“Life is about making an impact, not making an income.” -Kevin Kruse
Irrfan, that’s how he wished to be known as when he decided to take off his surname, Khan, after realizing that religion couldn’t engulf humanity. He dreamt of becoming a cricketer but, his family and pocket didn’t allow it. His prospects of entering the Indian Film industry were very minute but, the best part of his journey was that he never gave up, be it his early days in Bollywood or the final ones in life, he kept fighting the odds. The world mourned him like a family member; everybody wished to see him one more time on the big screen or anywhere else. People were so drenched in emotions that even a small mobile recharge advertisement, done by him almost a decade ago, brought tears to their eyes. Only his presence was enough for emotions to flow from the screen to the hearts of the audience. Here’s a look at his humble, charming, versatile, inspirational, and successful journey.
Born to Play
Born in Rajasthan’s Tonk district in 1967 to a family that ran a Tyre business and was wealthy enough to weave a comfortable life, Sahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan was a sports enthusiast from the very beginning. He was a good swimmer and used to dive into nearby lakes with his friends. His love for cricket was unparalleled during childhood, and he played the role of an all-rounder for his team. Irrfan’s mother wanted him to focus on studies and would often disallow him to take part in the game, which would force him to lie to get out of the house. Moreover, on the personality front, he was an introvert who would not speak much about anything, just him and his truth were his soul mates. However, this gave him time to explore his creative side, involving acting and writing.
“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” –Albert Einstein
As he grew old, choosing a sustainable career was becoming a priority for his family since, in those days, people didn’t have much freedom to make decisions on their own. Irrfan was passionate about cricket, and due to his amazing performances, he was selected for the CK Nayudu Tournament that was to be held in Ajmer. Riding high on confidence, he planned everything smoothly but, the moment he realized that travelling expenses were to be borne by him, all of it stopped, even the frenzy he was witnessing. He just didn’t know who to ask for the cash as he couldn’t assure his parents of a glorious career awaiting him. Irrfan, then, went into a state of introspection and came out with a reason for himself that had he been a cricketer, his career would have lasted 15-20 years at the most and, somehow, managed to deal with the situation. He didn’t know then that this heartbreak was going to be a blessing in disguise.
When the idea of joining the cricket field dropped, other spheres soon got his attention; on top of that was acting. During his graduation, one day, he was invited to audition for the National School of Drama (NSD), India’s highest learning institute for acting. And, he readily agreed to participate when he got to know that upon getting selected, he would be given the scholarship to go and learn the art at NSD.
“I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse.” –Florence Nightingale
The hesitant guy made a quiet and still entry to the school and chose the corner most room of the hostel to stay alive in his own world of thoughts. Neither did he engage in talks, nor did he like being in a company of too many people. Shedding his shy nature was seemingly tough for him or, he wanted to live with it due to reasons known to him only. He had an invisible hunger for learning and exploring ideas, and covertly, continued doing that. Irrfan had no big names backing him; it was all about talent and hard work when he graduated from the NSD. One of the many takeaways from his golden days at the school was Sutapa Sikdar, who became his better half some years later.
The Struggling Smog
When Irrfan travelled to Mumbai for the first time, he worked as an Air Conditioner repairman, and one of the houses he went into for the same was Rajesh Khanna’s whom he admired a lot. The days of struggle had just started for him, and the hard-working man was never afraid of the challenges posed in front. His first big break came with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, but the game of destiny was such that the part he played was majorly chopped from the final cut, and he couldn’t get his glimpse on the big screen. With not much money in pocket, he continued doing part-time jobs alongside his acting performances in plays and some TV shows. In the 1990s, Irrfan’s talent was finally being recognized, and he got many opportunities to act in Television serials like Laal Ghaas Par Neele Ghode, Darr, Chanakya, Bharat Ek Khoj, Banegi Apni Baat, Chandrakanta, etc.
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” –Amelia Earhart
Irrfan was probably one of those rare actors who achieved everything solely on the basis of their talent, without any outside influence and dependence. He was a part of many critically acclaimed films that went unnoticed in the eyes of the audience, examples being Ek Doctor ki Maut (1990), Such a Long journey (1998), etc.
