What makes a good actor?
There is no one answer.
For the generation preceding mine, a great film and actor therein usually entailed drama. The elders grew up imagining family, men who protected, provided and were larger than life. When things became emotional in story (which was quite often) their actors sang, danced or emitted fiery dialogue, mediums within medium to amplify the drama. The realities shaping me were different. The world had become so overcrowded and competitive, that playing the old role of guardian either drained you or distracted you from better things to do. Women had become assertive and independent. Not everyone dreamt of raising family. Many of us were no longer galloping on horseback for conquest and imagery. We didn’t want to. It wasn’t irrelevant for human being to right-size, even down-size and be part of the woodwork. We existed and were noticed only when we let ourselves be.
Needless to say, with this for my reality, I generally avoided Bollywood, still pushing king sized life. Not to mention – those inevitable song and dance routines, big, fat weddings and stylized feudalism. There were exceptions but you know what exception means; it isn’t the rule. One such exception was the 2012 movie – ` Paan Singh Tomar.’ That was the first time, I really noticed Irrfan Khan or maybe I should say he let me notice him. It was a good film (its production quality could have been better) and for me, easier to digest than the muscular, sharp-edged format the Milkha Singh biopic of 2013 embraced. Set in the past with matching period quality to movie, the sight of Irrfan Khan running on track harked of the simple, understated elegance seen earlier in films like ` Chariots of Fire.’ As the film on the athlete-turned-bandit faded from my memory, so did thoughts of Irrfan Khan. It was easy to live with his performances. He was already appearing in foreign productions – by end 2012 there were the ` The Namesake,’ ` Slumdog Millionaire,’ ` The Amazing Spiderman’ and ` Life of Pi’ – and his restrained style never threatened to settle like a big star or unquestionable institution in my head. In September 2013 a remarkable and utterly down to earth movie, ` The Lunchbox,’ released. It was a delightful film. I still recall leaving the theater thinking how beautiful Nimrat Kaur looked and with Irrfan Khan’s Saajan Fernandes, comfortably etched in my conscience as character emerging from Mumbai’s woodwork to grab my attention and then, disappearing back into it. That emergence and disappearance is just what life in big city is. Two years later, in 2015, it was ` Piku.’
By now, there was a pattern defining Irrfan Khan to me. He was a talented actor with capacity not to have any of his performances rest heavily on my mind. His was the very opposite of the dramatic dialogues to self in mirror, dialogues with God and eloquent speech before villain that were the hallmark of old Bollywood and still refused to vacate space totally. Irrfan felt light. Even the foreign productions he acted in were executed differently from traditional expectations. In years gone by, it was assumed that the barrier between Indian actors and opportunities in Hollywood was language; how you spoke English. Native diction was leveraged to either show servility and backwardness or invite mockery. Irrfan’s roles paid scant respect to that concern. He spoke English in the foreign productions confidently and as best as he could without straining to sound Hollywood-ish. You saw him hold his ground. From trying to impress, we appeared shifting to substance; defying stereotypes. For me, as viewer, that was yet another instance of him reflecting changed realities.
Another way of putting it would be: Irrfan was fantastic at being us; faceless and nameless with subtleties for high points, a dead eyed look to seem insensitive or a reluctant smile to convey connection and empathy. Like good writing, he went beyond immediate business paradigm deciding fame and reward, and perfected the craft. No fat, just lean delivery – that became his style. Embellishment was there, but sparse. He was a natural at working magic with less. All of this completely contrasted Bollywood’s known idiom of cliché and exaggeration passed off as acting. The last film starring Irrfan I saw was ` Karwaan.’
Irrfan Khan was in many ways, the cure Bollywood sorely required. Select vernacular film industries in India had already experimented with reality and changed. But a large section of Bollywood as well as portions of vernacular film industry reluctant to severe their umbilical cord with the old, were still battling inertia. They continued subjecting change to tradition and market, a situation aptly summed up by the late Rishi Kapoor when he pointed out that the market gets what it wants. The likes of Irrfan and the films they elected to act in conveyed hope of change. With Irrfan’s passing on April 29 a section of us – a section often denied expression by Bollywood – lost its face on screen.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)