The Loneliest Man in the World

Watching Irrfan Khan over the years

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty has written for The Guardian, The New Yorker
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A man is calling home from the phone booth of a hospital. He is in the emergency room, but doesn’t want to scare his wife, so he tells her that he has a stomach problem, nothing more. The wife blames herself for not being there with him. He smiles and presses one hand against the glass partition of the booth. “Really, it’s not that bad,” he says. She asks him about the doctor. He pauses before answering. If not for the pause, you’d never suspect that something else is at stake. Now you understand that the man is lying: “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” His hands are fumbling inside the booth for what he can’t bring himself to say.

Since Irrfan Khan died in 2020, I have returned often to this moment from The Namesake. Something about the man’s tact—part of what Khan once called the “rhythm” of every character he plays—has remained with me for months: something about those hands. Khan’s career was in many ways studded with tragic roles—a doomed lover in Maqbool, a stubborn outlaw in Paan Singh Tomar, a hands-on billionaire pursuing a dinosaur from a helicopter in Jurassic World—and yet I keep replaying the one death scene where his character doesn’t let the audience know what is about to come. The man persuades his wife that he is alright before putting back the receiver. Then he withdraws his hands into his pockets and walks away from us.

There was Khan fifteen years ago, just when his film career was starting to take off, somehow able to embody the sense of an ending. He would come to repeat the performance, this time for real, once he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. In a span of two weeks, his calendar changed: his life, as he wrote then, quickly became “a suspense story.” He moved with his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, to London for treatment. But a year later, he was back in India, shooting a film, looking happy on set. For a while, as in that scene in The Namesake, his demeanour seemed to betray nothing untoward. After his death, Sikdar revealed that his medical reports “were like scripts which I wanted to perfect.” In his last months, while coming to terms with his illness, Khan was sparing his future biographers any qualms about pacing.

Actors’ lives do tend to mirror the imagined arcs of their movies, but Khan’s trajectory seems ultimately more redemptive than the elusive men he portrayed. To those of us who grew up in India at the turn of the millennium, Khan first proved that it was possible to be a protagonist in a popular film and not sing and dance in the rain; that a character could be brought to life as much by what they said as what they didn’t; that a scene you watched unfold swiftly on screen often involved years of contemplation and restraint. When Khan took up roles in international releases like The Namesake and A Mighty Heart, he didn’t undergo much of a makeover. He was still the outsider, born to middle-class Muslim parents in Jaipur. He seemed worlds apart from the prancing heroes of Bollywood musicals, the handful of families who maintained an incestuous grip over the studio system in Bombay, or the older generation of cosmopolitan Indian actors who spoke Edwardian English and contented themselves with supporting roles in British period films. In just over a decade, he became a presence on screens all over the world, with appearances in The Warrior, The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire, Haider, Life of Pi, Jurassic World, even a sizeable part in The Inferno, where he outshone a glib Tom Hanks in scene after scene.

***

The first time I noticed Khan on a screen I thought he screamed like Al Pacino. Not the Pacino of Scarface or Dog Day Afternoon, braying out threats all over the place, but rather the don in The Godfather Part III: older, lonelier, the bravado all but invisible, howling skyward when his daughter dies in his arms. The scene I watched Khan in, from Life in a Metro, didn’t feature any deaths, but the moment I remember was inflected with a similar sadness—a need, paradoxically private, to exert one’s lungs out. Khan’s character, Monty, has dragged his work friend Shruti (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) out to the rooftop of their office building in Bombay. Shruti happens to be dealing with multiple disappointments in her life. Her sister’s marriage is falling apart; the last man she dated lied to her about his identity. “Who are you angry with?” Monty asks her. “Somebody in particular? Or just your luck? Whatever it is, just let it out.” At first, Shruti is reluctant—“It’s not so easy,” she tells him—but then the two of them scan the skyline for a moment and start shouting together at once. Their voices ring out in the quiet. The building is tall enough to drown out the city’s sounds and impose a simulated silence. When Shruti breaks down halfway through, you sense that she is facing up to her pain. But Monty’s yelling is tinged with the weariness of having tried a trick one too many times and still being doomed to try again.

