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The Life of I: Goliath of Acting Struck Chord With Audience Like Jimi Hendrix

On his third death anniversary, a tribute to the iconic Irrfan Khan, who left the audience spellbound with his incomparable and brilliant craft.
Intimate Death of an Actor

Irrfan Khan was the Jimi Hendrix of cinema. The Goliath of acting struck the perfect chord between creative freedom and brilliance as did the ‘God of the Guitar’. 

As effortless as ‘The Bat’ with his rhythmic chords and solos, Irrfan left the audience spellbound with his devastatingly brilliant performances, which could be bluesy to the core in The Lunchbox or comical yet real in Hindi Medium

Similar to the Hendrix Chord, which was both major and minor simultaneously and yet sounded pleasant, the actor was both effortlessly comical and genuine at the same time in his unmatched craft. 

What made Irrfan unique and incomparable? The answer is that he never acted; acting flowed freely to him.  

Starting as an underdog without a godfather or connections in the industry, he reached the zenith of acting and fame with only his razor-sharp axe of performance ascending one peak after another in a backbreaking and challenging climb that would demoralise any struggler. 

Irrfan was the outsider who became a virtuoso. Out of the countless phenomenal roles he played to perfection, a few stand out—Haasil, The Namesake, Paan Singh Tomar, Life of Pi, The Lunchbox, D-Day, Piku, Madaari, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium.       

Whether it be the conniving, filthy yet gelastic student leader Ranvijay Singh in Haasil or the sombre and lonely greying widower Saajan Fernandes, who falls for an equally desolate but young and married Ila Singh (Nimrat Kaur) in The Lunchbox, Irrfan’s ingenuity and excellence were indescribably beautiful. 

While Ranvijay symbolised the grime and deep rot in university politics, Saajan was synonymous with a decent, ageing and reclusive man looking for another inning in love and partnership. The two characters are diametrically opposite yet likeable: one is vile and contemptuous, the other extraordinarily decent and worthy of love and pity. Both roles demanded finesse and challenging performances that Irrfan delivered with dexterity and aplomb. 

The Mira Nair-directed English drama The Namesake is one of the movies that depict Irrfan’s effortless acting. A first-generation Indian immigrant to the United States, Ashoke Ganguly is obsessed with Russian author Nikolai Gogol and names his American-born son (Kal Penn) after him. 

A young Gogol, who appreciates American values and deprecates Indian customs, detests the name and is in a duel with his identity like the author’s protagonist Akaky Akakievich in The Overcoat. He changes his name to Nikhil and finally Nick, only to appreciate Indian culture and heritage after his father’s sudden demise. 

Though the film, named after Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, is centred around Penn, Irrfan is the fulcrum on which it moves. His simple yet mind-blowing delivery leaves an everlasting impression on the audience. Ashoke is beautifully simple, decent and immensely likeable, and his sudden loss leaves a permanent void in the hearts of the audience and his son. 

Similarly, in Maqbool, Irrfan brilliantly portrays the damaging effects of hubris, which consume the protagonist of the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth

Based on the play, the movie shows Irrfan, a caporegime of mafioso Jahangir Khan (Pankaj Kapur) with his vaulting ambition of overtaking his boss’s criminal enterprise. Misguided by his boss’s paramour and his lover Nimmi (Tabu) and police inspectors Pandit (Om Puri) and Purohit (Naseeruddin Shah)—the two, instead of the three witches, in Macbeth—Maqbool goes on a bloody spree to eliminate his boss and rivals.

Though Kapur dominates the movie with his short and riveting performance, Irrfan is the typical Shakespearean tragedy king, whose delusion and overarching greed reduce him to a zilch. In switching from his unflinching loyalty to utter contempt for his boss, Irrfan shows a range of emotions that could have been perfected only by an actor of his calibre.

Irrfan would have been 56 this year had he not jolted cinema and his audience with his untimely death. But he left an indelible impression and showed that acting should be natural and emotional without any technique.

Like Hendrix once said: “Technically, I’m not a guitar player; all I play is truth and emotion.”

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