BRITISH PAKISTANI ACTOR RECOUNTS MEMORABLE ROLES PORTRAYED BY IRRFAN KHAN
by AMIT ROY
IRRFAN KHAN, who has died from cancer, aged 53, in Mumbai on April 29, has received tributes from friends and colleagues all over the world, including one from British Pakistani actor, Alyy Khan, who had known and worked with him for 30 years.
The tributes confirmed Irrfan was more than just a “Bollywood star”. In the west, he was widely recognised as one of India’s best actors, possibly even the best.
From his home in Karachi, Alyy recounted the many memorable roles that Irrfan had done and which had won him a following in the west, both among film audiences, as well as directors and producers.
He referred to several films, among them The Warrior, directed by Asif Kapadia in 2001; The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair in 2006; A Mighty Heart, directed by Michael Winterbottom in 2007; Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle in 2008; Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee in 2012; and The Lunchbox, directed by Ritesh Batra in 2013.
Alyy and Irrfan worked together in A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s book of the same name, giving an account of the kidnapping and subsequent beheading of her husband, Daniel Pearl, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, in Karachi in 2002.
Alyy was cast as Omar Sheikh, the British Pakistani who masterminded the kidnapping of the American journalist, while Irrfan was the police officer – the “Captain” – who led the hunt to find the kidnapper and the kidnapped. Angelina Jolie played Mariane, while her then husband Brad Pitt was one of the producers.
Alyy said the interiors were shot in Pune and the exteriors in Karachi.
Ahmed Jamal, the London-based director of The Journalist and the Jihadi, an HBO documentary on the Daniel Pearl tragedy, said he helped the producers of A Mighty Heart with his research and was asked to do a small part himself in the feature film.
“I took them to see Maleeha Lodhi, who was the Pakistani ambassador in London,” said Jamal. “She wrote to President Musharraf who gave permission for filming in Pakistan.”
Alyy recalled the film’s premiere in Cannes: “That period was the start of Irrfan’s stardom and I remember his enthusiasm and excitement at being dressed by Armani for the grand premiere of A Mighty Heart in Cannes.”
Irrfan and Ally lined up on equal terms on the red carpet with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Mariane Pearl was also there and was photographed with Jolie, who had played her.
“But I had known Irrfan as far back as 1992-93 in Bombay when we were young actors trying to make our way – we were in a Zee TV drama series called Banegi Apni Baat,” recalled Alyy.
“Then we were in a crime series called Bombay Blue (a 1997 British television series directed by Roger Tucker).
“In 2001, we came to a film festival in London, Irrfan with The Warrior and me with Govind Nihalani’s Deham.”
The Warrior, which won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at Bafta in London, was the UK’s official entry at the Oscars, but had to be pulled out because the Academy would not accept a movie in Hindi. In any case, the dialogue was sparse. It has been suggested the success of The Warrior persuaded Irrfan he had a career in acting after all, when he was going through a period of self-doubt and was tiring of TV work.
Alyy said: “Many of the people in A Mighty Heart, including Irrfan, were cast in Life of Pi.”
Alyy said he was impressed with Irrfan’s Bengali accent in The Namesake, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, in which he played Ashoke Ganguli, with Tabu cast as his wife, Ashima.
“I attribute this to the influence of his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, who is Bengali – I have heard Irrfan speak in Bengali. As an actor, he was quite wonderful.”
In 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire – Irrfan’s role was that of a not entirely corrupt cop in Mumbai – swept the Academy Awards with eight Oscars, he went on stage with Danny Boyle, Anil Kapoor, AR Raman, Freida Pinto, Dev Patel and the rest of the crew, including the children from Mumbai. It was a memorable night for India.
Alyy, who is currently filming a TV series called The Serpent, on the life of the serial killer Charles Sobhraj, said: “We were filming in Thailand, but have been sent back home. At a time like this, this sad news is the last thing we wanted. After struggles with his health in the last two years, we thought he had got over it.”
He talked of the influence on Irrfan’s career of The Lunchbox, which premiered in Cannes in 2013, and also starred Nawazuddin Siddiqui. “Irrfan was always a versatile actor, but this gave him international recognition and prominence.”
At Cannes, still the most important film festival in the world, The Lunchbox made an immediate impact. A group of cinema enthusiasts gave it a prize called the Rails d’Or.
The award is not given by a Cannes jury, but by a group of cinema enthusiasts. They are members of the association Ceux du Rail (railway workers), who attend La Semaine de la Critique screenings at the invitation of the Festival de Cannes and award the Rails d’Or for the best feature film. Therefore, the prize is not a freelance initiative, either.
A typical review in Screen International, by Fionnuala Halligan, said: “A wistful, elegant love story played out across the streets of Mumbai, The Lunchbox, is a charmer from first-time filmmaker Ritesh Batra…. Batra has worked hard to earn viewers’ goodwill, and he manages to hold on to it until the final frame.”
Nawazuddin, who was praised for his role, as was Irrfan, said at the time the film had been snapped up for distribution in the UK and the US. Sony Pictures Classics announced it had acquired all North American rights to The Lunchbox, which proved to be one of the biggest hits from India and helped to established Irrfan as an actor with a global reputation.