From that moment on, you know that Monty and Shruti will fall for each other. The scene on the roof crackles with the thrill of seeing and being seen, the vulnerability usually associated with a first kiss. Later in the film, Monty asks her why she ghosted him after that first date. She replies that she’d caught him staring at her breasts once. “That?” Monty bursts out shouting. “You rejected me for just that?” Then he grins and steals a glance at her body again. Khan’s eyes carry that scene. You can’t really tell whether they seem glazed over because of the smoke from his cigarette, or because he is pretending to be upset.

I fell quickly for Khan: those pauses, those eyes. How they made you think there was more to him than he let on. As a teenager, I’d spend days watching the Godfather movies on a loop, mouthing Pacino’s lines, memorizing his gestures to try on friends. Now I modelled myself on an Indian counterpart who didn’t even need a good line to be noticed. When I moved to Bombay for college, I remember walking around the sea on my first evening and finding myself at the exact spot where they had filmed Monty confronting Shruti about her rejection of him. It felt like a meaningful sign in a city that seemed to desperately believe in portents. Everywhere you went, you could glimpse in people’s faces either a placid certainty or a fear of transformation. Inside crowded trains during office hours, unsure if the incoming rush will part for me to get down at my stop, I’d overhear lonely men consoling one another with their plans of getting married and rich. Couples lined the promenades and beaches late at night, their backs turned to the bright lights on land, as if their time together made more sense in the dark. Each time you passed by the studio lots, rows of would-be actors sized you up around the gates, in case you were a casting agent looking to give someone new a break.

I, too, had come looking for a break. But what was it that I wanted to do? One week I’d design a billboard campaign for an ice cream brand, aspiring to end up in an ad agency. The next week I was a documentary filmmaker, getting arrested while shooting undercover in a temple. I longed for the exhaustion of experience: perhaps a job where, at the end of the day, someone might invite me to the rooftop of the office building and let me yell my feelings out. Khan’s antics exuded depth, an air of having seen and lived through so much—precisely the image a college student, hungry for life, yearns to project.

Once, I asked a woman to meet me early in the morning near the waterfront. The idea was to find a quiet place and, I remember texting this, shout “our inner demons out.” It must have been a confusing message and yet she showed up more or less on time. We sat on two chairs overlooking the beach and risked stern glances from morning joggers to awkwardly launch our voices across the sea. The sun was already blazing on our backs and soon we gave up trying to impress one another. We started going out not long after, but never spoke of that day again.

***

Irrfan Khan was born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan at a time, long ago now, when Indian Muslims were perceived as Indian above all. His father was a lapsed aristocrat who had given up his family land and privileges but still liked to go on frequent hunting trips. His mother was more introverted and usually at home. Little Irfan, the second of four children and the first boy, would have liked nothing more than to be affirmed by her. “I desired to be close to her,” Khan once said in an interview, “but somehow we’d end up fighting with each other. I used to imagine her patting my head in approval—I think I’ve been looking for that feeling all my life.”

His mother imagined that her children would settle not far from her in Jaipur, taking up modest jobs that just about paid the bills. Years ago, her brother had travelled to Bombay, looking for work, and never returned. Her husband’s early death only added to her fear of abandonment. Irrfan was nineteen then, and as the oldest son, expected to look after his father’s tire shop. But his hopes had been stirred up watching leading men in Hindi matinees: a grandiose Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur, a raffish Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa. Someone told Khan that he looked like Chakraborty: tall, dark, un-photogenic. He began to style his hair like the hero. After high school, he joined evening theatre classes in a local college and even witnessed a couple of Bollywood shoots in town. He wrote to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, bluffing in his application about plays he hadn’t acted in. They offered him a scholarship and Irrfan moved out of the house.

In Delhi, Khan nearly got his big break. The director Mira Nair had come to campus looking for actors to cast in her debut film, Salaam Bombay. One day, she noticed Khan in a classroom. “He wasn’t striving,” Nair later recalled watching him act. “His striving was invisible. He was in it.” She cast him in the main role and Khan went to Bombay in the middle of the semester to train with the crew. But after two months of rehearsals, Nair decided that Khan didn’t look the part. In the final film, Khan appears for a grand total of two minutes, as a letter writer who dupes the child protagonist. In life, however, it was Khan who might have felt deceived: he had travelled all the way to a new city, thinking he had bagged the role, only to end up on the train back to Delhi before the shoot. His first role, as he would say later, also “became my first setback.”

