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Look at what Irrfan Khan once did

Tom Hanks calls his eyes 'mesmerising'. Danny Boyle is a fan. Spielberg has already cast him. Bollywood can't get enough already. In one decade, Irrfan Khan has made a stunning leap from background roles to lead characters with depth and intrigue. Here is a chronicle of this fascinating actor during his time on the national network.

Shriram Iyengar

Stella Adler, the great acting teacher, said of actors 'It is their choices that define them'. Of that, Irrfan Khan can have no qualms. The actor has made some fascinating choices throughout his career that has placed him right in the middle of a perennial purple spot. Having conquered Bollywood, completely, he has now moved on to foreign shores. Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, Spielberg and Spiderman have now become enamoured with the charm of this actor. Yet, it is his initial foray into films - shorts and telefilms - that display Irrfan at his rawest and natural form. 

Before his breakthrough arrived with Tigmanshu Dhulia's noirish 'Haasil', Irrfan Khan was just another graduate from Delhi's NSD working his way through the grime of Mumbai's film city. Along the way, he found companions who shared this journey, with all its strife and uncertainty. The 90s was an exciting time for television. Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Sudhir Mishra and Saeed Mirza were still shaping the beginnings of a massive industry that would supersede the film industry in the next decade. Irrfan Khan, Pavan Malhotra, Makarand Deshpande, Raghuvir Yadav were some of the many actors traversing the limbo between films and struggles during this era. Irrfan found himself straddling shifts and hourly pays for small roles. Many of these 'Chandrakanta', 'Banegi Apni Baat' and 'Swabhimaan' would shape not only the future of the actor but also that of Indian television. It is natural that any analysis of his acting originates from these very scenes.

'Chandrakanta' was one of the most fantastic television serials that hit national television in India in the 90s. Directed by Nirja Guleri, the series was based on a fantasy novel set in an ancient kingdom. Irrfan Khan played the villainous twins, Badrinath/Somnath. In a series that was as ludicrous as it was fantastic, Irrfan's hilarious turn is a pointer of his acumen. As the blubbering twin Somnath, Irrfan channels the comic timing that is impeccable. For those who tire of watching him deliver intense sequences, this serial should come as a refreshing take on another dimension of skill that hasn't been explored enough in films.

Another wonderful series that he participated in was 'Kirdaar' a collection of short television series by Gulzar. It is a magical collection of short films based on popular stories by writers like Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Premchand, Samaresh Basu among others. In a combination that would spell a certain parallel cinema hit today, Gulzar directed Irrfan Khan, Om Puri, Pavan Malhotra and Saurabh Shukla through several episodes in the series. The combination of Irrfan and Om Puri shows up in at least two episodes in drastically different lights. In one episode 'Hisaab Kitaab', he plays the carefree, paint loving son of a manipulative and scheming Om Puri. In the minute long screen time that he shares with the veteran actor, Irrfan displays the same easy and natural poise that defines his acting today. In another wonderful short, 'Khuda Haafiz' Irrfan again shares screen space with Om Puri as they play two individuals taking refuge in a garbage bin during a riot. The tension and the tete-a-tete between the two protagonists are scintillating. The younger actor holds his own against the veteran, which is no mean task.


In the late 90s, as television slowly grew into privatised segments, Irrfan found new projects to further his creativity. Having worked in hit series like 'Banegi Apni Baat' and 'Swabhimaan', he joined an old friend, Tigmanshu Dhulia, on 'Star Bestsellers'. It would be a return to the one-act play style that he perfected in NSD. But after a while, even this grew exhausting for the ambitions within him. He was all set to pack his bags and return to Jaipur, but Dhulia wouldn't let him. "We'll get you a national award, stay," he said. Prophetic words, those! Tigmanshu would soon launch Irrfan's breakthrough in Bollywood, 'Haasil'. The terrifying menace and sharp eyes of Irrfan left audiences captivated. Since then, his graph has expanded to such a  degree that Indian television can no longer accommodate a star of his size.

Irrfan Khan has repeatedly mentioned his time on Indian television as a very stagnating period in his acting career. Since arriving on the big screen, he has spurned several offers to return to the television. When he did, he appeared as the host or a narrator, nothing that could be argued as a challenge to his skill. But in these teleserials, we receive a glimpse of the unshaped acting raw material that would evolve to be one of the most accomplished actors in Indian cinema today. It provides a rare vision past the curtain of star dust that often falls on the footsteps of a rising star.