Irrfan: an imperfect powerhouse, like an enso circle

Irrfan Khan. Photo: Getty Images

By Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri

In Zen Buddhism, there is a sacred concept called ‘enso’. 

Enso simply means drawing a circle. It is drawn using only one brushstroke -- a meditative practice, letting go of the mind and allowing the body to create -- as the singular brushstroke allows for no modifications. 

At first glance, the enso symbol appears no more than a mis-shapen circle, but it symbolizes many things like the beauty in imperfection, the art of letting go of expectations, the circle of life, and connection. 

Enso is a manifestation of the artist at the moment of creation and the acceptance of our innermost self. It symbolizes strength, elegance and one-mindedness.

I had studied this concept a long time ago and then it evaporated from my mind. But in last couple of days, I have never remembered it more. 

Because an unusual artist, a school of acting, Irrfan Khan, left us with an incomplete feeling, like enso which is always incomplete. The incompleteness of the circle symbolizes the beauty of imperfection and that the circle will only close when one recognizes its true Buddha nature. 

On April 28, 2020, the circle closed. 

I had the privilege of working with Irrfan and, in retrospect, I think he drew an enso circle with his art and his life. 

First love, first job, first salary, first car…. all the firsts in life have a great value. We can never repeat the innocence, the freshness and the self-discovery that come with any kind of ‘first’ experience. 

Irrfan was the first actor I signed for my first feature film, Chocolate. That too for the main role. 

At that time Irrfan wasn’t such a huge star. He was popular on TV but was struggling in films. Bollywood doesn’t care much about talent. It goes for stardom and popularity. 

It was incomprehensible for everyone that when I had Anil Kapoor, Suniel Shetty, Imran Hashmi and Arshad Warsi, why would I want a relatively unknown actor to play the lead. 

I could never ever answer that question despite being asked several times by the media. Now, when Irrfan is gone, I understood why. Because he was incomplete, imperfect, open-ended, fluid, transparent, unpredictable, asymmetrical, without pretense, natural and free. Exactly like an enso circle. 

The many months that we spent together in the cold, dark and gloomy winter of London, while shooting the film, we travelled together, ate together and fought together. 

Producers had followed a typical Bollywood hierarchical protocol and put up other stars in a suite but Irrfan and I in a regular room. Because we were not stars. Irrfan wasn’t happy with this discrimination. He would often ask me if the hierarchy is so critical then shouldn’t it be based on the importance of the character. 

Yes, he used to ask many uncomfortable questions, like a true artist who questions all established norms. Like an artist who doesn’t want to believe in old Gods and therefore his art’s quest becomes demolishing of old Gods and creation of new ones. Which he did. Without becoming a God himself. 

When he came to act in Bollywood, loud, larger than life, melodramatic and unreal acting were the requisite traits to become the God of stardom. Irrfan slowly demolished this God and sculpted a new one which was real, instinctive, unpredictable, original, subtle and which drew inspiration from life and not the glamour of stardom. Like an enso circle. 

One small incident can reveal a lot about an artist’s relationship with the world – the established world.

The scene was between Anil Kapoor and Irrfan. Anil Kapoor was a huge star who was trying to reinvent himself in the new world of multiplexes and rapidly changing audience taste. So, he was extremely focused and worked hard. When Anil Kapoor gets into a scene he rehearses several times until everything is perfect.

Irrfan on the other hand, wasn’t very fond of many rehearsals. “How can you repeat honesty of the moment twice?” he would often argue with me. 

True. Once the moment is gone, the honesty of the emotion is also gone. You can’t reproduce it. An enso circle also can’t be made in many attempts. It’s either made in one stroke or not. 

Actors generally don’t waste their emotional energy on rehearsals and, therefore, rehearsals are done mostly to perfect the movement, position, logistics, et cetera. It’s more of a technical thing than a creative expression. 

Actors like Anil Kapoor release all their intensity in the take, only after the director says action. So, we did many rehearsals. Since it was one of the most important scenes of the film, and a confrontation between two main characters, Anil took it very seriously and invested more than two hours in just rehearsing and making it perfect. 

Irrfan cooperated, despite not being very happy about doing so many rehearsals.  Finally, the time to take the shot came. Everyone was expecting big drama in the take. We were all ready to be surprised by these two powerhouses of acting. 

When I said ‘action’, Anil surprised everyone with his energy which he had conserved for the take. When Irrfan started speaking his dialogue, Anil shouted ‘cut’. The shot was stopped. 

“Irrfan, it’s a take, not rehearsal.”  

“Yes, I know. So?” 

“Then why are you speaking like this….”

‘Like what?”

“So casually, as if you have no energy.”

“But all the energy is coming from you. The sum total of the scene is what should matter. Not my energy or yours.”

That scene was shot many times because in each shot Irrfan spoke differently. There were no two takes which were similar. I am sure nobody would want to remember that night, but I do. 

Many stars and crew present on the sets thought Irrfan would never succeed for his unpredictable acting but I felt something unusual was taking place. I saw Irrfan drawing an enso circle with his absolutely new style of acting. The acting in the moment. The ‘one stroke’ acting. The enso acting.

Later, in the car while driving back to the hotel, on a frozen water night, I asked him what he actually meant. “Nothing. I meant nothing. I just reacted. Whatever was there inside me at that moment, I just expressed it honestly… without manipulating my reaction.”

I didn’t say anything. After few moments and a few drinks, he spoke softly, like an innocent child. 

“Kapoor sahab is a perfectionist. I am not. I don’t even seek perfection. So you will have this issue coming up on and off. If you want, you can replace me because I will never be able to give the perfection which everyone expects.” 

That was an enso moment. The enso is also a representation of our true and innermost self; its creation is said to leave the artist fully exposed at that one particular moment in time. And through lessons of the impossibility of creating the perfect circle, we find this much to be true: that the very imperfections and contours that otherwise prevent a perfect circle from being created are exactly what makes the enso beautiful.

With his art, Irrfan realized his true Buddha nature and proved that art is not a privilege of a few stars but the right of us all. 

Life is never perfect and Irrfan drew his art from life. And left it without drawing a complete, perfect circle. This incompleteness, this imperfection of Irrfan’s art and life will find many meanings, many interpretations in the coming times, but for me he will always remain an enso circle - both full and empty. 

Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri is an award winning film director and a bestselling author.