Putting together the pieces.

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Putting together the pieces.

Irrfan Khan has emerged a top-notch actor despite the odds. But it's a puzzle why his latest Hollywood release Puzzle is not generating as much talk as it should

By Khalid Mohamed

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Published: Thu 31 Jan 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 Feb 2019, 1:00 AM

Quite in keeping with its title Puzzle, it's curious that a Hollywood film revolving around the intimate love story between an enigmatic man of Indian origin and a suburban housewife hasn't yet received the attention it deserves. The Indian middle-aged man settled in New York is portrayed by none other than Bollywood's very own Irrfan Khan. The housewife and a mother of two is enacted by Kelly Macdonald - who's most famously known for her impressive performances in hits such as Trainspotting, No Country For Old Men, Harry Potter and the Deathly Gallows - Part 2, besides the long-running TV series Boardwalk Empire.
Directed by Marc Turtletaub, Puzzle studies a fleeting liaison between an odd couple who set out to win a piece-together-puzzle-fastest championship. He, Robert, is a reclusive genius who watches television news to update himself on the events in his homeland. She, Agnes, is a timid wife of an auto repair shop owner, and is striving to discover an identity of her own beyond the home and hearth.
Robert is way more gregarious than Agnes, who's afraid of falling in love with him - which would destroy her family life. Shades of David Lean's black-and-white classic Brief Encounter (1945) here, including similar scenes located in a train plying from the suburbs to the frantic hub of New York.
Adapted from the Argentine film Rompecabezas (2010), the Hollywood remake avoids melodramatic conflicts as well as treacly situations, which is why perhaps it is understated to the point of disappearing into the cracks. At most, Puzzle was garlanded with upbeat reviews when it opened at the Sundance and Edinburgh film festivals last year. The low simmering but palpable chemistry - a difficult feat for actors - between Irrfan Khan and Kelly Macdonald was singled out for praise.
Meanwhile, the 52-year-old Irrfan has been undergoing treatment for a neuroendocrine tumour at a London hospital since March last year. Director Shoojit Sircar, who last worked with the actor in Piku (2015), has visited him thrice and has stated there is no cause for worry. Hopefully, on Irrfan's return home, they will kick off a long-planned biopic on Udham Singh, a revolutionary of the Indian independence movement who avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Indeed, before being hospitalised, the actor had struck a fine balance between his assignments in Hindi cinema and Hollywood. Clearly, he had made the much-wanted crossover, with lead parts in The Warrior (2001), The Namesake (2006) and now Puzzle. He was seen in subsidiary roles in The Darjeeling Limited, A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire, subsequently striking a strong screen presence in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Life of Pi (2012), Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016).
Quite clearly, it's been an arduous journey for Irrfan (normally spelt Irfan, but after receiving the Padma Shri honour in 2011, the extra 'r' was added because he felt it sounded 'good'). Call that whimsical or a numerological superstition, he hasn't ever melded into the glitzy Bollywood world.
He was born in Jaipur to a Pathan family; his father ran a tyre business. The son aspired to become a cricketer in vain, but earned a scholarship to the prestigious National School of Drama. Opting for a low profile, initially, he appeared to lack a killer instinct. Neither was that vital element called 'luck' on his side - as indicated by the fact that his first break in the role of a street-smarty in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988) was so severely edited that it became a blink-and-miss appearance.
Of his stock of over 80 films and as many as 20 appearances in TV series in a span of over three decades, his career-altering breakthrough came with Tigmanshu Dhulia's Haasil (2003), as a menacing campus-gangster. He could have been typecast forever as the stock-in-trade villain in big-budget entertainers - but that ghetto was avoided since he varied the characters he took on in independent as well as glossy opuses. Steadily, he was acknowledged as an uber reliable actor, who'd rather be estimated as an artist rather than a star.
Fortuitously, Nair eventually cast him as the retentive first-generation immigrant Ashoke Ganguli, opposite Tabu, in The Namesake. Come to think of it, whenever he has teamed up with Tabu - in Ang Lee's Life of Pi, Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool (2003) and Haider (2014) and Meghna Gulzar's Talvar (2015) - they have struck the audience as being especially nuanced in each other's company.
Does he have a set style? To a degree, he does. Irrfan Khan's forte is restrained and a laconic demeanour. He can articulate a thousand words of dialogue through his expressive, often melting eyes. If the script gives him too many jokey punchlines to deliver as it did in Akarsh Khurana's Karwaan (2018), mercifully, he does that chore with a tongue-in-cheek candour. Neither are his costumes and makeup overdone, nor can you accuse his body language to have a faux swagger.
To be sure, every tracker has his or her favourite Irrfan Khan bunch of performances. On a personal note, I'd select Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar (which won a National Award in 2012), The Namesake, Maqbool, The Lunchbox (a worldwide sleeper hit, 2013), Hindi Medium (2017) and now Puzzle as his most accomplished yet.
Or as the saying goes for consummate actors, maybe his career-best is still to come.

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