(This review was first published in Business Standard.)
Death, by itself, is not an extraordinary occurrence. Its inevitability is built into the very fabric of life. Why then do some deaths register more of an impact than others? Perhaps the answer lies in the quality of life led by a person, and what they left behind. When Indian film actor Irrfan Khan passed away on 29th April 2020, he was mourned not only by his family and friends but also by people all over the world who loved his work. The loss felt incredibly personal.
Khan’s wife Sutapa Sikdar, a writer and producer, released a statement that said, “How can I begin to feel alone when millions are grieving with us at the moment? I want to assure everyone that this is not a loss, it is a gain. It’s a gain of the things he taught us, and now we shall finally begin to truly implement it and evolve.” Sikdar was Khan’s thought partner and creative collaborator. They began to date while studying at the National School of Drama in Delhi, which played a formidable role in honing Khan’s talent.
While many who appreciate Khan’s work are revisiting his films, I found myself reading Aseem Chhabra’s book Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star, which was released by Rupa Publications in January 2020. This biography has been written for people who love watching movies, and the language is accessible enough to appeal to a wide audience rather than a small bunch of film critics, archivists and scholars. However, it would disappoint readers who buy the book hoping to find gossip, scandals and controversies.
Chhabra is a film journalist who lives in New York, and spends a significant amount of time in Delhi every year. He is also the festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival. During the writing of this book, he drew on the expertise and connections built through his work and also relied much on his emotional response to the actor’s performances. His tone in the book is warm and affectionate. In the acknowledgements section, Chhabra thanks Khan for “entertaining the fan in me, giving me joy and tears, and keeping me enthralled with many amazing characters you have played on the screen.”
The author focuses on telling the story of what made Khan who he was. Chhabra admits that he wanted to interview Khan about his life and career but could not get the opportunity since Khan was undergoing medical treatment for a neuroendocrine tumour. It seemed insensitive to bother a man who needed privacy to heal, so Chhabra got inputs from his friends, colleagues and mentors. He interviewed several filmmakers including Mira Nair, Ang Lee, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Meghna Gulzar, Ashvin Kumar, Mahesh Bhatt, Shailja Kejriwal, Shoojit Sircar, Ritesh Batra, Asif Kapadia, and Konkona Sensharma. Their insights give the readers an intimate understanding of the person behind the star.
What makes this book special is the author’s fondness for the subject he is writing about. He is not an aloof commentator. He is smitten by almost every character Khan has played — Ranvijay Singh in Haasil (2003), Ashoke Ganguly in The Namesake (2006), Zeeshan Kazmi in A Mighty Heart (2007), Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox (2013), Roohdaar in Haider (2014), Rana Chaudhary in Piku (2015), Aadam in The Song of Scorpions (2017), and many more. “To me, he is one of the sexiest and coolest actors working in Hindi cinema,” writes Chhabra. The praise does not seem excessive because the author backs it up with a fine commentary on Khan’s acting skills.
Chhabra has made extensive use of newspaper articles to track what film reviewers in different parts of the world, and Khan’s co-workers, have said about him. These references give the readers a fuller understanding of Khan’s contribution to cinema. Here is one example: In 2016, when Hollywood actor Tom Hanks was in Mexico to promote Ron Howard’s film Inferno, he was asked about his co-star Irrfan Khan. Hanks said, “I’m just beguiled by his magic eyes. He has a physicality to him that is so specific and endearing.”
This book is full of surprises for readers who are unfamiliar with Khan’s work in theatre and television, or the various international projects he was part of in addition to Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Life of Pi (2012). The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Jurassic World (2015), Inferno (2016), and No Bed of Roses (2017). It also touches upon Khan’s relationship with his parents, his thoughts on Islam, his unquenchable thirst for novelty, and his tendency to get extremely upset when he was on the losing team in a cricket match. It is a rich tribute to the talented actor.