“Kya padh rahi hain aap” or “kaisa chal raha hai” was usually how Irrfan and my conversations began on location. Me, the reporter, used to endless hours of waiting armed with a book, and he the actor, always punctual, but going through innumerous rounds of promotion.
He was a man who preferred off-camera conversations far more than the on-camera movie promotional activities, so from books to films to general banter of the world, there was never a dull moment, as he sipped tea, rolled his cigarette, happy to engage in non-filmy repartee.
My last conversation with him was during the interviews for Qarib Qarib Single in November 2017, as we waited for his co star to join, he asked me for the book I was reading, it was Paulo Cohelo’s Mata Hari, and we both chatted about a woman we didn’t know, but had our own perceptions of who she was or could have been, saying “film acchi bansakti hai in par”. There were times I could just vent out about what was wrong in the world – from work to something I had read about, he would just smile and narrate some incident that would make one laugh.
It’s strange for me to address him in the past tense. I first met him for a short interview for the film Warrior in 2001 and later on the sets of Mira Nair’s Namesake, he was shy and kept to himself, however during the premiere of the film, he specially came down to say hello and I vaguely remember introducing him to my parents, who later told me “the actor Irrfan who played Ashoke Ganguly, sat with us during dinner since we were by ourselves, what a fine man”.
Now when I look back, that was the kind of man he was, unassuming, warm, unpretentious, unaffected by fame or with the need to be in the spotlight.
We met again a few years later, as he was getting ready to leave for Vigyan Bhawan to receive the National Award for Pan Singh Tomar, graciously obliging me for a quick interview in the hotel lobby, none of the “Lets do this later, I am in a hurry”, and this was something which remained unchanged over the years.
An actor par excellence, acting was his passion, “I had this desire to act but never thought anyone would give me a chance, I was too shy and thin. Starting with TV and cable channel show, his film debut was a cameo in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and from then, as he took on work, his brilliance was there for all to see. From showcasing shades of negative in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, to Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil. He endeared as the socially inept Monty in Life In A Metro. Pan Singh Tomar propelled him to prominence as the sportsman turned dacoit, his versatility was unmatchable.
During Lunchbox, he laughed saying “I am destined to play old characters, people want to see me old before time and this has been happening, I am always given old man parts, but for a good story I can do anything.”
I specially loved him as Rana in Piku, a film which brought his signature sense of humour to the fore, but the actor that he was, said to me “You know what is beautiful and what I am loving, is the fact that the so called ‘hero’ of the film is Deepika. There is the larger than life Mr Bachchan who is a supporting actor, and there is a relatively new me, but the star of the show is Deepika and that showcases the evolution of the audience – they want stories. I am so glad that they don’t need to be spoon fed now, in my early days I was told by my directors on the loudspeaker, spoon feed the audience. Mahesh Bhatt told me ‘spoon feed, Irrfan, don’t act, act badly!’ It was the need of that time, but today when you do a Piku, you aren’t doing that, art lies in not revealing things.”
Superlative performances – be it a Haider, Talvar, Hindi Medium or as India’s face in the west from a Slumdog Millionaire to The Amazing Spiderman, Life Of Pi, Jurassic Park to Inferno, Irrfan didn’t take his success seriously, he was an actor looking out to engage his audience.
I remember him telling me, “I don’t go for impressing people I want to engage myself and maybe because of that you all get surprised by my performances, but I am looking for engagement, maybe not at a massy level but I engage and the audience wonder or think about – that’s the connection I am seeking”.
I am not discussing his filmography or his amazing portrayal of characters on screen, it was there for all to see. He was a generous man on screen and off it as well, I looked forward to meeting him, because there was an ease, a comfort level, no overactive PR machinery or publicist asking you to not ask a question or ask something in particular. A man of extraordinary talent and wise words, someone who found beauty in everything, valiantly fought his pain, and all I can say is, ‘Gone too soon, you will be missed by friend’.