Losing the Roohdar
The Lunchbox, Sony Pictures Classics, 2013
by Scherezade Siobhan
A common thread wandering through all the messages that flooded our social media timelines the day Irrfan Khan passed away was a reminiscence of the incisive gravity of his eyes. The man’s gaze was a language unto itself. Back in 1991-92, Khan essayed the role of Urdu communist poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin in a national TV series titled Kahkashan. It is quite telling that radical storytelling about doyens of Urdu literature was widely celebrated two decades ago while being Muslim in India today almost seems like tampered fatalism. In a brief scene from the show, Irrfan as Mohiuddin is seen at a graveyard observing an old man sobbing inconsolably besides two dead bodies. The pain of witnessing vicarious trauma has rarely been translated by an actor—a novice at that—with such effortlessness while holding our hearts in a tense cinch. His eyes with their characteristic droopiness often served as a telescope into the mammoth universe of human emotions. Whether it was the portrayal of a renegade bard or his ephemeral yet searing turn as Roohdar (The Ghost) in Haider, a Hindi adaptation of Hamlet intermingled with journalist Bashrat Peer’s timeless memoir ”Curfewed Night” set in Kashmir.
Irrfan Khan was an internationally accepted and well-known actor but he first stepped into prominent spotlight via commercial Hindi films popularly labeled as Bollywood. Tutored at the venerate National School of Drama, his ascendancy to the perch of cinematic stardom was thorny and exacting. His wasn’t the face of a conventional Bollywood heartthrob, neither did he benefit from well-heeled nepotism into which the industry often leans. Born to a middle-class Muslim family in Rajasthan, his childhood was as quotidian as the screams of ‘Out!’ heard in backlanes of most Indian cities during the oppressive heat of summer vacations punctuated by rounds of gully cricket, a sport he quite enjoyed. It is a delightful irony that this boy from India’s desert-state—The Great Thar— eventually ended up working as an air conditioning unit repairman in Bombay as he tried to sustain himself in the ‘Mayanagari’ – city of mirages. It was something of a miracle that his quiet schlepp didn’t seem affected by the heady pace of this city. While being interviewed for a talk series, in a charmingly nonchalant way, he recounted that sometimes certain producers would see him walking in on the day of a shoot and bemoan how he’d extend the scene with his intense dive-in. It now reminds me of something that the tarot reader and mystic Jessica Dore wrote in her May offering— “Ambivalent hearts can’t perform miracles”. Irrfan Khan didn’t acquiesce to an ambivalent heart, both onscreen and off it.
Gripped by depression that is stubbornly oarless, most days I find myself shirking company and conversations while still yearning for connection. This contradiction is an ongoing argument within myself and I know it will remain unresolved for the remainder of my life. A way in which I self-soothe is by going to the movies. Alone. It is a cherished ritual. I like to observe people scuttling about alone or in groups, carefully avoiding bumping into each other with their oversized popcorn tubs and fizzy drinks. The whole atmosphere is a gladdening crescendo of choreographed chaos. I feel a part of this turnout while knowing that am apart from it. It is a lot like hiding in plain sight. My mood uplifts through some quicksilver emotional osmosis. I have no obligation to interact with anyone but I also feel like am surrounded with light and movement that don’t demand much from me.
A movie hall is a portal. We move above and beyond the apathy of existence. We are infused with possibilities. My grandfather had once remarked that he was quite convinced he’d never get to visit a country outside India given the poverty into which he was born. Yet, in Shammi Kapoor’s films shot in Switzerland or elsewhere, amidst yellow pools of swaying flowers, he felt that he too was rolling around in the soft-petaled glory of a European morning. ‘The Cinema Travellers’, a documentary by Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham, captures the audience experience of travelling tents cinema in India. Now on its decline and possibly even extinct in most parts of the country, tent cinemas were caravanesque, traveling from village to village, city to city, showing movies under the expanse of a large tarpaulin. The still photographs from the movie capture the faces of viewers; a woman covering her mouth mid-gasp, a young boy stilled to a minute of perfect awe, a man with a monkey balanced on his head completely focused on the enfolding drama on screen. This undeniable mesmerism expands over us like an eager raincloud opening itself up for our collective ablution or gratification.
Several years ago a friend of mine—a shamanic healer—introduced me to a word common among his peoples—Iyari. In Huichol/Wixáritari dialect, Iyari means ‘heart-memory’. He explained it as the memory of feelings; of emotional journeys your heart has taken through all of time. It stuck with me because he mentioned it in context to my depressive episodes. He said that indigenous communities like the one he was a part of, often viewed depression as an intense need for connection that is fluid without depending on compartmentalized relationships. When I would go through really troubling phases where the death wish had its most red-blooded dominance over my will to exist, he’d say – “Your heart-memory is asking you to release something right now and find something else to connect with.”
Those connections occur through summoning imagination. I remember a specific afternoon some years ago where I had in the most practical way possible decided to tap out of my life. I had reached a place mentally where I just couldn’t find a way to not be pulverised by wave upon wave of crushing pain. I had put my clothes and books in neatly packed boxes and written a straightfoward letter to my mother and sister with instructions for withdrawing my savings once I was gone. I had chuckled at how even in my attempt to exit life, its linearity was still so inseparable from my own arrangement of thoughts. And suddenly, a text-blast from a prominent e-commerce website ran a knife through the ragged texture of my passivity. It announced the available evening and late night shows for movies that were currently running in the city. I have no idea what turned within me, if anything at all. I decided to park my exit, grabbed my bag and went to the movies that afternoon. I stayed at the multiplex till I had exhausted myself on all the evening and late-night shows. I decided to give myself another day of living.
