What made Irrfan Khan the conjurer on screen

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 16 May 2020

In hindsight, you can say that what Irrfan became as an actor, and especially as a person, had a lot to do with the friends he made in the industry, people who shaped his life and career.

Earlier, this year, Rupa Publications published Aseem Chhabra’s book – Irrfan Khan – The Man, The Dreamer, The Star.  Irrfan’s life in Jaipur, his years at National School of Drama, his thirst for learning, growing and breaking into new territories has been documented expansively. Irrfan, who passed away last month, was aware of the book, but he didn’t give any interviews to Chhabra.

The US-based journalist and author began working on it in late spring of 2018 and then Irrfan was out of the country, getting treatment for neuroendocrine tumour. He wrote a long email to Irrfan, explaining about the book, and the actor called from London saying, ‘ Mujhe pata nahi yeh kaisi kitab hogi .’ He declined to be interviewed for it saying, ‘I am not in the right space just now.’ However, he recommended a few people to Chhabra, whom he should talk for the interview.

Despite no full-fledged interview with the late actor, you find his reassuring, charming presence throughout the book, with his friends, colleagues sharing countless memories of the man who conjured magic on and off screen… Here’s more from Chhabra…

You had met and interacted with Irrfan when his films released in Hollywood. Did those first impressions carry through when you started working on Irrfan Khan – The Man, The Dreamer, The Star?

Quite true. I always had a sense that Irrfan was a shy, but a very likable person, approachable and warm. That is how I felt when I interacted with him a few times —  that he was a genuine, humble person, and really friendly. And that is the man who emerges in the book.

Did it help that you observed his work in the West, saw first hand how it was received? Did it give you a different perspective while you were researching for the book?

It definitely helped. I was able to see some of his works that were not shown in India – the HBO series In Treatment and the 2018 indie film Puzzle. But otherwise too, I was able to see his work from a different perspective – of an Indian living in the US. Much of my work as a journalist and later while I wrote the books on Shashi Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and now Irrfan, were viewed from the point of view of an NRI living in the US.

Mira Nair, Naseeruddin Shah have mentioned how Irrfan prepared for scenes, the shift in his mood in the book. You have also quoted his friends and contemporaries from NSD and Hindi film industry. Would it all have been very different if Irrfan had forged different relations?

People do not set out to make friends thinking how it will impact their lives. But in hindsight, you can say that what Irrfan became as an actor, and especially as a person, had a lot to do with the friends he made in the industry, people who shaped his life and career. Mahesh Bhatt was one of the early contacts Irrfan made and that friendship shaped how he survived in the film industry until he got to act in The Namesake .

Can a biographer/author profess to understand his subject? What is your understanding of Irrfan, the actor and the man?

I obviously did not know Irrfan as well as his family members and close friends, but I spent two years, thinking about Irrfan, reading everything that was written about him, talking to people who knew him well and watching many of his films. That clearly gave me a sense of what kind of a person he was – shy but hard working, eager to work in challenging roles, looking for new territories as an actor, since he would get bored easily. And he always remained humble.

Did you also revisit some of his films while working on the book? Did you learn something new about his characters, films?

Oh yes, I watched and revisited many of his films before I started writing the book – The Warrior, Haasil, Maqbool, The Namesake, The Lunchbox, Piku, Paan Singh Tomar, Slumdog Millionaire, A Mighty Heart, Life of Pi, Life in a Metro and many others. And I watched these films especially with the idea of observing Irrfan as an actor. And in most cases, I felt I was watching the films for the first time, since my focus was different. A lot of my observations about how Irrfan performed in his key films came from revisiting all of these films.

Did Irrfan manage to go through/read the book? Did he or his family have any feedback for you?

I don’t know the answer to that. A month after the book came out, I had a back surgery. And the word was that Irrfan wasn’t doing well. And then the lockdown happened. He was obviously aware of the book and so was his wife. But I don’t know if they had a chance to read it.

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