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Puzzle: One of Irrfan Khan’s last Hollywood appearances

Posted: August 4, 2020

When life is a Puzzle

I would always remember April 29, 2020. The day India witnessed the loss of one of her most cherished crossover artists, Irrfan Khan. The real celebration of the man’s life lies in the fact that he managed to unite a country of fractured opinions with his untimely and tragic demise.

Having had the privilege of following his oeuvre from the Indian television industry to Bollywood and Hollywood, I can luckily call myself an Irrfan fan. From a small cameo appearance in a 1988 Mira Nair film to delivering breathtaking performances in multi-million projects across the globe, Irrfan had mastered breaking the formulae and surprising his audience. While he managed to be relevant in most of his appearances, The Warrior, Haasil, Maqbool, The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, The Lunchbox, and Paan Singh Tomar continue to be some of his career-best performances.

Irrfan was known for his exceptional improvisation skills and an unmatched ability to experiment with his characters. He could bring what I like to call Irrfaniyat to each of his characters, making them his own. In my desperate attempt to seek closure with his unfortunate death, I came across one of his last Hollywood projects, a film by the name of Puzzle.

The Puzzling Story

“Puzzle” is a 2018 American Drama directed by Marc Turtletaub and written by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, based on the 2009 Argentine film, Rompecabezas. It stars Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams, and Liv Hewson. “Puzzle” is a story of a middle-aged housewife, Agnes, flawlessly played by Kelly Macdonald, who manages to step out of her monotonous and self-denying life by discovering her passion for solving jigsaw puzzles. The film begins with a birthday party scene giving its audience an insight into Agnes’s life, which seems to be mostly about others in her family. Agnes is seen doing the hard work of holding the gathering together, serving the snacks, cleaning up the mess, and fixing the balloons all at her birthday bash.

The scene authenticates Agnes’s selflessness and her strong commitment towards her family. Agnes’s aesthetic not only bewilders the audience about the era in which the movie takes place but also establishes her fondness of the old-fashioned simpler lifestyle as in one of the scenes she denies using an iPhone gifted on her birthday. Agnes appears content with her life until she finds one of her birthday gifts, a jigsaw puzzle, and ends up solving it very quickly. The meek and a serene woman suddenly seems to be in command of her very best abilities.

The small win serves Agnes an incentive to explore her passion as she later boards a train to New York only to find herself standing in front of a store entirely dedicated to many intricate puzzles. It is in the store that Agnes sees an advertisement note asking for a puzzle partner. The same note later becomes a means of her introduction to Irrfan’s character, Robert. Robert is a wealthy inventor living all by himself in an opulent Manhattan mansion. He has been looking for a puzzle partner since his former partner, his ex-wife, has left him. Robert has an understated sense of humor, which he eventually uses to help Agnes overlook her inhibitions. Both Agnes and Robert have a quirky romantic tension right from the beginning; however, it takes them a while to be open about their feelings. Robert introduces Agnes to the idea of professional puzzle-solving by informing her about the National Jigsaw Competition, which they ultimately participate in. After Agnes starts investing in puzzle-solving with Robert, she understands her invisibility in her own family.

Agnes gets a reality check about her suppressed feelings through so many years of marriage and motherhood. The continued absence of expression had not only influenced her idea of self-worth, but it had also caused her family to believe that she doesn’t have any desires of her own. It is after the awareness that Agnes starts being more and more vocal about her feelings and wishes. Robert helps her recognize her worth in her family.

In the process of making her family aware of her value, Agnes also feels discouraged and disheartened at the dissuading reactions she gets from them. The lack of appreciation and recognition makes Agnes feel vulnerable and frustrated. It is the vulnerability mixed with a lack of gratitude that drives Agnes towards Robert despite her strong moralistic character, and she ends up expressing romantic feelings for him. Agnes feeling guilty for having romantic feelings for Robert is yet another example of our society being uncomfortable with women having sexual desires. As the two finally go on to win the championship, Agnes eventually decides not to make her journey about Robert and discover herself on a brand new path of life. Irrfan’s Robert acts as an essential prop in Agnes’s journey. He helps her breakthrough her restraints and redefine herself from scratch. In one of the most significant scenes of the film, Robert attempts to make Agnes understand her love for puzzles by describing her the sense of control one gets after solving a puzzle which could be extremely comforting when in a chaotic mess called life.

A Hauntingly Deep Portrayal

Life could be metaphorically compared to a never-ending puzzle; hence solving small puzzle pieces is nothing but a way to control the chaos, insists Robert. He also makes Agnes challenge her deep-rooted traditional philosophies as she breaks the norms which she initially swore by. Irrfan is effortless in his performance. It is through the tiny little moments of low-key humor or subtle romance that Irrfan manages to shine. In the ending scene of the film, when Agnes declines to maintain her journey with Robert and moves on to find her own, Irrfan’s Robert smoothly conveys the disappointment without being dramatic. Irrfan’s strength lies in the fact that he doesn’t need to do much to be remembered.

The film doesn’t have actual villains. Agnes’s family seems to be problematic, but that is mostly because of the problematic system that we are a part of, not because of their poor intentions. Patriarchy is engrained in our society in a way that sometimes it is hard to notice. Agnes’s husband, Louie, only acts as good as he is taught by the system that he has grown up in. The most beautiful thing about his character is how he decides to adapt and adopt changes regarding his wife and family. A

gnes’s sons somewhere play a vital role in pushing Agnes to start a life of her own. One of her sons, using Agnes’s lack of worldly knowledge as an inspiration to go to college, acts as a much-needed reality check in Agnes’s life. Her younger son pursuing the career of his choice against the established masculine jobs also works like a punch to our internalized patriarchy. Puzzle is not just a journey of transformation for Agnes, but the audience, too, seems to be undergoing some internal change.

The film succeeds in giving its audience a reality check but in an extremely subtle way. Puzzle, on the whole, is a heartfelt film that might not give its audience an instant emotional experience, but you might want to watch as it is worth giving a shot.

Picture: Still from Puzzle (2018)

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