How Irrfan Khan’s craft brought finesse to his portrayals of mortality on screen

How Irrfan Khan’s craft brought finesse to his portrayals of mortality on screen

He brought love, regret and beauty to the subtlest lines and looks, from The Lunchbox to The Namesake.

By Anand Vardhan

Published on :

It comes as a regret about not seeing the ones who finally mattered to you more than you did see. You can’t do it anymore, you fell short of the most you could do before their final disappearance.

Some 50 minutes into The Lunchbox (2014), Saajan Fernandes, played by Irrfan Khan, remembers his dead wife. In ways that sometimes go unnoticed, Irrfan’s narration of it is one of the key moments of the film. With a voice weighed down by the debris of memory and growing regret, Irrfan talks about watching old TV shows recorded by his wife and how he could have just watched with her, or joined her moments of joy, while she laughed at jokes on screen.

“I found old TV shows that my wife used to record. My wife used to love them. I don’t know why today I wanted to see them,” Saajan says. “I watched them for hours. And finally after staying up all night, I realised what it was that I was looking for. Every Sunday when she watched the shows, I was outside repairing my bicycle or smoking, and I would glance through the window just for a second. I would see her reflection on the TV screen, laughing at the same jokes over and over, each time as if she was hearing it for the very first time. I wished I had kept on looking back then.”

Irrfan infuses these simple lines with a sense of loss that’s marked by late realisation, the yearning for reclaiming missed opportunities in lived moments. It’s a part of portraying mortality on the screen — something in which Irrfan’s craft was among the best that cinema had to offer. Sketching the contours of mortality on screen isn’t always about scenes of actual death, but also about what precedes and follows the ultimate departure for the people around.

If the Kafkasque maxim says that the only meaning of life is that it ends, the remarkable thing to see is how it affects everyone around.

Consider how Irrfan lends a measured degree of reflection to another aspect of loss in this brief moment in Life of Pi (2012). As the mature Pi remembers his dead father, he is filled with regret for not having one little conversation during his father’s last moments. That’s especially important for reticent Indians who, despite having close parental bonds, are mostly restrained in expressing it. In Pi’s case, the reasons were probably situational.

“I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye. I was never able to thank my father for all I learnt from him, without which I wouldn’t have survived,” Pi says.

Without having such a sense of thankful closure, the memories of loved but departed ones always brings sadness tinged with regret too. Irrfan’s rendering and enacting of these lines towards the final few moments of the film is one of the most important points of his presence in Life of Pi.

Coming back to Lunchbox, the manner in which Irrfan’s Saajan engages with mortality isn’t always obvious. However, audiences can find it in some subtexts, particularly in his broodings in the short letters he writes. Sometimes it’s couched in banality, almost flippant. At one point, he draws parallels between his lifelong struggles while travelling in trains and buses, standing and somehow resigned to the fate of getting a vertical burial plot after death too. His wife had got a horizontal one.

While treating himself to the rare luxury of travelling in an auto rickshaw, he identifies the hospital in which he was born and in which his parents and wife died. However, at another point in the film, there is a more subtle consciousness of advancing age and the untold, but approaching, mortality that Irrfan conveys with minimalist acting and plenty of finesse.

This is a scene where he explains why he grew hesitant and decided not to meet the young married woman he was corresponding with through lunchbox chits. Even with a different narrative, it’s a moment that is in some ways similar to the final scene in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978), based on Ruskin Bond’s novel Flight of Pigeons. In Junoon, Javed Khan (played by Shashi Kapoor) actually goes away after hearing his name — and subtle show of love — for the first time from a young girl he was desperate to be with.

He was perhaps terrified by the possibilities, and maybe sensing the injustice that the cherished moment would bring for the person one is supposedly in love with. However, the untold current is the advancing age and the proximity it has to the final disappearance of all that’s around.

In The Lunchbox, in stealing glances at the woman waiting for him in the restaurant, Irrfan subtly emotes a blend of stoic resignation with a type of despair that accompanies abrupt ends. For him, the moment of truth was when, as he put it, he entered the bathroom and could smell his long-lost grandfather. With restrained body movements and measured narration, Irrfan provides the gravitas that the scene needed. In the hands of lesser actors, particularly the stars, the scene could have been another episode of misdirected histrionics.

The creeping in of mortality can also be seen in some scenes in Namesake (2006). Irrfan plays Ashoke Ganguli, a middle-aged man who seems to have learnt to prioritise duty as a higher form of emotion than the mushy sentimentality that is somehow still tucked somewhere within him. That he dies is only incidental to the plot of the film but how he understates the realisation of approaching mortality in some of the subtle conversations — particularly a phone call — is remarkable.

Another important point is what he tells his son, Gogol, after forgetting to bring a camera when they went to a beach. Irrfan brings effortless poise in telling his son, “We just have to remember it then...Remember that you and I made the journey and went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go." The restrained craft that Irrfan brings in delivering the line can’t be surpassed by most.

As someone who spoke regularly in interviews about the transitory nature of life and the world — and who reflected on its uncertainties in the aftermath of the disease he was struggling with — Irrfan had a sense of the only certainty that makes everything irrelevant. The portrayal of mortality in his craft perhaps glowed from this deeper realisation: it wasn’t lost in the banal coverings that sometimes delude people.