India’s Irrfan Khan is the world’s best actor. This may seem somewhat exaggerated from a film critic’s point of view. But the observation — coming as it did from the Toronto-based producer, David Gordian, known for his caustic and critical views on cinema and just about anything else — must be taken seriously.
A November 2010 article in The New York Times, had this to say: “In a season that trumpeted the return of Debra Winger, it is the Indian actor Irrfan Khan who has generated some of the loudest buzz on HOB’s In Treatment. Mr. Khan, familiar in this country from the movies, The Namesake and Slumdog Millionaire, and something of an idol in his own, has applied his soulful gaze and talent for nuance to the role of Sunil, a Bengali widower in his mid-50s who reluctantly enters therapy after being transplanted from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Brooklyn to live with his son and American daughter-in-law”
Alessandra Stanley writing in the paper called Sunil the “most interesting patient”, who is just compelling in the role of a grieving Indian immigrant fighting to keep his dignity in an alien culture, his very sanity in fact.
So, Gordian, who has produced films like Happily Ever After and If I Were You, and whom I ran into at breakfast in Panaji (capital of Goa) the other day during the International Film Festival of India, was not alone in his view of Khan.
The actor has ably straddled both Bollywood and Hollywood. As a cop in Angelina Jolie starrer A Mighty Heart (on the murder of The Wall Street Journal journalist), as Pi in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, as a policeman in Danny’s Boyle’s Oscar-clinching Slumdog Millionaire, as the park owner in Jurassic World, and as Dr Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider-Man, Khan elevated the characters to sparkling heights. In 2016, he would be seen along with Tom Hanks in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon thriller, Inferno.
Khan has certainly achieved what no other Indian actor has. Khan has most effectively and most convincingly bridged a very difficult cultural divide between India and the US, between Bollywood and Hollywood.
(Bollywood is a general term for Indian cinema as a whole that includes productions from many different regions of India, not Mumbai/Bombay alone, and in many different languages, not just Hindi.)
Khan’s contributions in India have been as impressive. Yet, nobody in India would have actually noticed him had not Tigmanshu Dhulia given him a plum part in his 2012 Paan Singh Tomar. Though, Khan had by then done some significant work in The Namesake, A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire, it was as Tomar that he really caught the critical eye. A celebrated steeplechase runner, Tomar is forced by administrative apathy and societal indifference to turn into a killer dacoit.
In one my early interviews with him, he said Tomar was not a dacoit, but a rebel with a cause, fighting an unjust, even a cruel, system.
There was no looking back for Khan after his compelling performance in Paan Singh Tomar.
In Nikhil Advani’s D-Day, as Wali Khan, an Indian spy in Pakistan, Irrfan transforms himself into an epitome of controlled sharpness — a kind of James Bond without the guns and girls and the polished trappings of 007.
In sharp contrast to this was Khan’s Umber Singh in Anup Singh’s Qissa, where he sinks into a 1947 partition (when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two nations) victim pining for a male heir. When that does not happen, he decides to groom his last daughter as a boy in a movie which mixes the real and the unreal to tell us a tale of human displacement and disappointment.
Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox saw Irrfan, neither as a fierce rebel nor as a grieving father — but as a middle-aged widower, who one fine afternoon finds romance springing out of his lunchbox. A box of food which reaches the wrong table in a Mumbai office (a city where a chain of several men transports lunch boxes from home to workplace) not just tickles the taste buds of the widower, given to eating unpalatable food from a local eatery, but also tugs at his heart strings, when he finds the same food coming back to him day after day. He sends small ‘thank you’ notes in the box which fascinates the woman at the other end — neglected as she is by her husband. Till she begins to fall in love with him.
The Lunchbox redefined Indian cinema in a unique way. All those critics who have been sneering at Indian films – calling them a song-and-dance tamasha – sat up and cheered when Batra’s work premiered at a Cannes sidebar. The movie fetched Khan still greater respect.
Irrfan had still a lot more variety to offer. He plays a ghost in Haider, a remake of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set though in Kashmir and narrated through Indian political situations. He was a cabbie in Piku, driving a father (who is obsessed with his constipation) and his disgusted daughter from Delhi to Kolkata. Yes all this distance, because the father, played by Amitabh Bachchan. is terrified of flying.
Taxi driver Khan was witty. Some of the best one-liners came from him, and he did not “deliver” his dialogues, but spoke them with consummate ease. Such a natural that he is.
In Talvar (Guilty), he once again portrays an investigating officer, but yes, again, with tantalizing one liners that tickle you in a film which deals with the tragic murder of a 14-year-old girl, Aarushi in Noida, near Delhi.
Irrfan is undoubtedly on a great wicket, and in the next few weeks, he will start shooting for Anup Singh’s movie about the scorpion singers of Rajasthan. These singers, women, are the only ones who can provide the anti-dote for the poison of a deadly scorpion found in the region’s desert. The ravishingly talented Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani, will essay the role of a scorpion singer, and Irrfan her lover. Now, this will be a new kind of challenge for Khan.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.
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