“I had a feeling that like Gogol's father in Namesake he won’t exit the stage in between. He still had so much more in him,” writes Bishweshwar.
He was on the top of his game in 2018, when tumour struck. His last message to people was: “Wait for me.”
In a memorable scene from Vishal Bharadwaj's Maqbool, the patriarch and don Abba Ji (played by Pankaj Kapoor) is holding court at dinner. They are sitting across a large dining table. Delicacies are served, including Biriyani with the best of gosht. Food and favours are the main agenda. His henchmen sit across enjoying the meal. There has been some intergang rivalry, an internal cleansing of suspects in Abba Ji’s syndicate. Certain key positions have fallen empty. However, the racket of crime and extortion has to continue. As key jurisdictions are being assigned, a question pops up. Who will take charge of Bollywood? Extortions from the film business is an important marker of income. Abba Ji focusses on the sumptuous meat piece, nibbles off all the flesh and replies… “Maqbool. Maqbool Samhalega Bollywood.” (Maqbool will handle Bollywood).
Maqbool is an Indian adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece Macbeth. It was Vishal’s first tryst with Shakespeare in cinema and a Baz Luhrmann experiment in Indian cinema. Adapted to an Indian context, it is in this film where I noticed Irrfan in a new light. He took charge of Bollywood from the veteran actor, not only in the film, but also metaphorically.
Post Maqbol, he made his mark repeatedly that opened up his international career. Until then, he had been sidelined as a non filmy guy trying to make a foothold in commercial cinema. And he wasn’t the type to be typecast in just arty roles. Through Maqbool, he delivered his finest performance much before The Lunchbox, and Paan Singh Tomar were even conceived. Off course, we had 'The Warrior' and ' Salaam Bombay', but his Shakespearen entry in Vishal’s masterpiece was a marker of sorts.
My tryst with him had started with Chandrakanta on Doordarshan, and was later crystallized when I watched him in ‘The Warrior’ around the turn of the century. For a brief period I lived in his city Irrfan. My stay however was short. Cut short by the very dreams that Bombay had been selling to all wonderstruck small towners. The commute, the weather, and even the interactions with people drained me. As welcoming as strangers were, it was the logistics and lodging complicated by a friend who first let me stay and then turned hostile, that drove me away from the city. The friendships didn’t last, but the city still sat as a jewel in the crown of metropolis for me. My bidding adieu to Bombay as a workplace was almost 15 years ago. Bangalore has proven more productive in terms of absorbing cinema of all genre as well. It’s temperate and not as harsh as Bombay. Here, one can watch the wave from a distance.
Irrfan, by then, had moved onto the international stage with Slumdog and Namesake. Slumdog was no Salaam Bombay, but it made him the most bankable Bollywood export to Hollywood. It intrigued me. How can one be so versatile. We have had a Kabir Bedi playing Sandokan. We have had Shahshi Kapoor, Gulshan grover and Priyanka Chopra breaking grounds. But those are predictable journeys. Irrfan stood out.
His moment of spotlight came with a film that swept the awards circuit on pure storytelling, craft and techniques including CGI. Life of Pi changed Indian Cinema and the post Ray-Ghatak and the Merchant Ivory era, and propelled a star into a league that has no parallels. Irrfan Khan in Life of Pi didn’t act. He led us into the story and took over the narrative. It is through his eyes the story evolves, though full credit goes to Suraj Sharma’s for his brilliant performance as young Pi. As he says in one of the dialogue in the film “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.” Thinking about it now, they seem prophetic.
One can agree that Irrfan’s exit due to the circumstance of his condition and the present world condition had to be discreet. We lament a huge loss. But Irrfan’s own loss was huge. It made him face philosophical questions about life amidst the topsy turvy journey of his life that ensued with treatment in London and a complete disappearance from the scene. We read news of Irrfan as and when it trickled in. He talked about the enemy in his body. He talked about realisations. On a personal level I almost felt that he has recovered and will bounce back stronger. I had a feeling that like Gogol's father in Namesake he won’t exit the stage in between. He still had so much more in him.
On screen he played where death seemed idealistic, like in the heart attack of Ashok in Namesake in an empty hotel or the death of Maqbool in the film. The cessation of his role was pivotal to the film. In Maqbool, the cessation of his character ends the film, ditto for Paan Singh and The Warrior. It is the screen presence that made it look like so easy, as if the reel is real. He also taught us that screen time doesn’t create a protagonist.
He could sink into the character without any strain. Only Om Puri could come close to it. But Om had his own ghosts and even though he was unpredictable, he was a fine actor. Maybe few notches up Irrfan at times. He, like Irrfan, had a remarkable voice modulation capability that can make a screen go blank yet people can guess the emotion. In Dharavi, Om sinks under the cabbie’s persona. Years later we saw it happen in Paan Singh where Irrfan got every angle of the persona. From lingo to body language. This is acting. Nuanced, yet unassuming.
In Maqbool, there is a scene where a new upright cop has come to arrest Abba ji, the don. Maqbool challenges him and wispers,“Go now, the money will reach you.” He then goes on to baark at the crowd, asking people to disperse. He had not expected a tight slap, so when one lands on his chin from the cop, his first reaction would have been to grab his gun. The scene lingers for a while. Kaka (played by Piyush Mishra) clapses Maqbool, as he goes grunting and trying his best to pull out the gun. There are no other pyrotechnics. In one sweep he establishes his faith and hierarchy in this crime thriller. This is where he could improvise and give the characters that little edge which is otherwise sunseen in acting these days. We have seen that edge in Ashok, Paan Singh, Lunchbox, Salaam Bombay and the countless other roles he has essayed. He picked up the tools, customised them to suit his requirements, and crafted his acting skills as the characters demanded. And that one thing will set Irrfan apart from regular box office phenomenon. He never got caught in the ‘Khan’ clubs or the 100 crore franchisees.
In a candid interview with Anupama Chopra he had once remarked he loathes people who can reduce themselves to a monetary figure when they are creating something. Creation can’t have a price. The interview was recorded was before his illness. Maybe he had a premonition that the most valuable possession one can have is time. Characters, roles and even life has a time boundness. It’s value lies in its virtue. And his departure reminds me of one character that I would have cajoled Vishal to cast Irrfan in, if I was his producer. Brutus. He truly was the noblest of all the Romans. He asked tough questions and played his part well. But for the tragedy to progress the pivotal character must exit.
Adieus, my Maqbool!
Bishweshwar is a poet, author, and photographer. He currently lives in Bengaluru.