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It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since Irrfan died. The tributes didn’t make it any easier to comprehend even as they offered up more and more superlatives: the best actor, the most famous Indian actor of all time. Despite the celebration of his achievements and his international success, his death at an early age and what he still had to offer brought a widespread sadness.
I met Irrfan in his early days as an actor in the 1990s and was in touch with him occasionally though not during his final illness. Like everyone else, I thought that he would get better.
Aseem Chhabra wrote Irrfan’s biography, Irrfan Khan: The Man, the Dreamer the Star, which was published – and reviewed – just before the actor’s death. In addition to writing about the films, the book has interviews with those who worked with him. Although Chhabra spoke to Irrfan, he didn’t interview him in depth, given the actor’s ill health during the writing. However, this is compensated by the insights of a senior film journalist into the wider context of the actor’s life and his work in India and overseas.
This new book, Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind by Anup Singh, takes a completely different approach, being the director’s insights into his personal interactions with the actor in the two films they worked on together – Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost and The Song of Scorpions.
Singh, whose talks about films I heard talk in SOAS and at festivals, writes about the sensitive relationship between the director and his actor, from persuading him to take difficult roles to working on creating the character through language, dress and performance. Singh also reflects on their personal interactions, often over drinks and the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and how their friendship grew as they worked together.
There is little of Singh himself and how he found his experiences of working in India beyond getting Irrfan to agree to take on these very dark roles and their day-to-day experience of working together. The focus of the book is entirely, appropriately, on Irrfan, with asides about the other great talents from Tillotama Shome to Waheeda Rehman.
The discussions with Irrfan are recorded as direct speech as if Anup quotes the exact words spoken between the two of them, redolent almost of film dialogues. Anup doesn’t retell Irrfan’s life story but focuses on his life at the time of making the films, how he performed in front of the camera and how he relaxed off duty.
This is where the book moves to a new level. Many critics go no further than calling Irrfan a genius, saying he ‘acts with his eyes’ and is ‘intense’. What does this mean? Here we are given some insights into how the actor produced his performances, not how he learnt them at the National School of Drama or from studying other actors at work on the sets and on screen, but descriptions of him at work with the director, the other actors and the team. It is a close up of the actor, rather than the long shots of how others saw him and worked with him, ‘…his ability to let go of all habitual aspects of himself, not affirm any self…’
The director works with Irrfan on the characters and the scenes as the actor develops the body language and ways of styling the clothes of the characters he plays. Irrfan was never conventionally handsome but he had a presence and a grace which made him attractive to the camera and the audience. Anup shows the ways in which Irrfan immersed himself in the characters and his understanding of them, so that even a word or gesture could reveal an inner life.
Language plays an important role in the book, not just in the translations of Irrfan’s speech which was always in Hindi-Urdu, but his work on Punjabi pronunciation, and understanding of the nuances of dialogues. The text of the book includes song lyrics and poetry, quoted and original, along with discussions on music adding to the understanding of the structure on which performances rest.
Anup Singh brings out the Sufi influences on Irrfan beyond his love for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music, how poetry and spirituality guided him as his life journey reached the end. There is a vivid description of cranes circling overhead in the Rajasthan desert while Irrfan flies a kite among them. This image condenses the book’s examination of Irrfan’s inner and outer life on and off screen, emphasising his physicality and, though his body fails him, showing how he achieves his desire to break free and soar in the sky, a kite among the birds.
Rachel Dwyer is professor emerita of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.