Nair took another twenty years to cast him again in The Namesake. That Khan would rough it out for so long should not come as a surprise, for actors remain dispensable in Bollywood, unless they become box office gold or belong to insider families. Squint at the backdrop of a scene in any Hindi film and you will spot a good actor—good, in spite of their measly roles. “Talent is insignificant,” James Baldwin once wrote. “I know a lot of talented ruins.” Thirty years ago in Bombay, around the production offices in the western precincts, you were likely to find just as many untalented plinths. There was the shirtless scion of a famous scriptwriter who showed off his abs in every other scene (and keeps doing so these days opposite women thirty years younger than him). There was the son of a powerful producer who became the country’s most bankable director by having his romantic leads tussle it out on a basketball court—then a rarity in India—and heralded the industry’s turn away from rural audiences to richer, albeit equally conservative, Indian expatriates. Then there was the middle-aged director who liked to appear in medias res in all his movies. He would pop up halfway through a song or a scene, staring at the camera from under a sun hat, just so you didn’t forget you were watching his film.  

Khan tried his best to find an opening in this milieu. He was told, for instance, that the showman director in a sun hat had seen Khan act somewhere and was apparently considering him for a part. He spent the next few months waiting in vain for the director to call. Casting agents would glance at his portfolio and chide him for taking on diverse roles. He was told not to fiddle with his looks and angle for essentially the same character in every film. He survived those years doing television gigs, daytime soap operas where the action happened once in real time and then again—twice—in slo-mo, so that viewers could follow what was going on with their eyes closed. What was an actor’s actor doing in that world? Producers would tell Khan off on those sets for pausing between his lines. Cinematographers wanted him to look at the camera while talking.

He met Sikdar, a screenwriter, in drama school, and by the end of the millennium, they were married and had a son. Sikdar even brought him aboard a couple of shows where she was employed as a writer, but Khan didn’t land a leading role throughout the ’90s. One time he was so desperate for work that when someone pointed to a TV tower on a hill and joked that Khan might get a job there, he actually trekked up the mountain.

I know that tower on a hill: it was the landscape of my childhood. My mother worked as an engineer for India’s public broadcaster. Every few years she’d be transferred to a different TV station across the country, which meant that we had to move from one housing campus near a TV tower to another. At the same time Khan was struggling to find his bearings in soap operas, my mother was helping beam those episodes into homes week after week. Later, when he talked about these shows in interviews, I’d recognize their names, but have no memory of their protagonists or storylines, never mind any flashback of Khan stumbling through a scene. What I do remember is the tedium, the eternal blandness of those afternoons and evenings when a cricket game spread over five days would seem like the least onerous thing to watch. Cable channels had arrived some years ago with the opening up of the economy, but their content was still lacklustre: turgid comedies, lachrymose adaptations of Hindu myths, stale reruns of Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful. On weekdays, kids had just an hour of Disney cartoons—mostly DuckTales and TaleSpin—while on Saturdays, they could skip school to catch up with a preachy local superhero moonlighting as a buffoon in glasses.

Looking back on his lost decades, Khan felt that his biggest challenge was remaining interested in his craft: “I had to come up with ways to keep my inspiration going.” The first time he got paid for a role after moving to Bombay, he bought a VHS player, apparently to avoid getting “bored of my own profession.” The Indian viewer in those days was just as bored. I remember making do with little: listening to songs from forthcoming films, then watching the video sequences of the same songs on TV, so that by the time we caught the movie in a theatre, we’d get our money’s worth whistling and crooning when the songs came on.

The world opened up, at least for my generation, with the prevalence of CD and DVD burner drives on computers that freed us from the tyranny of television and the next Friday release. By the time I was eleven, I was hanging out at a friend’s house every afternoon just to copy out discs from his older brother’s collection of MP3s. Vendors on the street would sell bootlegged prints of everything from Rashomon to Home Alone to Deep Throat, and soon enough, grainy camera recordings of the newest movie in theatres, for the exact price of a balcony seat.

***

I remember watching a pirated print of The Warrior, the film Khan credits with reviving his career. The scenes were gorgeously rendered: Khan, long-haired and lanky, brandishing a sword in a forlorn expanse of sun and sand. Then later, with his hair cut, looking both lost and determined as he treks his way through cascading woods in the Himalayan hills. Khan didn’t need to puff up his arms or chest to play the part of an enforcer to a medieval warlord. His eyes gleam with menace when he goes plundering across villages on horseback, and afterwards with trauma, when he is forced to watch his little son being executed in an open field. Silences suffice in this world of mythical beauty and carnage. Feelings are conveyed with the slightest of frowns and hand movements; everyone speaks in hushed tones despite the bloodshed.

