I was a journalist who had been on the job barely two years when my editor asked me to visit the sets of a TV series, Satya. Since I lived in distant Kalyan, the prospect of reaching Madh Island seemed as exciting as a picnic on a wet afternoon. I had to wait until the shoot was over, for the interactions. Irrfan Khan (then without the extra 'r' ) also seemed equally unhappy about being there (“I wish they bump me off ”) and we ended up chatting. As his career graph grew, we ran into each other at filmi dos and he'd always ask, “Abhi bhi udhar rehte ho, Kalyan mein?” I knew he was aware I'd moved into the city but it became a joke. The last time I met him was when he was doing promotions for Hindi Medium (the 2017 prequel to his last) and he still hadn't forgotten.
In 2018, when he tweeted about his neuro-endocrine tumour, I eagerly followed news of his treatment in the UK. When he returned to the thick of work, it felt like he had won the battle against the Big C, like some of his other Bollywood colleagues. But just four days after he lost his mother Saeeda Begum, he died of a colon infection at Mumbai's Kokilaben hospital on Wednesday morning.
Close friend, neighbour and national awardee filmmaker Sudhir Mishra admits to being at a loss for words. “We argued like crazy, swore and he'd think nothing about telling me off if he disagreed with something but we got along like a house on fire,” he said, pointing out how Khan also had a child-like sensibility about everything. “When battling cancer, he read so much and would talk about it with childlike wonder.” It was this sense of wonder, he says, that made Khan involved in the film as a whole, and not just his character. “I remember when he did Yeh Saali Zindagi, he told me how a scene was not working. I realised he made sense and changed it.”
This is reflected in the way Khan worked with Mira Nair when she approached him to play Ashoke opposite Tabu's Ashima in The Namesake. As a 20-year-old, Khan, still a student in the National School of Drama, had been selected for Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988). Along with Raghubir Yadav and the child actors, he did workshops for what he thought was a big break. Unfortunately, his role was cut short in the film. Yet, when she reached out to him 18 years, later he agreed to do The Namesake. “He simply dove into his role and began looking for layers and nuances without dwelling on the past,” Nair told this writer many years ago.
This no-baggage trait is what senior actor Kalpana Iyer and Banegi Apni Baat co-star too remembers. “Anyone else, with that kind of crazy struggle, would've been bitter and worn it like a badge. Not him. I was doing so many film shoots all over and often scooted off, leaving him waiting. But he graciously made space and understood. Sutapa (Khan's wife) had worked hard to see it worked like that. I remember his wide smile as he came on his bike, fully prepped.”
This formidable ability to get into character was what caught actor-activist Kunickaa Sadanand off-guard on the first day of shooting for the series Sparsh. “We were playing an estranged couple walking on the beach. He spoke so naturally, I felt he'd forgotten his cue and reminded him to start his lines. 'Maine toh shuru kar diya,' he smiled. I couldn't tell he was acting. Even on the sets, when he had to punch the wall in frustration for a scene, he actually hurt himself,” she recounts.
Out to distribute dry groceries to the homeless in the lockdown, Sadanand had heard of Irrfan being rushed to hospital on Tuesday. “I texted his wife to ask if she needed anything and she texted back asking me to only pray. And then I hear this. The industry has not only lost its most formidable talent but an exceptional human being.”
The exceptional human bit is also what struck national awardee filmmaker Onir. “He was polite and courteous to a fault, always reaching out to acknowledge me, though we weren't really close friends. This is what endeared him to everyone.”
Among them is his Satya co-star Varun Vardhaan. “I'm still struggling and his journey made him go international but he never changed,” says the man who once modelled for Kohinoor condoms. “Last year, I was walking to my car at Oshiwara when an SUV stopped a few feet ahead. Irrfan stepped out grinning, arms open for a hug. I hesitantly began, Irrfanji! and he stopped me with: 'Abbe yeh ji ji kya hai? Irrfan bol Irrfan!”
It is this very earnestness that filmmaking legend Shyam Benegal also remembers: “On the sets of Bharat Ek Khoj, he would not only got his lines pat but would read and research so much. In many ways, he was made in the mould of actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. He could at once be the common man and charm personified."
No wonder playback legend Lata Mangeshkar, superstars Kamal Hassan and Amitabh Bachchan (co-star from Piku), actor-activist Shabana Azmi, filmmaker-friends Shoojit Sircar (Piku) and Hansal Mehta, actors Tillotama Shome, Johnny Lever, Ajay Devgn, Raveena Tandon, Parineeti Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and others took to social media to condole Khan's demise.