I met Irrfan Khan for a few minutes at the Lalit Hotel many years ago. He stood unnoticed, in black, a smile lighting up his face as I offered a handshake. “I am a journalist in Delhi and I am a huge fan of yours,” I managed to mumble. His handshake was firm. “Mai bhi aapka fan hoon (I am also a fan of yours),” he replied. “But I don’t write on films,” I mumbled again. “Phir bhi aapka fan hoon (I still am a fan of yours),” he said, winning my heart.

He wished me well as his friend arrived to take him away. I never met him in person again but have grabbed every opportunity to see his movies whenever he has adorned the screen. Irrfan was an actor for all generations with heart-winning performances.

Film critic Shubhra Gupta’s tribute to Irrfan brings alive the man who is not in our midst, but well-entrenched in our hearts. Irrfan was a giant of Indian cinema who came across as the man next door. And Shubhra presents you Irrfan as no one else has. The book tells you what Irrfan was to Indian cinema.

Complete Actor

Shubhra has chosen a delightful way to re-live Irrfan. She has evoked emotions from people who mattered in his life, friends from the industry and outside to present a study of the magnificent actor that Irrfan was.

“He was as complete an actor as is possible for a human, I think. To be able to get into the skin of another person, and to be believable while at it, is one of the toughest feats, and he pulled it off in so many memorable roles,” says Shubhra, describing Irrfan perfectly.

Irrfan, A Life In Movies, published by Pan Macmillan, is a well researched book divided thoughtfully in four parts of conversations, as Shubhra tells us, with “family, friends, co-stars and collaborators in the film industry, and people who had known him closely. For someone who met Irrfan just once, that too on a set, Shubhra does a splendid job of portraying the man who played the highest number of diverse roles for an Indian actor.

“I think his ability to be a chameleon was fascinating. It was his secret mantra to be able to become one with the character he was playing, to be able to pour himself completely into another person and blur the outlines,” notes Shubhra, known for her meticulous writing when reviewing films.

The Details

Part I of the book has Sutapa Sikdar (wife), Shailja Kejriwal (pioneer in entertainment industry), Rajat Kapoor (actor, playwright and director), Shyam Benegal, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vishal Bhardwaj, Pooja Bhatt and Naseeruddin Shah sharing their insights on Irfan.

Part II of the book features Mira Nair, Sooni Taraporevala, Anurag Basu, Konkona Sen Sharma, Kaushik Roy, Priyadarshan, Sudhir Mishra, Anup Singh, Rasika Dugal, Tillotama Shome and Nikkhil Advani who all bring out some little known aspects of Irrfan’s versatile personality.

Part III brings us some superb conversations with Ritesh Batra, Shoojit Sircar, Sanjay Gupta, Meghna Gulzar, Sakey Chaudhary, Pankaj Tripathi, Tanuja Chandra and Homi Adajania.

Part IV is the concluding section where Shubhra speaks with Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Cameron Bailey, Sunil Doshi and Santosh Desai, each doing justice to their association with Irrfan. “I still feel that Irrfan is alive,” says Doshi, an independent filmmaker. “Irrfan was an actor for the thinking class,” he says succinctly.

Director’s Delight

Shubhra’s influential skills lie in the fact that she gets a variety of experts to share their personal anecdotes and views of one of the finest actors in modern Indian cinema. Irrfan just slipped into the roles that came his way and was a director’s delight. Says Shubhra, “Irrfan gave us unalloyed joy, the kind only a true performer can. In his best roles, you could not see Irrfan. What you got instead was the character, full bodied, believable, built with the exquisite awareness of the self and the other.”

That is the Irrfan she wants us to know. The Irfan who added an `r’ to his name and dropped his surname. The Irrfan who began with small parts in television, state-run Doordarshan to be precise, and grew into one of the most famous graduates of the National School of Drama.

Few books on Indian cinema have projected an actor with research as impeccable as Shubhra’s Irrfan. At the end of it, one wanted Shubhra to pick one role/character that was close to her heart.

“That’s a really tough question because I have not just one but several performances that I like immensely. But if I had to choose, I would say he surpassed himself in both The Namesake and Paan Singh Tomar.”

For those in sports journalism who had known and written about Paan Singh Tomar, the character came alive, thanks to Irrfan. “He played the role perfectly,” a veteran athletics writer had commented. That then was the ultimate acknowledgement of Irrfan’s acting prowess.

(Vijay Lokapally is a senior journalist and author)

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About the Book

Title: Irrfan: A Life in Movies

Author: Shubhra Gupta

Publisher: Pan Macmillan India

Price: ₹589

Pages: 384 pages