When the director Asif Kapadia—who later made the Oscar-winning documentary Amy on the singer Amy Winehouse—first auditioned Khan, he thought he looked like “someone who’s killed a lot of people, but feels really bad about it.” Kapadia had discerned something essential about Khan’s appearance in any movie: the story of a film often played out on his face.    

The Warrior was never released in Indian theatres. (US rights were bought by Miramax, where it became another film that Harvey Weinstein shelved for years.) But a couple of new directors noted Khan’s ability to evoke menace and cast him in two films that gave him a footing in Bombay: Haasil and Maqbool. His characters in both films have killed a lot of people, but it is in Maqbool, where he plays the lead again, that you get to see how he feels about it. There is a moment when Maqbool is staring at the corpse of his best friend, having himself ordered the hit, and he imagines that the dead man has opened his eyes again. Maqbool falls tumbling backward in shock. Apparently on set, Khan was so persuasive while doing the scene that his co-actor Naseeruddin Shah thought he had really lost his balance and held out his arms to support him. Shah had been one of Khan’s idols in drama school, and there he was, taken in by the latter’s performance. “You’re bloody good,” he told Khan.

By the time I saw a pirated print of The Warrior, Khan had impressed many others with his breakout roles. He stood out in The Namesake as the withdrawn father. Wes Anderson wrote a part in The Darjeeling Limited just for him. He was cast as a cop in both A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. In India, Life in a Metro showed that Khan need not always play the brooding murderer. He even appeared in a TV ad that became very popular because of its setup: sixty seconds of Khan just impishly chatting up the viewer from a screen.

Those were indulgent days. Bollywood was finally catering to the country’s craving for realism. Filmmakers could hope to break even by releasing a movie only to select audiences in cities, which meant that they could steer clear of big studios and song-and-dance routines, and instead cast new actors as leads.

In Bombay, a decade ago, I often had the sensation that we were making up for lost time: all those hours squandered in childhood when we were deprived of things to watch. I lived at the YMCA with a roommate who was glued to his laptop all day and night, watching something or the other. D. had a couple of 500 GB hard drives, stacked with torrent downloads of the latest Japanese anime series, episodes of every American TV show aired in the last thirty years, and an unbelievable archive of international movies grouped in alphabetical order by their directors’ last names. He would be at his desk early mornings, sipping tea, his eyes blazing red from the memory of the show or movies he had stayed up all night to watch. On weekends he’d head out to a friend’s place in the suburbs, to replenish his stock of content. The diligence with which he’d finish a series in the span of a day, or go looking for a director’s deep cut: I never thought of him as a passive binger. To D., watching was work.

Khan, too, was putting in the work. In Bollywood, this often involved playing to the gallery, for as he once admitted in an interview, “You don’t need nuance here as an actor. Attitude is enough.” He disliked repeating himself. If he was asked to do eight takes for a scene, he’d do them in eight different ways, letting the director figure out the rest. Even with subtler roles, Khan didn’t believe that an actor could always become the character and trusted his imagination more than research. Before playing an Indian-American man in The Namesake, for instance, Khan had never travelled to the US. He understood that getting the clothes and the accent right could go only so far in conveying the inward rift of an immigrant. He fell back on his memory, recalling a previous trip to Canada where he had noticed some dour-looking immigrant workers in shops. “Something stayed in my mind,” he told TIME magazine in 2010. “A strange sadness…A rhythm that middle-aged people have.” In The Warrior, he didn’t quite believe the scene where his character watches his son being killed. He approached the moment by telling himself that the experience of shooting a film was like life, and “sometimes you have to live a life because you have no choice.” My favourite Khan anecdote is from the set of 7 Khoon Maaf, where he was cast as the third of the seven husbands of the protagonist Susanna, played by Priyanka Chopra. Khan couldn’t relate to his role: a “wife beater” Urdu poet. The poet was just supposed to be persistent with his abuse, so that the audience could empathize with Susanna when she killed him. While getting ready for his scenes, Khan happened to be listening to a random ghazal by the singer Abida Parveen. “All of a sudden,” he told Kapadia later, “that ghazal created a whole world around me.” The song helped him delve into the inner life of the poet, find a pattern to his behaviour. He was able to transform himself within moments.

