Irrfan Khan imbibed the ordinariness of the Bengali father with such aching emotional accuracy like he was always this person. Watching him, I felt like he really had married the woman chosen by his parents, gradually fallen in love with and later fathered two children.
Some losses, with no fault of their own, feel more personal than the rest. The reason is relative, even ambiguous, but the bigger question is how do we mourn for such losses? When news of Irrfan Khan passing away was shared, everybody I know — invested in movies or not — reacted to it rather than absorbing it. Even though his prolonged illness was well documented in the public domain, there was incredulity and a deep sense of unjust. There still is. Later that day and thereafter, social media has been filled with screenshots from his films as if feeling betrayed by his death, people are gleaning through his dialogues to look for a message. Several Bengali folks on my list have been sharing snapshots from Mira Nair’s 2007 film, The Namesake, remembering Irrfan through his portrayal of a Bengali father who owed his life to a Russian author. It is either the image of a young Ashok Ganguli in a brown beige overcoat telling his toddler son to remember a moment — and by extension them — even though there will be no picture. Or it is of him, now older, sitting with his grown-up son in a car, confiding in him memories of a day he remembers without a picture. I confess I have been doing the same.
Ashok Ganguli is not the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel or Nair’s adaptation of it . Even though it begins with him, it is his son Gogol’s coming of age that takes the narrative forward. The Namesake — throbbing with the longing of ageing parents and their evolving relationship with their growing children — places Gogol’s conflict with his name and his namesake at the forefront. In many ways, it is his story. And before Gogol is born, the story belongs to his mother, Ashima. It is about her new life in America, her struggles — clutching an overcoat over her cotton sari in the biting cold — and her subsequent adjustment. Ashok, the husband and father, is forever on the backfoot. He consoles his wife in the dead of the night after informing her of a personal tragedy or quietly stands in his young son’s room, endearingly oblivious that he is overstaying his welcome. We never see him leaving his country for a foreign land or grieving on hearing his parents’ death. Even his own death comes as news to us. Ashok is always lurking, making it easy for us to look over Ashima and Gogol. Making it even easier to overlook him.
He is the prototype of the Bengali father I have grown up watching. He is also disturbingly close to my father who I watched while growing up. Read it as my indulgence or literal short sightedness, but I could never imagine Baba as a character in a film. His sheepishness, customary habit of scanning the room for a lizard before entering or vowing not to sleep if he spotted one went against all the depiction of fathers I had seen on screen. The man who prides himself for paying bills in time, has his name written behind his phone for Ma takes it too often thinking it is hers, and holds it to his ears when I video call, seemed too ordinary to be in a film. He seemed too ordinary to even have a character after himself- a Bengali father. But Irrfan imbibed this ordinariness with such aching emotional accuracy like he was always this person. Watching him, I felt like he really had married the woman chosen by his parents, gradually fallen in love with and later fathered two children. Watching him I felt like I was looking at Baba.
The resemblance runs deeper than the slight hunch, the sing-song way he said, “Ki kori?” after forgetting his camera, or the trousers he always wore an inch above the waist. It resides in the emotional vulnerability, in the unsaid practice of leaving the room when too hurt, in mustering courage to ask his wife why she had married him those many years ago. Irrfan introduced an affecting preservation in the character, owning everything that came with it. He never hardened or assuaged the innate fragility of Ashok but retained it like it was his to begin with. He portrayed timidity without making it cowardly, exhibited naïveté without making it look like ignorance. Every time I see the film I feel defensive and slightly awkward like I am introducing Baba to the world.
But the preciousness of Irrfan’s performance lay in how it also introduced Baba to me in a way I had not known before; how from being a stand-in for the Bengali father, he stood up for him. Recently when I rewatched the film, I marvelled (again) at how the actor got every twitch in the eye, every suppressed grin, every bent of the head right. What I gasped more at, however, was the way he had fittingly illustrated the silent presence of someone I have known all my life. In several instances in the film he melted into the background, like he was never there.
But there is one particular scene I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The children live away from the parents and Ashima calls up Gogol asking him to visit them over the weekend. He has plans, he says. It wounds her and Tabu evokes it viscerally by slamming the phone. A little behind her stood Ashok, washing his hands in the sink. You would miss him even if you were in the same room. I do not remember noticing him until this time when I actively kept a look out for the actor in every frame. The premise felt similar. I have often cancelled on Ma over the phone. Or, annoyed by the frequency of her calls, have told her not to call me any further. Like Ashima, Ma has expressed her indignation by not calling me the next day till I phone and apologise. Seeing Irrfan’s quiet presence in that moment unsettled me. I had not accounted for it. It had not struck me before that when Ma gets hurt by my unkind words, Baba stands in the distance and gathers them without making a noise. He never says or shows. I hadn’t realised and therefore never apologised to him.
Years back, when I had first watched The Namesake I was a teenager and Baba did not need help to climb stairs. Watching the young Ashok Ganguli sitting with a book in hand had filled colours into those black and white photos of my father I used to see often. When I visit him now and see him ageing a little every time, I try to remember how he used to look like while cajoling Ma after a fight or flaunting his know-how through Irrfan’s face. Now with the actor gone, refreshing the loss of Ashok Ganguli all over again, Baba will remind me of him. It will be his face through which I will remember how Irrfan would have looked like, sitting quietly in a room without making a noise. And I will remember even though there is no picture, just how Ashok had wanted.
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