When the new century arrived, came with it the change in fortunes that he desired. A dejected Irrfan wanted to quit his acting career when no significant work came his way despite putting in all his heart. On the verge of exiting the industry, he got a call from British Filmmaker Asif Kapadia who offered him the lead role in The Warrior (2001). This film changed the perspective of life and convinced Irfan to stay afloat in B-Town that was a bit harsh, but he was no short of extraordinary either. What followed were movies like Road to Ladakh and Maqbool, which received immense appreciation from the critics and made his footprints visible to some extent. From there, he never looked back. His mesmerizing eyes were as expressive as any dialogue, his face movement was a cleverly drafted action, the art of which was too rare to have, and his body language spoke tonnes about his personality as an actor. When he did Haasil in 2004, the grey side, another aspect of Irrfan's talent, was set in front of the audience. He won the Filmfare Award for the Best Villain of the film.
“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” –Vince Lombardi
The year 2007 saw him getting two of his most amazing films, The Namesake and Life in a Metro, to the big screen and bagging several accolades and awards from the film fraternity. There was a real serenity that he carried in his performances, which made him stand apart from others. He was starting to find his audience, a specific niche of people who would any day agree to watch his stories get revealed on the screen. When he did Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, the gates to a broader international recognition opened up. The film’s director, Danny Boyle, called him a ‘perfectionist’ who could repeat even the best takes for a number of times with the same intensity. He also got to play significant roles in The Amazing Spiderman and Life of Pi, both blockbusters.
National to International
In 2013, probably his biggest dream came true when he won the National Award for the Best Actor for his magnificent performance in Paan Singh Tomar in which he played the role of an athlete turned Dacoit. Then he came with unarguably the tastiest ‘tiffin’ ever with The Lunchbox that won the Grand Rail d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. It was one of its kind, a movie, a story, a feeling that could never be replicated on screen. Its success at the Box Office came as a surprise to most of the trade analysts. And, scattered a ray of hope in the minds of such creators, who were till then feared of getting sidelined in the lavish designer sets of Bollywood. Another big project awaited him in 2015 when he got to work in Jurassic World, a movie franchise he had grown up watching, and his performance again impressed everyone. Inferno was another famous Hollywood film he worked in and made India recognizable across the globe.
With Gunday, Haider, Talwar, Piku, the basket of his phenomenal portrayals became bigger and better. His comic timing got revealed fully in Piku and was strengthened further in Hindi Medium that released in 2017 and became his highest all-time grosser at the ticket windows. The movie brought him further to the masses and infused a sense of accomplishment in those who trusted his talent.
He had an impeccable record of choosing scripts that were different and away from the usual glitters of Bollywood, and that’s what kept him in the league of great actors.
“You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” –Christopher Columbus
Real Life Pack-Up
Riding high on the success of his art, he was ecstatic to explore new stories, scripts, and ideas. But just like a sudden hailstorm surprises us during the peak summers, he also got shocked to suddenly discover that he was suffering from a neuroendocrine tumour- a rare form of cancer. From being an evergreen motion picture, his life came to a standstill. On March 16, 2018, Irrfan himself revealed the heartbreaking news to his fans via social media and left for London to get treated. Then began the most terrifying part of his life, the hospital visits. He went through numerous therapies and other suggested medical examinations to get rid of the tumour. Upon getting a little better, in 2019, he didn't take much time to begin shooting for Angrezi Medium, the sequel to his blockbuster, Hindi Medium. He wasn't well but never did he let a dull moment surface on the sets of the film. Days before its trailer release, he shared a heartfelt note with his fans and declared that he couldn’t promote it due to health issues and that the film was really close to his heart. He asked everyone to be kind to each other and ended by saying, ‘wait for me’ and everyone did wait for him but unfortunately, this was the only time when he disappointed his fans. Irrfan breathed his last on 29th April 2020 in Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, precisely 4 days after his mother’s demise.
He was not a larger than life hero but closer to life actor, whose roles were nothing short of class acts that were proximate to the Indian commons, maybe that’s why when he left for the heavens, his absence was felt massively by the ordinary people of India.
“Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” –Jesus
Some actors make gains at the ticket window, some knock directly at the doors of the heart of the audiences, and Irrfan was one of the latter. He was pure gold and came as a blessing to the Indian Film industry that travelled the world with him. The splendid actor stitched himself into the soul of every Indian through his creative art and a magnanimous heart. His personality was such that he made difficult things look easy. His acts were so real that it never felt like someone was acting but living on screen the life of people sitting in front of it. He was a common man’s artist and a common man’s love, who believed in the common man’s command.