Our first interaction was over his namesake. I was working for a film weekly at the time and, one day, he surprised me with a call on the office landline. ‘We have never met, I saw your name in the paper and decided to reach out,’ he offered by way of introduction, going on to inform me that a man by the name of Irfan Khan had been arrested in a drug bust. ‘Obviously, it’s not me, but since the news was reported, I have been bombarded with calls. Can you help me set the record straight?’ he requested.
I knew him from the television soap Banegi Apni Baat, and though we had never met, I assured him that I would put out the news. But I was quick to add that the paper came out only once a week so there were still a couple of days to go before the next edition hits the stands. ‘Can you wait?’ I asked, uncertainly. He said he would and rang off. I kept my word. A few years later, in 2012, Irfan changed his name; he added an extra ‘r’ to Irfan. Then, for a while, he dropped the Khan. At one point, he even wanted to drop Irrfan and become nameless.
I remember asking him during Kabir Khan’s New York (2009) if he had ever been singled out for any kind of embarrassment because his name is Khan. By then Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) had arrived, and he was an international star. The query was random, perhaps triggered by the fact that the film delved on the prejudices perpetuated by the 9/11 attacks. I had expected Irrfan to laugh it off, but he surprised me by admitting that he had been stopped by immigration twice, in Los Angeles and in New York, in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
He recalled being asked for his passport, then, taken to a room at the airport and detained for hours, questioned along with several other ‘illegals’ while the officers did a verification check. No calls were permitted, to his legal counsel or even the chauffeur who was waiting outside. He was not even allowed to speak for himself. Perhaps it was yet another case of mistaken identity, but it left him feeling angry, humiliated and vulnerable. By then, he had dropped his surname from film credits, but had to retain it in his passport.
When you are working with a monthly magazine or even a weekly newspaper, life is more relaxed and so are you. But once you get caught up in the hurry-scurry of a daily newspaper, life is all about deadlines. Just before Hindi Medium (2017), as I waited in his living room for Irrfan to emerge, I fretted and fumed as the minutes ponderously ticked by, before giving myself up to the serenity of my surroundings and the beauty of Rabindra Sangeet that ebbed and flowed around me. By the time he took the chair opposite me, my anger had melted. ‘I had forgotten these songs, they took me back to my childhood,’ I admitted, and with a mischievous twinkle, he quipped that he had that in mind, so he had dug them out that morning. ‘Nothing like Tagore to calm a restless Bengali mind,’ he guffawed.
There was a Bong in Irrfan too. His friend and Life in a… Metro (2007) director, Anurag Basu, who had conceived Irrfan’s character in the film initially as a Bengali by the name of Debu, even done the first photo shoot with him dressed as a Bengali bridegroom in a dhoti and a topor, agreed. Even after Anurag changed his name to Monty, so he could chase after Konkana Sen Sharma’s Shruti on a dulhe ka ghoda, Irrfan continued to exhibit some distinct Bengali mannerisms.
‘Every year, his wife Sutapa comes to the Saraswati puja I organize in my housing society, and whenever he was in the country, Irrfan accompanied her. He loved the khichdi bhog (an offering to God) and the live music that played at the mandap all day. He was particularly drawn to the bauls (Bengali folk singers). He loved the music of the soil and would sometimes forward me a song, which had struck a chord with him or call to discuss it,’ recounted Anurag, remembering his friend as a mystical minstrel, always in search of the meaning of life, which he sometimes found in a film, in a song or in a snatch of poetry.
One of his fondest memories is of flying kites with Irrfan while filming Life in a… Metro, despite them being on a strict deadline. ‘His portions were rushed through in just eleven days, yet we managed to steal an afternoon. I asked him one day, “Patang udayega?” and he immediately agreed, arriving the next day with kites and latai in his car,’ Anurag reminisced, admitting that while Konkana grew impatient and his cinematographer fretted over the fading light, they were like two little boys playing truant, yet managing to wrap up the day’s scenes in the stipulated time.
Flying kites and playing gully cricket was a throwback to Irrfan’s growing-up days in Rajasthan. A world he had left behind, much to his mother’s disappointment, for the world of make-believe that had long fascinated him. He once recounted how he would queue up with the other kids in a narrow, dusty lane that ended at a small janla [window]. ‘We climbed on each other’s backs to reach the window, would push our hand through the narrow opening and wait expectantly with bated breath. If, when you pulled the hand out, there was a movie ticket clasped in the palm, it was an achievement. It took a lot of dhakkas and mukkas, bruises and scratches, to get into a darkened movie theatre those days,’ he reminisced with the carefree laugh of a too tall, too skinny boy no one then had expected to light up the screen one day.
Excerpted with permission from Matinee Men – A Journey Through Bollywood, Roshmila Bhattacharya, Rupa Publications.