Irrfan Khan had been ill for a while now. Many of us thought he had recovered for the better. His death has come as a shock to the film industry and at the age of 53 he has passed on tragically early in a career that was gaining momentum with each year. Back in 2017 when I was planning the first year of Not Just Bollywood for HOME in Manchester, I contacted Irrfan through Twitter, and as I expected his kind response was full of enthusiasm for the prospect of being a guest. He instructed me to contact his manager which I did. Unfortunately, Irrfan was always too busy and we could never quite make the dates fit with his busy schedule. The first film we screened for Not Just Bollywood in September 2017 was The Lunchbox which played to a full audience. I was also involved with the screening of Qissa in 2017, programmed at HOME as part of a weekender on Partition, and which featured a Q&A with director Anup Singh who spoke fondly of Irrfan. We had planned to do something around his career for the September season of NJB at HOME, and there was talk of inviting Irrfan in the coming months. However, the heart-breaking news of his death comes as a reminder of the precarious times we live in. The moving tributes by the artists he worked with through his career paint a picture of someone who was selfless, kind and hardworking; an actor who didn’t live in the shadow of his star persona.
The international success Irrfan enjoyed as an actor came relatively late in his career and a lot of discussion regarding his work will likely focus on those films which gained international recognition and crossed over such as Life of Pi. Although Irrfan did work in popular Hindi cinema, he can in no way be claimed as a Bollywood actor. His eclectic approach to acting saw him shift with a versatility across a wide gamut of roles, genres and industries, although he often showed an inclination towards independent and international films. An actor trained in theatre and who searched his way through the late 1980s and much of the 1990s, showing up in an early role in Nair’s seminal Salaam Bombay, Irrfan’s real breakthrough was arguably in Asif Kapadia’s striking debut feature The Warrior in 2001. In many ways, Irrfan’s sensibilities seemed to follow in the spirit of another trailblazer – the late Om Puri, who also forged a cosmopolitan identity as an actor. Incidentally, both Irrfan and Om Puri were cast in Maqbool, the first of Vishal Bhardwaj’s contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare. Irrfan had a palpable screen presence, exuding a kindness and warmth in many of his roles that set him apart from his contemporaries. But he could also manifest a brooding intensity for his darker roles such as Qissa and Paan Singh Tomar. Perhaps more than anything it was range that Irrfan had in his oeuvre, showing a knack for comic timing in films like Blackmail, Piku and Karwaan. Admittedly, Irrfan’s transnational star status with films like Spiderman and Jurassic World situated him in an exceptional position amongst fellow Indian actors, accentuating his willingness to transcend certain boundaries imposed on foreign film stars. Irrfan had a precious vernacular of classicism and modernism which communicated a hybridity, reinvention and reflexivity of what stardom signified today. There was a diasporic, transient quality to the way he was constantly shifting across borders. Irrfan’s Muslimness, a very personal thing, erased in the public eye, advocated a secular and pragmatic star persona and one that seemed to embrace a spiritual philosophy.
What I want to do is turn to a favourite moment, from The Lunchbox, the film that cemented his status as one of the best actors of his generation and made audiences and critics aware of how someone like Irrfan had gone unnoticed for so many years. Already a classic of Indian cinema, director Ritesh Batra’s finely tuned melodrama was an unexpected international success. Featuring a triptych of striking performances from Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, this is an endearing work that connects food and romance with a beguiling charm. Shot entirely on location in Mumbai, Batra’s script incorporates the tradition of dabbawallas who deliver hot food in tiffins to workers during lunchtime. The film won numerous international awards and controversially missed out on being India’s Oscar entry for 2013, and had it been nominated, it probably would have gone on to win.
The sequence in question I have chosen unfolds towards the end of the film. It is a moment that precedes the anticipated meeting between Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). The sequence begins with the familiarity of Fernandes getting ready for work, fixing his tie and throwing his bag over his shoulder. In a mirror, Fernandes pats his face from the fresh shave he has just had. Having exited, he abruptly returns to the bedroom, taking out his spectacles and scrutinising his shave, noticing the stubble with the white flecks of hair are still present.
Batra chooses to frame this moment in a master shot of the bedroom. The emptiness of the frame around Fernandes echoes not his loneliness but reiterates the ways in which his life is confined to a few spaces, most of them related to his journey to work and back. Fernandes touching the stubble on his chin, which no matter what you do when you reach middle age becomes irreversible, is a detail of growing old and the first of many gestures magnified by the tender way in which Irrfan carries himself. Since Fernandes needs the spectacles to see properly now is yet another gesture of aging. It suddenly grows into an anxiety when Fernandes goes to the bathroom to take an even closer look at his unremarkable to capacity to shave closely.
