The first glimpses I caught of Irrfan were from "New York, I Love You", in a segment directed by the brilliant Mira Nair. I guess that is poetic, because she is often credited with discovering Irrfan. In the segment, Irrfan is cast as an Indian diamond merchant (Mansukhbhai) who shares a mystical affection with his client, a Hasidic woman (Rifka) played by Natalie Portman. It's a beautiful segment that makes the viewer wish it was much longer. The gist of the segment is that Mansukhbhai and Rifka are embedded in two distinctly different communities, at clashing junctures of life. Rifka is about to get married to her fiance while Mansukhbhai has a wife, who has left him and their kids to become a Jain nun. They recognize their predicament, made strange and special by the affection and love they have for each other - the kind that happens when you've known a person over a long time on fond, yet non-intimate terms. In this conundrum, they acknowledge their bittersweet reality. They sigh, they smile, and indulge in vivid imaginations of being wed to each other. They deliver a moment of clarity.
For me, this is what Irrfan's cinema has always been about - moments of clarity and truth. First, a confession, I've not yet covered some of his earlier cinematography, the more gutsy, relatively less popular, independent work - the likes of Maqbool or Qissa. Heck, I have not yet seen The Namesake or Salaam Bombay, despite my love for Mira Nair's work. It is a quaint thing I do - save good cinema for later - sort of like saving the last piece of a delicious cake, for fear of running out of novel experiences, once I've indulged in them. I digress.
Even if one were to consider Irrfan's most recent set of films, the ones that brought him mainstream attention and multiplex popularity, they're peppered with moments of realization, honesty, and beauty - of truth and clarity. I'm talking about Piku, Qarib Qarib Single, Karwaan, Haider, The Lunchbox, the works. In all these films, whether they center on Irrfan's characters or use him as a support, he seemed to become a window - into life, its questions and answers. In Piku, he was a curious man, inquisitive, pushing Piku to question her moralities. In Karwaan and Qarib Qarib Single, he was wise and redemptive, he knew life, catalyzing the narrative. In The Lunchbox, Irrfan became the one that is pushed, catalyzed, and ultimately, redeemed.
When you look at Irrfan in these films, with an objective eye, you tend to notice that he was not a very dramatic actor, the kind we're used to in the traditional sense. His transformations were subtle and restrained. They seemed to linger on him, simmering under the surface, as if to indicate a deeper resonance and metamorphosis. Maybe, this was a diligent element of his craft - of letting the viewer in. Maybe, it was an organic blend of Irrfan, the actor and Irrfan, the person - in his quest for life's riddles and solutions. Which is partly evidenced in my Twitter timeline, which, after his passing, has been flooded with people remembering him, for his humanity and his depth as a person more than his depth as an actor.
This is perhaps why his characters felt more lived in, which also had the unintentional side effect of camouflaging the actor in the movie. As the audience, we noticed less of the actor and more of the character's experience. We were drawn in, forgetting the pretenses of cinema and participating in the narrative. We became the actor, he became us.
That brings us to this moment in history where we've lost Irrfan, but it also feels like a loss of direction, for cinema. The last time I quite felt the same way was when we lost Roger Ebert, who was not only a great purveyor of cinema but also an involved teacher, handholding his readers through the ways of the art form, and in effect, humanity itself.
For when we lose an actor like Irrfan, who will show us the movies? And in them, who will show us life?