On talk shows, Khan would often recount the story of inviting his mother to the premiere of The Namesake in Bombay. After the screening, she apparently asked Khan to introduce her to the director, Mira Nair. “Let me talk to her,” his mother told him. “I want to ask her why, of all the people in the world, she had my son killed off in the film?” His mother was joking, of course, but something about the recurring deaths of his characters can seem, at first glance, manipulative. The scripts that came his way seemed to repeatedly indulge the fantasy of his eventual disappearance. But death is also the script everyone wants to perfect: it is the endpoint of “striving”—the word Nair used to contrast the experience of watching Khan act in drama school—and if you dig deep into many of Khan’s roles, you’ll find a striver, a man relentlessly searching for something. Whether he is projecting nonchalance (Maqbool), pain (The Warrior), or disdain (Slumdog Millionaire), signs of hustling are always evident. In Life in a Metro, Monty is even striving to find a wife. Towards the end of the film, Monty encourages Shruti to move on from her bad relationships and try dating someone new. “Take your chance, baby,” he tells her. You almost feel that it is Khan talking, counselling the viewer to keep looking for all there is to find.

***

What was Khan really striving toward? He seldom gave any straight answers. In public he offered zen disquisitions about the mystery of life. Hours after his death, a scene from Life of Pi, in which he delivers a heartfelt monologue about “letting go,” went viral. He went back and forth on his name, adding an extra r to “Irfan,” dropping the “Khan” because “I should be known for what I do, not for my background or caste or religion.” In Bombay, he refused the trappings of a star despite his American fame. He lived on Madh Island, a ferry ride away from the studio lots and the inland neighbourhoods where celebrities usually splurged on landmark mansions and apartments. The distance was partly self-imposed: he never got over his disdain for messianic Bollywood heroes. For all his cameo parts in franchise movies abroad, Khan first tasted blockbuster success in India with Hindi Medium, which was released just three years before his death. He didn’t seem to mind being typecast in big Hollywood projects, turning up invariably as the “international man.” But he turned down roles in The Martian and Interstellar when their production dates clashed with smaller projects. And there was that unforgettable photograph of him looking sullen when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Oscars, while the rest of the crew are smiling and exulting around him.

Both In Treatment and The Lunchbox make good use of this enigma: the way Khan couldn’t help but look slightly disaffected everywhere. “He’s got the loneliest face I’ve ever seen,” Paul, a therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, says of Khan’s character, Sunil, in one episode of In Treatment. And indeed, Sunil is alone, even though he lives in Brooklyn with Arun and Julia, his son and daughter-in-law, six months after his wife passed away in Calcutta. Every few episodes, Sunil sits in Paul’s office and grudgingly reveals his woes—how his wife had in her last moments made sure that Sunil would move in with their son overseas, how he can’t stand the fact that Julia gives him a weekly allowance and monitors his time with the grandkids, how she goes around calling his son Aaron, how he is absolutely certain that she is having an affair. There is something bleak about Sunil’s obsession with Julia: his eyes visibly light up when he describes the way she talks, the visions he has of “smothering” her when he hears her laugh. The showrunners keep circling back to the creepiness of Sunil’s fixation, but they miss the fact that this revulsion gives him a reason to wake up every morning in a new country. Just for a while, he can forget that his wife of thirty years has died. The deeper rift is between Sunil and Arun; Julia is just a proxy for the repressed feelings. The son has travelled too far, too soon, and the father can’t keep up.

The distance between Sunil and Arun is precisely the one Khan covered in his lifetime: from Jaipur to Jurassic Park; from the rooftop of an office building in Bombay to a therapist’s couch in New York; from playing a melancholy gangster in Maqbool to swishing in and out of boardrooms as Simon Masrani in Jurassic World. Together his roles encompass the story of South Asian globalization in the last three decades: these are men whose lives look nothing like their fathers’. For all their striving and ambition, their private lives are stunted. They don’t quite know how to be well-rounded in a rapidly changing world. The journalist Aseem Chhabra writes in his book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star that Khan was squeamish about doing sex scenes. Perhaps this is why so many of his characters are literally learning to love. In Paan Singh Tomar, he has to teach his wife how to kiss. In Road to Ladakh, where he plays a fugitive on the run, a lover must demonstrate the correct way to lock lips. “I don’t suppose you watch too many movies,” she teases him in bed. “We watch movies to learn these things.”

