If at any point in time and in any emotional or mental state, I am asked which is the standout performance for you from an Indian actor, I shall say, “Balraj Sahani sitting down to cobble the shoes in M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa and Irrfan making that ominous phone call to his wife, Tabu in Mira Nair’s "The Namesake". That Irrfan is one of our finest actor is a cliché now and one needs to move on. There is Maqbool and Piku and Pan Singh Tomar, which stand as glowing testimonies to his skills as an actor. But "The Namesake" alone is a congregation of characters. There are many characters in one Ashoke Ganguly of "The Namesake". However, that call to his wife from the pay phone of the hospital is breathtaking. Fifteen years since I first saw the film and I still haven’t outgrown that moment in the film.
The body language and the tone he adopts in the scene makes Tabu (Ashima) concerned, for he is calling from a hospital but tells us, the viewers that it is a heart attack! I remember exclaiming in the movie theatre, the moment he says there is some discomfort in the stomach, “he has got a heart attack!” Now It could be that I am relatively more informed about the manner in which an attack can manifest itself, so specifics apart, no one can deny they did not realize it is an ominous call, probably the last one to his wife. That cannot be anything else but the art of acting using the body and voice as a tool by an actor to near perfection. "Near", because I am sure if I would have brought it up with Irrfan he would have said, “yaar, who na mein kuch aur karna chahte that magar Mira ke paas location sirf ek ghante ke liye thi.” A typical anecdote any artist uses for a humble response. A way of saying better can always be bettered.
Trailer of The Namesake
Let us briefly revisit the sequence of events, the fabula of the scene. Ashoke Ganguly feels uncomfortable while driving, the educated man that he is he has a hunch that all is not well, and it needs medical attention. By the time he reaches the hospital and gets down the vehicle he has a premonition that this doesn’t seem good, the discomfort has heightened, but the wife has to be informed, as it certainly doesn’t seem to be a regular “upset tummy”. That walk to the phone booth, those million thoughts about prospective death in a foreign land, Ashima, the wife being left alone, her lonely life to come and of course Gogol, his son. With these innumerable thoughts Irrfan or Ashoke Ganguly picks up the phone and makes a call. The delicate balance he has to achieve between communication to Ashima, which has to have a subtext that, this is more serious than what I am telling you, yet it cannot be a giveaway. The second and a more important responsibility is towards the script and therefore the audience. “I am not spelling it out to my wife, but I need you, my dear viewers to know that my end is near. I will soon be seen as a memory on screen. As much as past is also in the present in cinema, it will still be a memory for my characters. This complex nuance and the use of the body to make it a vehicle of this complex emotion and information makes this particular scene one of the greatest testimony of Irrfan’s acting abilities.
Irrfan and the art of body language: video courtesy Cinemawali
In Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar, the song picturized on Supriya Pathak, “dekh lo aaj hum ko jee bhar ke…” prepares us well for her death. But Irrfan alias Ashoke Ganguly teases us. It is not spelt out by the actor; it is hinted at and that enhances the sense of loss in the viewer. “Chala gaya!” is the emotion we experience after that scene and the loss of Ashima, and Gogol is the loss of the viewer as well. This according to me sums up the journey of Irrfan and the sense of loss his passing away has left for the viewers and all those makers who wanted to work with this terrific actor. His family of course, much like Ashima and Gogol.