Within the span of five minutes, I saw all my desi friends and family’s social media feed inundated with one news only: the passing of world-renowned actor Irrfan Khan who was especially known for his work in Hindi cinema. Whilst doing a mindless cleaning of my room, a friend of mine had messaged to inform me of his death, and I promptly messaged my family group chat, my dance group chat, and my other friends whom I knew would be affected. I felt their collective shock and sorrow and saw it take over Instagram stories and my phone messages. In a year like 2020, we had one more thing to mourn – the passing of Irrfan Khan, the legend. His last movie was Angrezi Medium, which released just over a month ago, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theatrical release had been cut short and it was released on streaming platforms.
Circa 2008, my white friends in my classes starting singing Jai Ho whenever they saw any remotely Indian looking person pass them by in the halls. The world responded with an Academy Award bestowed to the incredibly talented A.R. Rahman. It was also the first time in my life that I saw my white friends acknowledge that there were stories beyond the white default which were worth paying attention to. One such actor in that film, Irrfan Khan, had blended in so nicely and effortlessly that it had bothered me somehow that my white friends were just beginning to acknowledge Indian talent. I had known of him for ages, or as any 12- or 13-year-old would have at that time from The Namesake or Life in A…Metro.
Soon after, Irrfan Khan, rightfully so, appeared in more high-profile Hollywood films, such as The Amazing Spider-Man, Jurassic World, etc. He had already worked with revered directors and actors in films such as New York, I Love You, and Inferno, but he was now entering whatever is known as the “mainstream.” While I was definitely overjoyed and grateful to see a veteran actor such as Irrfan Khan grace the screens among other well-known Hollywood actors, I felt a little weird about it. Us desis had already known about his charm, his naturalistic acting style, and his deeply unassuming personality for years. His turn in the 2013 film The Lunchbox brought him further well-deserved critical acclaim and global attention, and yet the success never seemed to inflate his sense of self – it only further rooted and cemented him into his craft. When he entered the screen, you could never take your eyes off of him. He was never considered to be a conventionally looking ‘lead’ actor nor did he ever pursue himself as one. He was never over-the-top either. He would simply become a character in front of your eyes, sometimes so silently and subtly, that you would never stop to think whether it was believable. He was magnetic.
What a strange year this has been. In the span of four months, our entire way of living has changed. The way we communicate with one another has evolved. The way we look at the world has transformed. And while my heart is hurting for the loss of a deeply empathetic and committed actor whose every word or movement could move us to tears or shake us with laughter, or at times both, it has made one thing extremely clear – the incredibly important role of arts in our community, specifically in the South Asian community.
As an aspiring writer and creative, I am often plagued with voices of self-doubt ingrained in me from my upbringing in a society that values stability, hard work, and money. I am always reminded of how risky or unimportant my passion is for storytelling. How my time should be spent pursuing a more important field such as medicine, law, or engineering. But from this past couple of weeks in self-isolation, I have seen how people gravitate towards movies, books, poetry, painting, sculpting, etc. as forms of expression. While the Whatsapp chains have been the nesting ground for misinformation, it has also been the source of videos and clips being shared by uncles, aunties, Dadas, Dadis, parents, siblings, and friends of a new artist singing a new song or of an artwork that had gone viral. Sharing art has been a way for me to keep in touch with my friends and family – it has connected us to one another while we are so far apart.
I guess I felt a little weird back then because I had not learned to embrace my own passion for writing because the people surrounding me in my community had not as well. At least not overtly. Seeing a non-desi community be so taken with Irrfan Khan made me feel betrayed by my own. Just a little. The magic of Irrfan Khan was not like that of a quintessential Bollywood hero. It was of his own commitment, love, and passion for his craft and for his art, and it radiated off-screen into our hearts.
RIP sir. You changed the world by simply being yourself and by believing in your art. My only hope is that the Desi writers, actors, directors, costume designers, or anyone in the creative space sees your journey, and get inspired to live their own.
I’ve never looked to create an image where people fall in love with my face or style. It does cross my mind. But I’ve been trying to create a space for myself where I don’t depend on that.-Irrfan Khan