India Features

What Irrfan Got Right Was Not Just His Characters, But What He Did With Them

Screening Of Qarib Qarib Singlle

Few people can hold a conversation with a potted plant, call it Anarkali and request it to not rush into giving fruit, till he plants it on terra firma and she gets a chance to grow. Irrfan? He can. He can actually convince you that dispensing gyaan to a plant is the most natural thing in the world.


This scene from the delightful but underrated Kaarwan by Akarsh Khurana joins the list of my favourite Irrfan scenes, if there’s such a thing. The film was a gem, and kept giving… Irrfan as Shaukat, with the deadpan look, spouting philosophy. Irrfan, with a narrow Outlook, who likes women all covered and is not beyond some closet racism, who learns to accept people for what they are, and grows in spirit. Irrfan, the sceptic turned romantic, his hooded eyes opening to reveal an emotion he’s not felt before. Irrfan…the only person who can spout a line such as “Aaj se, dono bhai yateem” and follow it up with a “I’ll never let you feel the absence of your father”, the very next second, as a bemused Dulquer Salmaan looks on.

ALSO READ: Kaarwan Review

And then, there’s Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium. Raj Batra, the owner of Batra Fashion Studio, and Mitho’s husband, the man who knows better, but still can’t bear to see his wife sad. The man who can drape a chunni two ways, and show customers, “traditional and modern” looks, like he was born to do it.

Yes, there’s a whole world of movies out there that Irrfan owned, be it in the commercial or arthouse space. Everyone speaks of the classics, the gems, the well-written roles, but I’ve always been charmed by how he raised ‘okayish’ characters to another level.

My fascination with Irrfan the actor began much earlier, when I was 18 or so, and got to watch Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. Even in a film that had so much to grab your attention, Irrfan’s one-minute letter writer character stood out. Ah, the actor from Doordarshan’s Katha Sagar, I recalled. The doctor from Ward No 6.

Among his loveliest contributions has been as Monty in Anurag Basu’s Life In A Metro. He’s the man who confesses to shaving a few years off his real age, the one who does not think twice before tearing open a sachet of sugar and eating it or loudly ordering Bournvita in a coffee shop, the one who has a justification for his eyes lingering a little longer on a woman’s body part… basically, he’s regular, with vices. But, Irrfan being who he is, showed us what makes Monty human, what redeems him. And so, it was possible to root for Monty, even wish he finds love.

I wonder if Irrfan knew what sway he had over those who watched his performances, on television or cinema. Did he know that we can never think of the names Saajan, Ashoke, Shaukat, Wasiullah Khan, or Rana, without recalling a particular quirk he lent the characters? Did Irrfan know that most who wrote his obit were grateful they never had to write a disclaimer anywhere that he was a wonderful actor, but… Did Irrfan know the warmth of this love that envelopes him after death turned him cold? Did Irrfan know that he’s part of so much on-screen magic, he will never really be forgotten?

I’ve been reading a spate of obits, tributes to the fine actor called Irrfan. One thing strikes me. The ones by those who interacted with him, and those who only saw him on screen, referred to him with the same fondness. He actually broke that fourth wall.

What Irrfan got right was not just his characters, but what he did with them. He never hard-sold them; he got us to accept those characters, warts and all, and in a way, accept ourselves too. And, aiding him in that journey was his lanky frame that did his bidding. And his eyes, oh those deep pools that held within them love and longing, wisdom and wealth, experience and emotion.

For some time, everyone forgot everything else in the world, and seemed to share their collective grief at the passing of a talent that was incandescent. When was the last time the leader of a State tweeted condolences to the actor’s family and friends but also to those who enjoyed “the works of the actor”?

That’s because while Irrfan was in a space that only he occupied, he also left behind pieces of him with his audience. He gave everyone a sense of ownership, belonging to no one, yet belonging to all.

How best can one celebrate Irrfan? By talking about him? Yes. But writing about the grief of his passing? Yes. There’s one more way, that is most rewarding. Re-watch his movies. Re-watch compilations of his scenes folks have helpfully uploaded on YouTube. And keep a kerchief in hand. Let those hot salty tears flow unfettered. They are the tribute to Irrfan’s genius, to his ability to live in the moment, to his generosity of heart as a person and artiste. Because, in Covid times, when the heart and mind are filled with data about infections, and an unknown fear of the future, this gentleman made us pause, look at the past, and celebrate life and the memories he’s filled it with.