Incredibly Irrfan

Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan seriously nurtured a desire to be a cricketing hero.

In India, where cricket and cinema are the twin intoxications that normally drive notions of heroism, the son of a tyre seller in Jaipur couldn't realise the dream, so he shifted focus to acting. It is ironic that his entry into the field where he would never make it big was far easier.

The young man from Khajuriya village in Rajasthan's Tonk district was selected to play in the Under-23 C.K. Nayudu tournament - a stepping stone for cricketers' entry into the senior national team. Irrfan did not follow it up because he did not have the money for the trip.

His entry into the world of films was far less of a fairy tale. He faced the camera for the first time in Pravin Nischol's TV series Shrikant, which ran between 1985 and 1986 and made little impact.

Irrfan's big screen break came when Mira Nair went looking for fresh and interesting faces at the National School of Drama to cast in her 1988 film Salaam Bombay! She picked Irrfan for a small role. The film made it to the Oscars.

What followed were years of struggle. For most of the '90s, he was stuck with forgettable roles in television. Bollywood then told tales of the perfect hero setting things right in an unsettled world.

Irrfan, with his unconventional face and persona, appeared too outlandish to be a hero. His rich voice and screen presence matched any screen villain's, but he was considered too young to be the bad man.

He got a few interesting roles in the art house and crossover circuit - such as Govind Nihalani's Drishti (1990) and Akashdeep's Ghaath (2000) - but those appearances did not give him the traction he hoped for.

Interestingly, that happened with a "foreign film". British filmmaker Asif Kapadia was making his directorial debut in 2002 with The Warrior and was looking for a new face for the title role.

Irrfan fitted the bill. The film became an international success and people who mattered in the film industry noticed Irrfan's acting abilities.

A year later, two films released in quick succession turned the tide for the actor. Irrfan's portrayal of a small town goon-politician in Haasil and the brooding don in Maqbool gave screen menace two very different hues.

Over the next years, roles in films such as Rog, Sunday, Mumbai Meri Jaan and New York propelled his popularity. The big-bang role in Bollywood came in 2012 with Paan Singh Tomar. Tigmanshu Dhulia's remarkable real-life story of an athlete who becomes a dacoit needed an actor who could be vulnerable and resilient.

Irrfan projected the complex torrent of emotions with understated ease which won him the national best actor award. It also underlined that the actor was a brand of his own accord and not a mere prop in big productions for major stars.

What worked for Irrfan in creating his brand power was that he managed to crack the international scene. He played a Pakistani cop in Michael Winterbottom's 2007 release A Mighty Heart. The film did not click, but when you play an almost parallel role with Angelina Jolie, you get noticed worldwide. The immediate outcome was a role in Danny Boyle's 2008 global blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire.

The film's success and massive Oscar haul made everybody associated with it famous. Hollywood, forever looking for exotic faces, suddenly found a viable deal in Irrfan. It also helped Irrfan that Indian and Asian-origin directors such as Mira Nair and Ang Lee had grown in stature in the West. This translated to important roles in films such as New York I Love You (2009) and Life Of Pi (2012).

Indian roles in mainstream Hollywood projects, too, were no longer about playing the cabbie. The age of inclusion was upon Hollywood and Irrfan bagged pivotal roles in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Jurassic World(2015) and Inferno (2016). Juggling his acts between the varying shades of The Lunchbox (2013), Haider (2014), Piku (2015), Talvar (2015), Hindi Medium (2017) and Karwaan (2018), Irrfan had clearly reached his best career phase in Bollywood.

At the same time, in Marc Turtletaub's 2018 Hollywood drama Puzzle, Irrfan got to play the hero, opposite Kelly Macdonald. The film won critical acclaim.

Irrfan was enjoying his finest hour in Bollywood as well as Hollywood. Which makes his demise an irreparable loss.

Indo-Asian News Service


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