For Ashoke Ganguli
I remember reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri in one sitting in 2003. It was her first novel after the Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. I was hesitant to pick it up, but when I did, I wouldn’t let go. The lives of US-based Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli — a couple caught between two cultures, striving for better lives for themselves and their children, and realising how different they are from their kids — made me for some reason see my folks differently, and even appreciate their daily struggles a lot more. The book also made me think of my relationship with my dad. Of the unsaid affection, the unsaid emotions, and what it means to be a father — to take all your life, all its dreams, all the longing, and translate that into love for your child. Jhumpa knows how to tug at the heartstrings.
Cut to March 2007 when The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair, released in India. Like many readers, I was skeptical of the adaptation. In that four-year period Lahiri’s story had become a beloved novel, almost a classic, to me. I had read and reread and reread it some more and had grown to love it with a strange sense of possessiveness. I was almost enraged when I learned of the adaptation in progress but was calmed by the fact that Tabu would portray the role of Ashima. I didn’t think much about who would play Ashoke.
At the theatre — Fun Republic in Andheri — I was in a trance for the entire 121 minutes of the movie. And it wasn’t because of Tabu. I couldn’t take my eyes off Irrfan Khan.
There is one scene in the movie, when the character Gogol (Ashoke and Ashima’s son, played by Kal Penn) tells his parents that he wants to change his name because he cannot identify with the one given to him by his father. The look on Irrfan’s face is devastating. He looks at Penn and says, “Do as you wish” — in resignation, in disbelief, in frustration even, with every emotion as clear as day on the actor’s face.
I confess I didn’t think much of Irrfan in those days. I mean, sure I loved Maqbool like any other cinema-lover, but that was it; I hadn’t watched his other films. Then he played the quiet, unassuming, determined, loving (but not showing it all the time) Ashoke Ganguli and I was mesmerized.
Ashoke is the kind of person who is endearing. Maybe just like Irrfan in real life. Whenever I watched his movies after The Namesake, I would think there is something very human and affable about him. Sometimes, you don’t need to know an actor’s off-screen life to conjure up an image of them, you just know what their persona is like. And with Irrfan, I knew.
It isn’t about just one movie. And it isn’t about art-house versus commercial cinema actors. I think at the end of it all, it is about the person. About how you grow, how you interact with people, and how you treat them. All the stories I’ve heard about Irrfan unabashedly sing his praises, encapsulating a warm human being.
Why does this loss feel so personal? I guess because the actor and the person seemed so accessible. It felt like you could interact with both avatars, like he would respond to you on Twitter (and in all probability he would’ve) and make your day. You cannot measure some losses. There aren’t any yardsticks.
For me, it will always be the quiet, understated, profound, funny, generous, and most humble Irrfan Khan that will shine through in all his roles (there is so much left to watch). There will always be that moment, every once in a while, when I will revisit The Namesake — in bits and pieces, here and there, and out of habit skip to the scene where Ashoke takes his son to the sea, and tells him to remember that day. “Remember it always. Remember that you and I made the journey, and we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go”. It was all Irrfan Khan then. No Jhumpa Lahiri, Not The Namesake. Just the actor, his craft, and his emotion.