Which is Irrfan’s best role? The list is long and illustrious. Haasil over Maqbool any day, some will argue. Paan Singh Tomar, of course. The Namesake, perhaps? Qissa is a late-career gem. Don’t forget Piku.

Another movie would have featured in the debate – had it been released. In 2005, Irrfan headlined Aditya Bhattacharya’s Dubai Return, a droll comedy about a small-time Mumbai gangster who thinks he has hit the big league after carrying out a single hit. Irrfan’s attitude-oozing Aftaab Angrez decamps to Dubai, the preferred destination of the Mumbai hoodlum seeking to escape the law.

But unlike better-placed emigres to the land of sand, Aftab finds the going tough: he is a humble petrol pump operator. Sick of it all, he returns to the city by the sea after a decade to rekindle his gangland connections.

Dubai Return was premiered at the International Film Festival of India in 2005, and was all set for a theatrical run. For various reasons, it never quite managed to secure a release deal.

“I would love to release the film, it’s my great desire to do so,” producer Manya Patil Seth told Scroll.in. “One has been trying to release it over the years. There were technical and legal reasons why we could not release the film at the time, and those reasons still hold. One is trying to see how one can get around these issues.”

Those who managed to watch Dubai Return at the film festivals to which it travelled never quite forgot Irrfan’s masterful underplaying, the quirky characters, and the imaginative portrayal of Mumbai’s simultaneously treacherous and warm ways. Some fans are still reeling from Aftaab’s sparkling patterned shirts (which probably explains why he has dark shades on most of the time).

Vijay Maurya, Aditya Bhattacharya and Irrfan during the shoot of Dubai Return. Photo by Sourabh Kanti Datta.

Dubai Return is based on a story by Vinay Chaudhary and a screenplay by Bhattacharya, Rajesh Devraj and Ravi Deshpande. It was the first movie with Irrfan in the lead role, pointed out Bhattacharya, whose own debut feature was the acclaimed Aamir-Khan led Raakh in 1989. Irrfan had appeared in several television shows and minor roles in arthouse productions. In 2004, he got a leg up by playing a brooding Shakespearean gangster in Maqbool and a villain in Haasil.

Dubai Return imagined Irrfan quite differently. His revenant isn’t quite the “dangerous man” he thinks he is. Aftaab is very serious in his own head and a bit of a cartoon outside of it. Under Bhattacharya’s careful direction, Irrfan explores his talent for subtle comedy and self-deprecation. He effortlessly breathes life into a role that could easily have been a caricature.

There are other “losers with attitude” in the movie, the 57-year-old filmmaker told Scroll.in – the people who “have no chance in hell that anything is ever going to happen but wear shiny red shirts and sunglasses at night”.

Dubai Return sends up both the Bollywood gangster drama’s worship of tragic heroes and the Mumbai-set movie’s tendency to sell impossible dreams. Aftaab is in for a rude shock as he tries to re-establish himself. His boss Khilji (Razzak Khan) is languishing in a hospital, where he pines for Mumbai’s culinary delights.

Aftaab’s sidekick Nandu (Vijay Maurya) has gone straight so that he may endear himself to his girlfriend Vaishali (Divya Dutta), but quickly reverts to his older self when Aftaab reappears. Redemption, and love, are represented by an actress (played by Ritu Shivpuri).

Ritu Shivpuri and Irrfan in Dubai Return. Photo by Sourabh Kanti Datta.

The story begins, not coincidentally, in 1992, when Mumbai witnessed horrific communal riots after the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The lasting communal divide followed other far-reaching developments, including the gentrification of older neighbourhoods and the city’s transformation from a manufacturing centre into a finance and service-based economy.

Bombay became Mumbai in 1995 – a fact that some older residents have still not managed to process.

“I have lived in very liveable cities in other parts of the world, and Bombay has descended into being less and less liveable,” Bhattacharya said. “Yet, when I was abroad and in more sanitised and orderly places, the thing I would miss was that chutzpah, the Bombay repartee, the sense of humour that was your survival mantra against the fact that you actually had little or no future. So in a sense, the film is an affectionate love letter and a kind of time capsule.”

In the imagination of Dubai Return, the increasingly concrete jungle retains some space for strutting peacocks with their eyes fixed firmly on the hustle. Mumbai is a “city concerned with perception”, Bhattacharya observed. Like Aftaab, who wants to reclaim his place in gangster lore, the city is filled with people bent on holding on.

“There are people still living in the 1980s, in terms of the music and their hair and their clothes,” Bhattacharya said. “A kind of time warp is enshrined in some neighbourhoods. Aftaab too steadfastly refuses the present. Aki Narula’s costumes are effortlessly kitsch, in a very gentle way. If you freeze any frame and see what Aftaab is wearing, it is ridiculous, but it isn’t jarring, and is not a parody.”

Aditya Bhattacharya and Irrfan during the shoot of Dubai Return. Photo by Sourabh Kanti Datta.

Irrfan was crucial to carrying out the film’s conceit. “There is my arrogance as a filmmaker not to solicit easy laughter but rather a deep laughter that is really shakes your being, where you are never laughing at the character,” Bhattacharya said. “This required a certain finesse. Aftaab is walking a very thin line as he tries to get his life’s mien back and find his purpose. Irrfan’s performance is a master class in how to be effortless. Irrfan inhabited his characters, rather than merely playing them. Aftaab’s melancholy, the thing of, you don’t get how important this to me – this is something Irrfan had become.”

Dubai Return’s affection for its ne’-er-do-wells is spread across the cast. Among the actors to lose out on the film’s inability to procure a release was Razzak Khan, best known for playing madcaps and small-time thugs. In Dubai Return, Khan’s Khilji displays both deadpan comic timing as well as mock-serious dignity.

“If the film had been released, Razzak Khan would have been given a higher place in the industry, and people would have been forced to look at him in a different way,” Bhattacharya said. “I didn’t cast him because of any of his film roles, but because of his bearing. He had the carriage of a man who lives in a certain image of himself.”

Aditya Bhattacharya and Razzak Khan during the shoot of Dubai Return. Photo by Sourabh Kanti Datta.

Although the movie’s inability to be released deeply affected its crew and cast, Bhattacharya and Irrfan forged a strong friendship. When Irrfan was cast in the HBO television series In Treatment in 2010, he recruited Bhattacharya as his acting coach. Bhattacharya also has a few acting credits of his own, including Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Black Friday.

“He trusted me as a sparring partner, especially because he was playing a Bengali character,” Bhattachatrya recalled. “That cemented our bond.”

It’s not too late to get a streaming deal for the cult film that didn’t set out to be one. A comeback for Dubai Return could be a fitting tribute to a gifted actor who left too early.

“Irrfan got the tone right and stayed pitch perfect in the film” Bhattacharya said. “He had this imperfect way of delivering dialogue, like somebody is speaking rather than an actor doing the role. He brought an emotional itch with his whole being to the characters he played. One of the reasons people miss him is that there is a more visceral connect with him than with a movie star. The movie star doesn’t get under your skin the way Irrfan did.”

Dubai Return was “ahead of its time and will be perfect for streaming,” Manya Patil Seth added. “The film is a gem, and Irrfan is outstanding in it. The question is, how we can get our paperwork together.”

Irrfan in Dubai Return. Photo by Sourabh Kanti Datta.

Also read:

Irrfan (1967-2020): A powerhouse talent gone too soon

‘Raakh’ revisited: From the ashes of time, a cult movie starring Aamir Khan as a lone hitman

Irrfan biography: Behind the scenes of his acclaimed performance in Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Maqbool’