Goodbye, Irrfan Khan: Reliving that Badrinath horror at a larger scale

Goodbye, Irrfan Khan: Reliving that Badrinath horror at a larger scale

I was on a conference call, in middle of a serious editorial discussion, when a friend forwarded me director Shoojit Sircar’s tweet. Next few seconds, I experienced tinnitus. The memories from the gone-by years flashed. Numbed, the experience seemed like a personal loss that I find difficult to articulate. The thought-trail was haphazard with no linearity.

Life in the 90s was a lot different. Waking up early on weekdays was a struggle, but our body clock was attuned to 6 am rises on Sundays. There began a series of children entertainment programmes that would keep us glued to our television sets. For me, it was also about watching Badrinath, the aiyyar (spies who could transform), from the popular soap Chandrakanta.

That’s when Irrfan Khan walked into my life. This was before the cricket bug bit me and our evening games revolved from He-Man to Ninja Turtles to Chandrakanta. Among my friend gang, I was Badrinath, the cool aiyyar, who could transform himself into any living being. Out of the many ambitions I harboured, aiyaari found a brief place. Encyclopaedias had little info about this fictitious art, and there was no Google then. Unable to learn the aiyyari sorcery, I found solace in illustrating and penning stories with me as the protagonist aiyyar.

I was in a phase when Tintin and Badrinath were my alter egos. I remember forcing an official at the Mumbai airport to tune-in to Chandrakanta before the boarding of our flight. Badrinath was on a critical mission. The final moments of the episode showed him failing in it. Then what followed was weeklong anxiety.

Badrinath failed in the mission. As vowed to his king, he killed himself. 

How would I replace the void? What would my evenings be like? 

The Krur Singhs and Shivdutts made little sense to me. I had no purpose of watching the show. Soon Somnath, the blonde twin of Badrinath would arrive, giving me a reason to remain loyal to the show.

But there was more to it. Irrfan lived in the vicinity. From the local tea shop to the grocery one, there would be those occasional meet-ups. Growing up in the Mumbai suburb of Goregaon East, the film industry nestled in our neighbourhood. Irrfan’s most significant Bengali connection was his wife, Sutapa. As I write this, the realisation dawns upon on how difficult it’s going to be to refer him in the past tense.

Durga Pujas would fall during our half-yearly’s, but that didn’t matter. While Kumar Sanu and other stars would enthral us during the cultural programmes, Irrfan would quietly make his presence among the audience. 

Shy, humble, reserved, my first memory of our interaction was at one of the Puja stalls where he was having a soft drink (or tea). The eight-year-old me dropped my jaws and uttered, ‘Badrinath!’ 

A warm smile that came with the chuckle, ‘Badrinath, eh?’ 

This stayed as a memory that can’t be erased. Those big beautiful eyes won’t let it happen.

Calendars changed, and with time, he worked on more projects. From soaps to cameos to sidekicks, his popularity only soared. I guess it was 2003 that made filmmakers believe that this man was made for a different league. The Haasils and Maqbools were good enough to give him the deserved recognition. 

In 2004, I again met him during Durga Pujas, but this time at Andheri’s Lokhandwala. In a white kurta, along with his family, he greeted everyone with the same warmth. For many kids around, few of them uttered, ‘Maqbool!’. 

This time, now into my late teens, I was the one smiling and chuckling.

One underrated aspect of Irrfan was brand endorsements. Like how Aamir Khan’s Coke campaigns created a permanent impression in one’s mind, Irrfan had his moments too. In fact, Irrfan’s ads would make me not change the channel.

Years before Vodafone wowed everyone with the Zoozoos, its predecessor Hutch, effectively used Irrfan’s monologues as a part of their campaigns. 

Years later, I didn’t mind those long breaks in multiplexes as long they showed the SYSKA LED ads.

Irrfan soon would become a global face. He was loved across the border too. Why would they miss encashing his brand presence?

From Slumdog to Life of Pi to Jurassic Park, Irrfan’s popularity wasn’t geography restricted. During my days in New Zealand (2008-10) when I finished convincing acquaintances that ‘No, in Mumbai we all don’t live in slums,’ I also had to address to several queries on what were the other great works of Irrfan Khan.

Irrfan’s acting is beyond my judgement. In the Khan-obsessed industry, Irrfan raised the benchmark for all the other Khans with his versatility and effortlessness. From his dialogue delivery to comic timing, Irrfan was about brilliance and joy. The big films like Madaari, Namesake, Paan Singh Tomar, Lunchbox, Haider, Piku, etc. were the Irrfan the audience expected.

Yes, he was a brilliant actor, one of India’s best. Personally, for me, he was about moments. For the classics, he was the engine but even recalling some of the lesser-remembered films (with him playing cameos), he remains the memories.

Remember Thomas from Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008)? The South Indian street-vendor had little dialogues and spoke more with eyes. He remains the lasting memory from this film.

Similarly, rewind to the Nasseruddin Shah-directed Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota (2006). The climax scene has Salim toppling the odds, looking at the world from his plush office in the World Trade Centre, NYC, when he spots a plane flying at a lower altitude. The plane nears as he keeps wondering with brilliantly-timed dialogues. 

Life in a… Metro (2007) was about music, drama and betrayal. Add the Irrfan-played socially inept Monty to it, and the film provides everlasting humorous moments.

Even for a multi-starrer cop flick like Aan: Men At Work (2004), Irrfan playing Yusuf Pathan (no cricket connection) stole moments.

Come to Priyadarshan’s retelling of Krishna-Sudama story, Billu (2009); he shared the screen with Shah Rukh Khan, someone he would go on to be friends with. In the frames they shared in the climax, many critics felt the Irrfan overpowered SRK and stole the show. 

His ability to squeeze out humour from irony and present them in structured dialogues made him stand out to me. 

Ageing creates insecurity among heroes or heroines. Irrfan wasn’t a cinema hero. I am sure; he didn’t consider himself one too. He was an actor. For an actor, 53 is an age where many further ripen or even begin to peak. Whereas the family has lost its sheen, the entertainment world which was already left poorer by COVID-19, is now bankrupt without him. The gap is too huge. We’ll hear that voice through videos and reels, but that’s it.

In March 2018, when he announced his condition, there seemed little hope. However, his comeback and positivity through social media posts assured me that this dude is too cool and immune to everything. Perhaps, as fans, we didn’t want to believe. And hence the personal loss stems from the denial. To many fans, he was relatable and a face amongst the crowd.

There was more. Somewhere, I connected to a lot of his thoughts. He questioned. He even questioned some practices in religions without being disrespectful. There were clarity and logic in what he spoke.

In a co-incidence-driven Bollywood world, it’s apt that the last film that released before the complete lockdown was Irrfan’s Angrezi Medium before everything came to a halt.

Back to the editorial call, when the thought-haze began to disperse, the voices on the call brought me to the now. I immediately broke the news to the team. There was a silence and then the media routine…

I had struggled to cope up with Badrinath. How would I replace the void? What would be my entertainment like?

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