For those who aspire to excellence, Naseeruddin Shah has long set the benchmark in Indian cinema. Over the past decade however many of us were left spellbound by the acting of a modern master, Irrfan Khan. From his breakthrough movie “The Warrior” (2001) to seeing his spine chilling portrayal of Maqbool in Vishal Bhardwaj’s movie by the same name (2004) to seeing him light up the screen with his portrayal of a Delhi businessman in “Hindi Medium” (2017), many of us idolised this uniquely Indian actor who could command a hefty pay cheque in Bollywood as well as Hollywood. In this piece the great Naseeruddin Shah pays tribute to the now departed hero.
Three things from Mr Shah’s eulogy to Irrfan stand out:
  1. An understanding that we are all playing an infinite game“When I meet actors who move to Mumbai and say, ‘I’m going to try for two years and if it does not work out, I’ll go home”, I tell them they should go back and not waste these two years. In two years, nothing is going to happen. Irrfan didn’t give himself any such deadline. He knew that this was his life’s vocation. He decided to do whatever it took to stay afloat. He barely stayed afloat for many years until films like The Warrior (2001) came along. That itself should be an inspiration for young actors who are not getting immediate recognition.
Death, I have always believed, is the most unimportant part of life. It doesn’t matter how and when you die. What matters is what you have done with your life. Irrfan did a great deal with his life.”
  1. Obsess about excellence without caring for adulation: “Everyone knows about Irrfan’s work and it will survive forever. Without a doubt, he’ll be remembered as one the finest actors of this country. When you watched him act, you felt as if you could read his mind. He never made an effort to reach you. This is a strange paradox about Irrfan as an actor. An actor always makes efforts to reach out to his audience. Irrfan knew the audience would reach out to him. People who have known him only through his work have felt a personal connect with him. That’s the most precious thing an actor can do for an audience. A lot of actors can impress, awe or amuse the audience. Irrfan had the ability to enter into your veins and make you feel he is yours. That’s why this outpouring of grief over a person so many people didn’t know but who they realised is a gem. It shows extreme mastery of his craft and a confidence in his abilities. That’s why he achieved what he did. The intelligence that shone through in his acting is a rare quality. It gave a peculiar charisma to his performances. He reminded me of those Buddhist monks who draw intricate patterns out of coloured powder over days that requires absolute concentration. After they have made it, they just wipe it away. It does not matter if someone has seen it. What’s of consequence is that they gave their best to create that. Watching Irrfan act reminded me of these people. He never spoke of his own performances or boasted about his work. He just quietly did it.”
  2. Appreciate excellence, celebrate it and let it inspire you: “I got to know him better during Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003). The film went through various permutations of casting. Then some light of inspiration struck Vishal. He decided on Irrfan in the titular role. For Irrfan, Maqbool was the beginning of his recognition in India. He was in his early 30s then, acting alongside Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur and me, but he held his own. When I used to watch him act, I used to think of Mozart and (Antonio) Salieri. Salieri used to tell God “Why am I the patron saint of mediocrity? Is this fellow’s random scribbling superior to my hours and hours of labour in composing music?” I must say that when I watched Irrfan, that’s how I used to feel. I wished that when I was his age, I had been that good. I really admired him in an unqualified manner. I don’t think there is another actor I admired as much as I admired Irrfan. But that was not just because of his acting. He was also a gentle, affectionate and generous man. I treasure the moments I shared with him. I consider myself fortunate to be among those who witnessed Irrfan’s ascent.”

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