In The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes neither cooks nor watches movies. He is a widower, with no children, no friends. He plans to retire from his job soon and move out of Bombay. Years ago, when his wife was alive, she used to record her favourite TV sitcoms on tapes, so that she could return to them on weekends and laugh at the same jokes again. Now he stays up at night watching those old tapes, smoking on his porch, counting the hours until morning when he can go back to work. (Saajan is what Monty in Life in a Metro might have become if he had never met Shruti. Sunil, from In Treatment, can also look forward to a similar existence once he is deported back to India.) After a lunch delivery service misplaces their orders, Saajan starts exchanging letters with a youngish housewife, Ila. He tells her about his past, how he keeps forgetting things because he has “no one to tell them to”; she shares her darkest impulses of sometimes wanting to jump from her apartment window upstairs. They decide to meet and run away together to Bhutan. They arrive at the same café for their first date, and he sees her waiting alone at a table. But he can’t bring himself to walk up to her and reveal his face. He sits at another table and watches her scanning the door for his arrival. He fears that he is too old for romance.

 ***                            

Saajan may have missed his chance with Ila, but Khan’s performance in the movie was universally acclaimed. The Lunchbox won an important award at Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution in the US where it did good business during Oscar week. The reviews in the American press were all so gushing that I couldn’t help but slightly wonder about the applause. Why were people in New York and Los Angeles connecting so much to this portrait of a loneliness I associated with Bombay? After all, not too long ago, Slumdog Millionaire, a lacklustre musical even by Bollywood’s standards, had been championed at the Academy Awards. But my doubts mostly stemmed from an immigrant’s anxiety about their new home, for by then I was a graduate student in the Midwest. From the moment I first landed at O’Hare Airport, I was conscious of being mistaken for someone else, someone who fitted a perceived notion of being Indian. “Creative writing, really?” The immigration officer who stamped my passport did a double take while scanning my I-20 form, no doubt more accustomed to incoming Indian students enrolled in engineering and life sciences courses. My landlord in Iowa City picked me up from the nearby airport and seemed surprised that I spoke “good English.”

It was in Iowa City that I first saw The Lunchbox, in a narrow one-room theatre at the Ped Mall. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had been screened earlier in the afternoon, and a section of the audience, which included an author who was among the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had stayed back to catch the evening show of an Indian film. After the screening, the author and his wife waved me over to their seats. We fell into the usual post-show chatter about the film. “Watching it I felt so hungry, you know,” the author said, “The food! The spices!” He turned to his wife. “Honey, do you mind eating out tonight?”

Where I had glimpsed something ineffable—two lonely people in a city—he had spotted something expedient: his dinner plans. And indeed, later that night, when I passed by the only South Asian restaurant downtown, he was seated at a table by the window, stuffing his face with a naan. When I watched the movie again, I realized there were barely any close-up shots of the spices or the food: mostly you saw Ila filling up the containers of the lunchbox in the mornings and Saajan licking his fingers clean at lunch. I guess, for the author, the spices were a part of what was clearly an Indian night.

***

“You look like the guy from Life of Pi.” I heard this often enough in Iowa City to know that it wasn’t just an old white man thing. Baby-faced theatre majors part-timing as baristas in cafés, international writers staying over on a residency during the fall: they’d all recall the last time they had seen an Indian on screen, moments after meeting me, and offer what they no doubt thought was a compliment. The child in me wished that they were talking about Khan, though they probably meant I reminded them of Suraj Sharma, who plays the half-naked kid stranded in the middle of the ocean for much of the film. I looked nothing like Sharma, but did feel some affinity for Pi during the shipwreck. Before boarding, the boy had watched his father’s zoo being loaded on the docks, all those animals that they hoped to carry over into their new lives.

I missed Bombay, and worried about forgetting the place during my time away. In the stories I wrote during those years, I was recreating the city in my head, street by street. To workshop those stories in the Midwest was to receive an education in distance: I grew aware of the difficulty of things travelling through intact, the quixotic task of carrying over one’s past. There was the time twelve graduate students sparred in a room for over two hours on whether my characters should be talking to one another in Hindi. Or the afternoon I lost my patience when someone suggested that a story by another writer about an Indian family in Alaska could be improved if the children ate more curry. Each morning I might return on the page to the roads and promenades I had moved through for years, but the American reader would be stuck wondering—this was a verbatim comment I received on one of my stories—if “the city of Mumbai allowed double parking.” I thought of Khan buying a VHS player decades ago, to keep up with actors abroad, or my friend D. staying up all night and watching movies in Bombay, to keep up with the world. We might spend our lives back home bridging the gap with the West. But not many here were keeping up with us.

