Aseem Chhabra introduces you to the Irrfan you never knew.
IMAGE: Irrfan Khan with his wife Sutapa Sikdar. Photograph: PTI
When I set out to write Irrfan Khan’s biography, I already knew he was one of the finest Indian actors. I had also spent a lot of time understanding his performances in his key films.
But there were little facts about Irrfan that I did not know and I learned while talking to his friends and colleagues.
Here is a list of five things I did not know about Irrfan when I set out to write Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star.
1. Irrfan was shy.
Irrfan was a shy person.
When he came to the National School of Drama, he realised that his classmates came from bigger cities, and were exposed to different ideas, books and films.
But he did not give up.
Instead, he made great efforts to overcome his shyness and his lack of knowledge.
Tigmanshu Dhulia, Irrfan’s friend from the NSD days, said this to me when I interviewed him for Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star: “I have seen Irrfan’s growth over the years. He had come from Jaipur where he didn’t have a lot of exposure to philosophy and ideas. But by watching, observing, reading and discovering world cinema, he grew rather fast. I have many friends, but in Irrfan, that development is remarkable.”
2. Irrfan would get bored easily
Irrfan was restless and would get bored easily.
He was always looking for challenges wanting to change the course of his career and how he was perceived by the film industry and his fans. He did not want to take the safe route of doing similar kind of films.
Through the 1990s he worked on television shows which sustained him financially, but he was dissatisfied with the work, repeating his performance day after day.
It was not until he acted in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001) that he appreciated the value of being in a film and getting a chance to grow into his character.
His friend and business partner Shailja Kejriwal (producer of Madari, 2016, and Qarib Qarib Singlle, 2017) said this when I interviewed her for the book: “Irrfan is a person who is always saying ‘Kuch aur karte hain.’ I think he has such a fertile mind that he just feels, ‘Oh I have not done this, so let me break that barrier for myself’.”
“He doesn’t want to be a person who is resting on his laurels. He could be saying, ‘Now I have a Hollywood film, so let me do it.’ But he is always looking to do something new for himself.”
3. Irrfan always looked at the larger picture
As an actor, Irrfan worked very hard to give his best in front of the camera, processing what the director had told him about his character.
But he also thought about the larger picture — the film overall and how the supporting actors around him were performing. It was never just about him.
“I was impressed by Irrfan,” Director Govind Nihalani told me. “As an actor, he engaged his co-actor.”
Govind added that some actors — especially those performing for the stage — had the habit of not looking at other actors. Rather, they would look in other directions.
“Irrfan was not like that.”
4. Irrfan loved to fly kites
As a child, he was once trying to cut the string of another kite when he fell from the roof of his house.
He broke his arm, but the family ignored his injury. Through his adult life, he lived with the embarrassment of having a slightly deformed arm.
But his greatest joy was being outdoors and flying kites.
That is what his director friend Anup Singh realised when he directed the actor in two films — Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013) and The Song of Scorpions (2017).
The entire shoot of The Song of Scorpions was held in the Thar desert in Rajasthan and sometimes during the shoot Anup would notice that Irrfan would be missing.
But he had to only look at the sky.
If there was a kite flying, he would know Irrfan was at that location holding the string.
5. Irrfan wanted to be a cricket player
As a kid and teenager, Irrfan wanted to become a cricketer.
He shifted his attention to acting when he realised that his cricket skills were not that great. But he always enjoyed a game even as an adult.
For his Bangladeshi project No Bed of Roses (2017), Irrfan spent 35 days in Dhaka.
Whenever there was a break after the shoot, Irrfan would join the cast and crew for a game of cricket.
His director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki said Irrfan was an all rounder, but he hated losing the game.
“He would be like a child,” Mostofa said to me as he laughed. “And then he cheated in the game. He doesn’t like to be out, so he would come up with excuses, saying, ‘Oh no, this is a& no-ball’.”