By Pragyan Mohanty May. 16, 2020
Irrfan has left behind a towering body of work where picking one performance feels sacrilegious. And yet it is the actor’s breakout role as the wily student leader Ranvijay Singh in Tigmanshu Dhulia's Haasil that will forever have my loyalty.
For many of us growing up in the early ’90s, Chandrakanta‘s spy-general Pandit Badrinath was the first distinct memory of watching Irrfan on screen. Starring in this fantasy show featuring sorcery, shape-shifters, and spies, the lanky actor’s big, expressive eyes and languid drawl in “the voice” outweighed his character’s garish look and insane arc. Irrfan had been dabbling with the medium for nearly a decade, but his TV cred really peaked in 1999 when he appeared in multiple episodes of a new, brilliant anthology series on Star Plus called Star Bestsellers.
The show became the perfect platform for a prolific collaboration between Irrfan and a new director Tigmanshu Dhulia, his fellow alumnus from National School of Drama. Together they created some of the show’s most remarkable episodes – a delightful “Bhoron Ne Khilaya Phool”, a beguiling “Ek Shaam Ki Mulaquat”, and the plentifully amusing “Fursat Main” – all of which, to date, have the most recall value. Irrfan’s unadorned acting and range came alive in the candour and rootedness of Dhulia’s storytelling, and I, for one, was knocked out by this exciting association and its underlying potential.
Four years later, the duo came together again in Dhulia’s directorial debut, Haasil, which also became Irrfan’s breakout film. Despite his vast TV experience, the actor’s big screen run had been restricted to minor roles in art house and small budget outings. While he had won the West’s attention and admiration with a starring role in Asif Kapadia’s festival fav The Warrior (2001), the Hindi film industry was oblivious to the promise he held. And Haasil became the first and crucial step in changing that.
Set against the backdrop of Allahabad University, the film tracks the budding romance between two students: theatre artist Aniruddh (Jimmy Sheirgill) and Niharika (Hrishitaa Bhatt), a strong-minded, popular girl on campus. They both get embroiled in a devious game of political manipulation when Niharika catches the fancy of ambitious student leader Ranvijay Singh (Irrfan).
Haasil‘s engrossing narrative moves through multiple themes of violent student politics, caste identities, and the struggles of young couples in a traditional society.
The film’s engrossing narrative moves through multiple themes of violent student politics, caste identities, and the struggles of young couples in a traditional society. Dhulia’s gentle touches about the multicultural and multi-religious tenor of the city of Allahabad, the division of loyalties on campus along caste lines, and the quick possibility of personal matters turning political are deep and unmissable.
For the Hindi film industry, the Aughts were defined by a new generation of filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, and Imtiaz Ali et al who revolutionised the language of mainstream cinema. When Haasil released in 2003, Bollywood was still driven by star-studded, candy-floss entertainers and the contemporary style of storytelling credited to the above mentioned filmmakers was yet to take off. Big budget films like Kal Ho Naa Ho, Koi… Mil Gaya, and Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. were that year’s most popular releases when this little film entered the fray with a story fashioned in the rooted realism of a North Indian city – a genre that now dominates the Hindi film, TV and web scene. It’s not difficult to see that Haasil was a precursor of sorts to films like Omkara (2006), Ishqiya (2010), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), and web series like Mirzapur (2018) and Jamtara (2020) with the distinctly local flavours of the Hindi heartland.
Having grown up interested in all types of Hindi films, when I first watched Haasil, the experience was astonishing – it was unlike anything I had seen until then. A sentiment, which over the years, I discovered was shared by several cine-goers. It didn’t have the verbosity and melodrama of old Hindi films, nor did it possess the predictability of masala potboilers of the ’80s-’90s; it was far too fast-paced and entertaining to be categorised as “parallel cinema” and a little too rakish for the gentle world of middle cinema.
It is not so much the central love story but a fantastic bunch of side players that really hold Haasil together.
The film’s sensibility lay in creating a fresh style of cinematic presentation and universe-building where the characters, their settings and lingo are non formulaic, effortless, and life-like. But what truly stands out for Haasil is its conversational, spontaneous, and occasionally offhand dialogues (also by Dhulia) peppered with Allahabadi witticisms that have earned it a dedicated fan base that prides in remembering even the film’s minutest details. One of my favourites is this quick conversation between the film’s leading lady and a rickshaw driver who is ferrying her to the university.
Niharika: Itni saari ghantiyaan lagaane ki kya zaroorat thi? Lag raha hai Dusshere ki jhaanki jaa rahi hai.
Driver: Arrey! Rickshaw jawaan hai… sajaayenge nahin toh rooth naahi jaayegi?
And then there’s the Irrfan juggernaut. Armed with a commanding character and some hilariously flippant dialogues like the evergreen “I like artist” and “guerrilla war kiya jaayega,” or the self-introspective “Ladkiyaan kaahe chhitakti hain humse,” the actor creates an alternative template for the Hindi film antagonist – wry, wily, and wicked in the most nonchalant fashion and shorn of the usual trappings and shenanigans of Bollywood baddies.
Armed with a commanding character and some hilariously flippant dialogues, Irrfan Khan creates an alternative template for the Hindi film antagonist.
In his introduction scene, Ranvijay is seen being thrashed by his political rivals after he throws a crude bomb at them. “Ek baat suno pandit, tumse goli woli na challai. Mantar phoonk ke maar diyo saale,” Ranvijay goads an enraged man sitting atop him pointing a pistol while the others plead fervently with the gunman to not get carried away. Just like that, the scene sets the tone for his character’s defiance and misplaced bravado that will define him right to the very end. His roguishness is both frightening and entertaining and even has a disturbing appeal. Irrfan portrays these contradictions with a relaxed body language and subtle tonal shifts that would soon be known as the actor’s signature style. The actor has left behind a towering body of work where picking one performance over the other feels sacrilegious. And yet it is him in this mesmerising and mercurial role that will forever have my loyalty.
Finally, unlike most films where the supporting cast is merely ornamental, Haasil creates an array of colourful secondary and tertiary characters that look completely enmeshed in their surroundings. It is not so much the central love story but a fantastic bunch of side players that really hold Haasil together. There is Ranvijay’s motley gang, cheeky members of the rival faction headed by a fantastic Murad Ali, and scintillating cameos by seasoned actors like Ashutosh Rana and Rajpal Yadav, who with a crackling one-liner here and deadpan repartee there, have led Haasil to acquire a cult following. It only keeps growing – over the years, new generations of fans continue to get acquainted with this underrated gem.
There’s Master Bittoo, there’s Master Raju, and there’s Master Rajoo — who is not Master Raju and is Master Bittoo’s big brother. The writer lives for random film trivia like this.