***

The years just prior to Khan’s cancer diagnosis were his busiest. According to Chhabra, Khan acted in sixteen projects between 2015 and 2018. He turned producer with Madaari, a jingoistic thriller where he positioned himself as a man taking on a nexus between politicians and businessmen. In Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir, he embodied the part of the ghost, apprising the protagonist of his uncle’s betrayal. Judging from his roles in films like Piku, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium, he was branching out in this period as a comic hero. The loneliness was again evident: his droll characters don’t come across as clowns so much as men cracking jokes to fill up an awkward silence.

Awkward silences were becoming a norm in Bollywood as India was succumbing to Hindu nationalism under a new leader. The country’s biggest actors and directors held their peace when more and more films began to be censored after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014; they refrained from commenting when mobs of armed policemen stormed university campuses, when Muslims were stripped of their citizenship and lynched on streets; they chose to appear in group selfies with Modi and call him a “saint,” even as multiple dissenting activists ended up in prison without a trial or, worse, dead. They didn’t even speak up when a young male actor died of suicide in 2020, and his girlfriend, also an actor, found herself being vilified night after night on partisan TV news channels. One woman took the fall in a media trial fueled by wild insinuations and blinkered opinions. She was blamed for swindling her boyfriend’s finances and accused of practicing “black magic.” In the end she was arrested, allegedly for buying him marijuana, weeks before a crucial election in the deceased actor’s home state.

I watched this tragedy unfold month after month back in the country where I was less likely to be confused for someone else. To assert that a place has changed in your absence is perhaps the oldest truism in the world, but the vitriolic mood of the Modi years is undeniable. In newspapers you read every day of someone being arrested or beaten up or killed because they hurt “Hindu sentiments”: victims of hate crimes get treated as accomplices. Cities like Delhi and Bombay are now unrecognizable. Those old buildings and seafronts where Khan’s characters had once reflected on their misspent lives are being razed as colonial hangovers. If you stare into the horizon, you won’t see the TV towers of my childhood. Everywhere you look, the skyline is obscured by creepy portraits of Modi. The values of this new India—violence, patriarchy, resentment, a paranoiac fear of others, a toxic mix of capitalism and religious conservatism—are exactly the ones promoted by devotionals and revenge sagas from the ’80s and ’90s, the movies that Khan had once found himself shut out of. And if the influence of some old box office heroes has waned, it is partly because Modi has annexed their passionate cults of personality. Years ago, I’d wonder at the crowds waiting outside actors’ houses in Bombay, people who had travelled hundreds of miles away from their homes just to catch a fleeting glimpse of their idols. Now I recognize the same loud fervour in Hindu men who swear they’ll always vote for Modi.            

After Khan died, it struck me that his last two films—Doob and Angrezi Medium—were going against the grain of patriarchal South Asian expectations: those oppressive social mores, reinforced by celluloid, that allow parents to dictate to their adult children who they can marry and what they can eat. (I still wince at the coercive tagline of a blockbuster movie from the 2000s: “It’s all about loving your parents.”) In both films, Khan plays a flawed father who is refreshingly worried about the ways in which he might be failing his children, how he might have scarred them with his choices. For a change, we see protagonists striving to be helpful to the generation after them, endeavoring to be more empathetic parents. There is a terrific scene in Doob where Javed, a troubled filmmaker, realizes that his teenage son is being bullied in school after the parents’ divorce. He tells his son to make him out to be a bad father, but the son knows better: he knows that his parents were stuck in a miserable marriage.

Angrezi Medium is not as nuanced, but the bond between generations again seems compassionate. Khan’s character is a single father to a girl who seems to be reprising Khan’s own childhood in a sleepy Indian town. She, too, has dreams of seeing the world, and her artless father and his friends struggle to get her admitted to a college in London. They beg, borrow and steal, until the daughter realizes that she doesn’t need to empty her father’s savings for a degree abroad. When she tells him she’d rather study in India, you’d think any father would hug his child in that moment, but no, Khan just smiles and leans out of the window of the cab they are travelling in. He glances away, holding it all in, looking happy for once.

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