In another master shot, the bathroom, a dingy little space, illuminated solely by the small window letting in some morning light, Fernandes wipes the condensation from the mirror. Once again, the tender and unrushed movements by Irrfan elongate his anxieties. This is followed by a brief pause; Fernandes suddenly appears lost in the moment, not sure what he should do. The pause, often a mixture of dread and excitement, was a signature mannerism that Irrfan had perfected over the course of his career. Moreover, in this context, the pause and Fernandes looking around the bathroom as if someone else is with him is an idea that he expands upon later when he refers to his dead grandfather who once also inhabited the same space. This haunting of the present by the past is consolidated in the next cut to of a close up of Fernandes who once again looks around as if sensing the presence of someone else. Is he is a ghost already? If no one remembers him now, who will remember him once he has gone? In an attempt to temporarily evade the anxiety of growing old Fernandes applies some shaving foam/soap to his chin and shaves haphazardly, knowing quite well it is a futile exercise to mask over a new reality. Later Fernandes tells Ila, via another letter, that he is grateful Ila let him into her dreams since his silent observations in the restaurant point to a sadness of what could have been; a painful longing for companionship.
The sequence next cuts to a mid-shot of Fernandes standing in a train as he makes his way to work once more. Yet again, boredom and routine is now amplified by another anxiety; the ephemeral, transient nature of urban life. Although Batra opts for tight framing in this series of shots, a given considering the compact spaces of trains, and pointing to the claustrophobia of urban life, Fernandes is lost in thought, contemplating the choices he has made. All the way through the film, a pattern emerges, a dance in fact, of the stylistic nuances that Irrfan succeeds in performing through the weight and measure of his magical eyes and their related movements. The eyes of Fernandes are constantly pointing downwards through much of the film, invoking a retreat from society, a refusal to look at the world anymore.
When Asif Kapadia cast Irrfan in The Warrior he did so on the basis of his unmistakably hypnotic eyes, a visual trait that Kapadia emboldens throughout the film. Is it any wonder that Kapadia opens The Warrior with a tight close up on the eyes of Irrfan? A fitting way indeed of introducing Irrfan to international film audiences. Irrfan like many of the best actors (Brando, Pacino, Om Puri) trained themselves to modulate their acting through the way they moved their eyes. Irrfan’s eyes were a prominent and defining part of the star persona cultivated by the media and his eyes on screen were a constant and creative source of expression, conveying a lexicon of emotional states. One of the passengers on the train offers Fernandes his place since he is getting off at the next stop. At first Fernandes hesitates since this act of compassion is loaded with social sentiment about age but he sits down anyhow, symbolically accepting his position in society, one that he cannot alter, no matter how much he has fantasised about escaping with Ila to Bhutan.
Next Batra cuts to a wide shot of inside the train compartment with Fernandes sutured into the middle of the frame, encased like a mummy in a tomb, unable to escape and surrounded by passengers. In this moment, Fernandes becomes just another passenger, part of the anonymous urban mass, returning to the mundane and uneventful nature of his daily life, one which he fears will be even lonelier once he retires. On the soundtrack, the clanging sound of the railway carriages becomes more pronounced, taking on a life of its own and intensifying the anxieties of a despondent Fernandes, overwhelming his very existence.
It is only later the true context of what Fernandes has experienced becomes apparent when he relays the meaning of the story to Ila. In this flashback, intercut with Ila and Fernandes at the restaurant, it is worth mentioning that Irrfan is in element as he eavesdrops on Ila. Sitting in the restaurant, the hands and eyes become symptomatic of what Irrfan was able to do in many of his films; reduce everything down to an economical ballet of gestures with much of his elliptical acting style invariably filtered through expressive pregnant pauses, hesitations and sly glances. He controlled audience reaction to his acting through the way he moved his eyes which in themselves were also an extension of the narrative, telling the story through a non-verbal projection.
If Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) symbolises the now, Fernandes is part of a past that has faded away, as illustrated quite explicitly during the rickshaw ride, in which he paints a picture of an ever changing Bombay that has disappeared, replaced by a kind of neoliberal capitalist sheen. Perhaps the key shot, a visual lynchpin, condensing the very soul of the film is the most abstract; Fernandes on his porch obscured by the doorway while listening to radio Bhutan. Elegantly framed, the fractured body of Fernandes, seems to have faded from view. Like his grandfather before him, he too will one day become another memory, a ghost haunting the spaces he once inhabited.