On April 29, the world woke up to the tragic news of the passing of legendary Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan at the all-too-early age of 53. When he faced the threat of death, he said, “I was, I am and I will remain.”
Irrfan is one of the few celebrities who have been adored beyond borders, ethnicities and languages. He worked in Bollywood, Hollywood and would have worked in a Pakistani movie written by Mohammed Hanif had relations between India and Pakistan not worsened after the Mumbai attacks. In 2011, he received the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India.
Irrfan Khan has been applauded for his realistic acting but more than this prowess, he had the gift of making characters familiar. When you see Saajan Fernandes of Lunchbox, you think of your dutiful widowed uncle, eating bland food in his office’s cafeteria. The Yogi from Qarib Qarib Single looks like your friend, who loves a little too intensely and a little too often. One of his most critically acclaimed performances was in The Namesake, an adaption of the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. It is perhaps one of the few instances of the movie being better than the book, and the credit mostly goes to the impeccable acting of Irrfan Khan and Tabu. One of my favourite moments is when Ashoke asks his son Gogol to remember the moment they shared.
Irrfan had a penchant for unconventional roles. “The day I become conventional something inside me will die,” he once said. He was famous for one-liners delivered with crisp expressions and timing. His interviews and letters reveal him to be a man of words. In a letter he wrote to share his illness with fans, he summed up the uncertainty of life: “The suddenness made me realise how you are just a cork floating in the ocean with unpredictable currents! And you are desperately trying to control it.”
In the same letter he expressed gratitude towards life despite the uncertainty: “A realisation that the cork doesn’t need to control the current. That you are being gently rocked in the cradle of nature.”
Last year Irrfan had written about his journey and ended the note with a quote from Rilke: “I feel an urge to share with you something. I live my life in widening rings which spread over earth and sky. I may not ever complete the last one, but that is what I will try. I circle around God’s primordial tower, and I circle ten thousand years long; And I still don’t know if I’m a falcon, a storm, or an unfinished song.”
In times of a pandemic, when we have forgotten the ways to celebrate grief and joy, I borrow some words from Akhtar Hussain Jafri to express the helplessness to adequately remember Irrfan:
Tujhey kis phool ka kafan hum dain
Tu juda aesay mosamon mein hua
Jab darakhton kay haath khali thay
Which flower we should give to you for a shroud
You left in such seasons
When the hands of trees were empty
The writer has a BA in Economics from LUMS and is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at the Central European University. @Jasirshahbaz