Irrfan Khan’s last endorsement wasn’t done for money. It was done from the heart. Just a month before the end came, Irrfan lent his shoulder to Gramsevasangh, a social organisation of like-minded individuals who participate in dialogues and activities that bridge the widening gap between the cities and villages. Khan associated himself with the #KaronaKuch initiative of the social organisation www.gramsevasangh.com to draw the attention of the government and the people towards the unimaginable pain and sufferings of migrants during the lockdown. He tweeted saying, “I support this because I believe we need to change from the roots #gramsevasangh #oneworld”.
It was a noble gesture. Lending support to a constituency that has received very little support from any other quarter in this horrific pandemic. But that was Irrfan for you: sensitive, down-to-earth, conscientious and soft-hearted.
Irrfan’s simplicity, his do-gooder persona, his lack of star antics were best leveraged by Vodafone, one of the first clients to use Irrfan as an ambassador way back in 2009. Lena hai toh leh lo – the actor’s non-chalant attitude and characterisation had a certain honesty about it that made him trustworthy to customers. And created affinity towards the brand because he had a ring of truth in what he said, and how he said it.
In the study of ‘Celebrities as Human Brands’ done by the Indian Institute of Human Brands last year, Irrfan came up with very high scores on reliable, honest, sincere, high quality, high performance, trustworthy, unique, versatile, original, progressive, innovative, authentic, ethical, intelligent, successful … (see word cloud below). In my 20 years of working with famous personalities, I have rarely seen such a positive stack of attributes for an actor outside the charmed circle of superstars who most often get over-rated because of their overwhelming fame or the aura of their success. For Irrfan, all the positivity and goodness was genuine … hard earned and obtained on the back of sincere performances, endearing portrayals and great roles.
Irrfan over the years actually endorsed a large number of brands … Mastercard, KEI Wires, Syska LED, Edelweiss, Simplilearn.com, Jivi Mobiles, Cavin Kare (Indica Easy Hair Colour), Glenmark Pharma (Candid Dusting Powder), Vestar Eltech appliances, Envy 1000 deodorants, Aegon Life Insurance, Resurgent Rajasthan, Vodafone, Ceat Tyres, 7 Up, IndiaMart, Gopal Exotic Elaichi, Henko and a few more.
My favourite Irrfan ad, without doubt, was the one he did for the Pakistani traditional biscuit brand LU Bakeri Nankhatai. It had everything actually brand Irrfan stood for: tradition, nostalgia, high-quality, original, authenticity and love. The ad itself was beautifully scripted and shot, both in India, and across the border. The camera work, the framing of the shots, the old world charm, the narrative, the choice of words, the expressions used would all have been negated if Irrfan had not just held the entire commercial together, in fact embraced it with love and affection. His presence in the ad kind of put the brand on a pedestal, lifting it from the ordinary and pedestrian to exotic and extraordinary.
I noticed another interesting thing. Irrfan was one of the few celebrities for whom brands actually wrote scripts that had a lot of texture… multiple layers that demanded his acting prowess, his expressions, his smile, his surprise, his anguish, his anxiety, his concern to be exhibited because all creative directors knew (as did the ad film producers) that Irrfan could carry off any scene, any emotion… the 2018 Mastercard film showing him at a wedding in Jaipur… Khul Gayi Life … was almost like a mini-movie where every situation that Irrfan was placed in, showed why the Khan was amongst India’s top actors. He was just so natural, so comfortable in the various frames - without any unnecessary histrionics or over-the-top acting.
With most celebrities, especially sports stars, getting them to act in a commercial is a nightmare. Sachin Tendulkar used to be amongst the worst… he got better with time and experience… few know or understand how even a smile or a show of consternation can sometimes be difficult to get properly on camera with many celebrities. With superstars of Bollywood, most have too many do’s and don’ts. One refused to sport a moustache. Another didn’t want to wear a kurta… he felt it impacted his metrosexual looks! With Irrfan, those who worked with him always said that he showed zero tantrums. He could be shooting in 40 degrees plus and being asked to sit and sip cutting chai at a roadside tea stall, and he would do it without a murmur of dissent or disapproval, or ever complain about the discomfort. With celebrities that would be rare. Most would want an air-conditioned vanity van in tow wherever they would be. Not Irrfan. The rough and the tumble came naturally to him, despite his steeply rising graph of success.
Irrfan Khan is gone. Gone is the perfect gentleman. Gone is the perfect actor. Gone is the perfect performer. Marketers will miss him. His brands will miss him. Each of us will miss him. I regret never having worked with him. But those that did insisted he was one of a kind. Best of class.
So what was the essence of brand Irrfan? Perfection? Sincerity? Honesty? Naturalness? I think it was all of these, but most importantly he had an inimitable style, a dour determination, a detached calm, an unexcitable self-assurance… that can only come when you know your only competition is you.
Irrfan Khan, RIP.
(Dr. Sandeep Goyal is an expert on celebrity studies. He is the chief mentor of the Indian Institute of Human Brands.)