One of the films I watched that day was ‘The Lunchbox’—a love story of letters carried in, yes, lunchboxes or dabbas as they are locally known. Khan was one of the protagonists, playing the part of a restrained widower Saajan Fernandes. If you live in Bombay, you’ve probably met a Saajan Fernandes and his contrarieties—earnest, disciplined, caught between tenderness & caution with an underlined resignation to the line of fate paving his path. His whole being often reminding you of a clothesline stretched between the limits of two distant trees. Irrfan Khan took the niche portrait of this Bandra-bred character from Bombay and somehow universalized the subtle friction of urban loneliness and (un)requited love. I wasn’t a middle-aged widower but I could find myself scattered throughout his fear of accepting the possibility of happiness.
In his book “Scatterlings”, storyteller and mythologist, Dr. Martin Shaw writes—“And the extraordinary day, when for an hour or so you realise that you too are being witnessed.”
In watching Irrfan’s Saajan Fernandes, I had witnessed myself.
When people like Irrfan depart, the loss feels personal because within the weft and weave of their stories, a part of our unliveable, untethered, ‘un-salvage-able’ is ennobled & uplifted. He often came across as a tireless lighthouse that was aware of its jagged edges but didn’t care because his purpose was greater than his presentation. His range of characters often substituted the absentee father, the patient husband, the snarky road trip companion you wished for but didn’t have in your life. Performers of his calibre have a presence that becomes something of a lodestar. A distant compass. You lose yourself in the roles they essay; in their stirring humility or their cadenced melancholy you find something similar to hope or healing. The complexity, fortitude & empathy which signal the presence of good men. And god knows, this country is starved for just a handful of good men.
It is easy to attribute magic to movies and those who are at the helm of orchestrating the myths and masks that keeps us enthralled. What is harder to explain is what magic means to each of us. Shaw also says that the business of stories isn’t escape but waking up. Maybe it is both. Magic is when our unconscious asks for an audience with us. A healthy percentage of Indian cinema is considered escapist and for good reason. Try living in this country and you will understand. Quite a bit of it is also deeply problematic and cringeworthy for its depdency on crass depictions muddied by casteism, classism, misogyny and racism. However, once in a while, an Irrfan Khan arrives on this frontier and settles in the territory of our imagination, forever changing its landscape by clearing the fog off its horizon and showing us what lies beyond.
Just as Ashoke Ganguly did with little Gogol in Mira Nair’s masterstroke ‘The Namesake’, a film adaptation of Jhuma Lahiri’s coming of age book. Irrfan as Ganguly is piercing and unassuming at the same time. Sliding into the role of a first-generation Indian immigrant to the US, he captured the slightest nuances whether through a glance and wave back to his homebound wife or a touch lingering at a strand of her hair when she cries out her discomfort in a foreign country. His awkward gentleness, his sincere smile, the inflection of certain vowel sounds as an ode to Ganguli’s Bengali lineage; a collection of gestures unlayering the stereotype of a first-generation father. In an unforgettable shot from the film, Ganguly takes the somewhat surly Gogol to the furthest end of a stone-lined path towards the sea where the waves are crashing in furious repetitions. His wife, played by Tabu, is standing by the car holding their newborn daughter. She waves at the father-son pair and asks them to be careful. At the end of the path, staring directly into the wild sea, Ganguly realises that he has forgotten to carry the camera with him and they can’t capture the moment as is customary. He then gets down on his knee next to the tiny and a little irritated Gogol. He then asks him to remember that day and the journey they’d just taken to a place from where ‘there was nowhere left to go.’
Irrfan Khan was adept at taking us by the hand and guiding us to these places at the furthest limits of our experience. Sometimes you would find closure and catharsis and at other times, a reinvigorated zeal to enter the din of the world irrespective of its despair.
There is a couplet by renowned Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, and it goes like this—
Saamne manzil thi, aur peeche uski awaaz.
Rukta toh safar jaata, chalta toh bichar jaata.
Ahead of me, my destination. Behind me, her voice
If I stopped, I would lose the journey
if I continued, I would lose her
Every step you take in life brings you closer to one thing as it distances you from another.
Irrfan’s journey continues elsewhere and as painful as it is to say goodbye, he himself told us that we should remember the moments we have shared with him, with each other through his work, for as long as we can.
About the Author:
Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma social scientist, community catalyst and hack scribbler of two poetry collections: Bone, Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) and Father, Husband (Salopress, 2016); and one poetry pamphlet, to dhikr, i (Pyramid Editions, 2017). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project, a global, cross-cultural dialogue which uses expressive art and storytelling to dismantle gendered violence and street harassment. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Feministing, Berfrois, Rattle, DIAGRAM, Word Riot among other digital and print publications, anthologies, exhibitions, art galleries and more. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee for writing and can be found at www.zaharaesque.com or @zaharaesque on twitter/fb.