There are only a handful of actors that you remember watching for the first time with such awe that the moment gets forever etched in your memory. The first time I saw Irrfan Khan in his element was in a soap called Banegi Apni Baat (1993). It was the early 1990s, satellite television was in its infancy and nearly every show on the only private channel, Zee TV, was discussed threadbare in schools and colleges.
Irrfan played a much elder man who falls for one of his children’s college-mate and it was for the first time where you saw such a complex character essayed without apology, and that too on television. Irrfan’s understated brilliance lay in his ability to infuse a lifetime of the character’s story in a single moment. From that point onwards, scores of viewers kept an eye out for the actor who could play a ‘lecherous uncle’ with an elegance you’d never imagine.
By the time Irrfan got a top-billing role in The Warrior (2001), he was a much-recognised face in India. However, stardom in the true sense of the word was still a few years away. In his initial years, Irrfan was the kind of the standard National School of Drama alumnus that you saw in small roles across films such as Kamla Ki Maut (1989), Drishti (1990) or Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990).
In the 1990s, he was the household TV star thanks to shows such as Chandrakanta (1994) and became the kind of actor you notice irrespective of the length of the role. Although there was a great legacy of the likes of Om Puri, Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah breaking through in Bombay cinema even with the kind of face that the trade didn’t qualify to be ‘star’ material, things were not the same. The arrival of the three Khans—Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh—along with Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn made it near-impossible for someone like Irrfan to be the typical leading man.
Irrfan would probably be the last of the stalwarts who underwent the classical journey of a stage-trained actor to become a global star. He excelled on stage, TV and after having made his name as a villain in Haasil (2003) and Aan: Men at Work (2004), a supporting actor in New York (2009), he became a global star with classics such as The Namesake (2006).
With films such as Hindi Medium (2017), he delivered blockbusters and excelled at the typical Bollywood romance with Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017), while also refusing films such as Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) when many of his more famous contemporaries would have never been considered by the likes of Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott. They say one should live life to its fullest lest it seems like one died young. Even after living many lifetimes in every character he played, Irrfan, 53, still left too early, and at a time when he was truly coming into his own.
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