notably Basu Chatterjee (Kamla ki Maut, 1989), Tapan Sinha (Ek Doctor ki Maut, 1990) and Mani Kaul (The Cloud Door, 1994), Irrfan’s career graph escapes any facile categorisation, simply because he has been accidentally ubiquitous, here there and anywhere. For instance, he portrayed unusual suspects in his forays during the late 1980s and early ’90s into TV series: Vladimir Lenin in Lal Ghaas Pe Neele Ghode and the Marxist political activist Makhdoom Mohiuddin in Kahkashan produced by the Urdu progressive poet Ali Sardar Jaffri.

The actor hasn’t made ideology his visiting card though. No political grandstanding, no acerbic comments on social media sites, no associations with causes, as far as I can detect. Fair enough, politics is not his scene, differentiating him from a sizeable lot of his generation of actors.

Coming to Khan’s crossover to international famedom, he’s carved out as high a profile as the late Om Puri and Anupam Kher have on being summoned to participate in top line pictures – ranging from A Mighty Heart (2007), The Darjeeling Limited(2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to The Amazing Spider-Man(2012) and Inferno (2016). This, without any let-up in his commitments on home turf.

Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spider-Man.
Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spider-Man.

The accomplished acts by Irrfan have been numerous. Yet when the Bollywood formulaic directors and screenplays have not been up to the mark, he has floundered. To cite random examples: What in the name of heaven on earth was he doing in the shudderfests Aan:Men at Work (2004), Krazzy 4 (2008) and Acid Factory (2009)? The less dredged, the better.

On an altogether personal note, how’s Irrfan Khan off-screen? Impossibly inscrutable, I’d say.

Polite but constantly on guard. He speaks only when spoken to. Perhaps to deflect controversies, to be politically astute and to remind himself, that there are no second chances in the pursuit of fame and fortune.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)

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