He straddled the worlds of art house cinema and Bollywood
When I was just starting out as an actor in training at RADA around 10 years ago, I was asked who my favourite actor is. I hesitated, after all I was in the hallowed halls where actors such as Alan Rickman and Anthony Hopkins had once been students.
After a moment of deliberation, I asked if I could name an Indian actor and said ‘Irrfan Khan’. I hurriedly tried to identify him for this audience of mostly English actors but I didn’t need to. They all knew who I was talking about.
I first ‘discovered’ Irrfan when I watched Maqbool by Vishal Bharadwaj, which is still one of my favourite Hindi films of all time. The cast included legends and my favourites such as Tabu, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy? He’s not even acting, but I can’t take my eyes off him’.
Once, at RADA when asked who my favourite actor is, I said Irfan Khan. They all knew who I was talking about. Irfan didn’t have to act. He could be and your eye would still go to him. Legend is too small a word. I am distraught. Irfan Khan, the actor’s actor. My favourite actor. pic.twitter.com/Oa58kNdGCp
— Tanmay Dhanania (@tanmaydhanania) April 29, 2020
But what cemented him as my favourite actor was his performance in The Namesake by Mira Nair. I was flummoxed, how could a non-Bengali play Ashoke Ganguli so well? How did he get the accent and mannerisms so spot on that you didn’t even notice them? How did he play this character at these different ages and manage to be so convincing at each age? How did he convey a cornucopia of feelings with pinpoint accuracy with just one glance? What sorcery is this? I had never seen acting that was so technically perfect and yet subtle. Here was master craftsman, a true genius. And like all true geniuses, you cannot break down his Art. His work defies analysis, is something greater than the sum of its parts.
Irrfan is a truly international actor. When I was a young Indian actor at RADA all those years ago, he gave me hope—there was a way for someone like me to get work in the west. He balanced a career abroad as well as in India. But he did something even more difficult; he straddled the worlds of Indian art house cinema and mainstream Bollywood, and he did so with characteristic ease. He truly brought together people from all kinds of different tastes. He appealed to the critics and the masses. He appealed to the Godard fan as well as the Salman Khan fan. He is the one actor my father and I agree on.
Irrfan has had a profound impact on my work. I remember trying to channel him when I was shooting for Garbage by Q. I think one review said I gave the character a “wide eyed human touch” and I was like, that sounds like Irrfan!
Irrfan didn’t have to act. He could just be and your eye would still be drawn to him. I remember a scene in Talvar, by Meghna Gulzar in which he is playing a video game on his phone. And I remember thinking, I would watch him play games on his phone all day. Not too long ago he sent a text to another wonderful actor, my friend Tillotama Shome: “Swim, swim, float, fly, rest, irrespective of fucking material success or worldly acknowledgments.” I cannot believe he is gone. Legend is too small a word for him. Irrfan Khan, the actor’s actor. My favourite actor.
Tanmay Dhanania trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). He played Naseem Ali Khan in Indian Summers (2015) and Ajay in Brahman Naman (2016) which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, 2016 and went on to be India’s first Netflix Original. @tanmaydhanania