Despite growing up in a household in which watching movies was not a thing, I don’t know any other person who has left such a deep impact on me. By the time I came to know who Irrfan was, I realized I had been seeing him onscreen for years. The first time I saw him was in a Hutch commercial, he made it feel so personal that we would wait in between matches to watch those ads again. He was already a star by then, he was somebody who was selling a product so convincingly.
When I was at the Film and Television Institute of India, the way the other students regarded and loved Irrfan, the kind of fandom he had, led me to watch some of his films. I’d heard a lot about Haasil (2003) and so found it on VCD. It wasn’t available anywhere else. I couldn’t figure out how it was humanly possible for him to do that part, he was just constantly surprising the audience. That was his strength, that you couldn’t tell what he would do next. It was the small details. I and the other actors around me would look at the way he reacted to a situation and try to figure out what he was doing, and we couldn’t. Usually, when you’re in the pursuit of becoming an actor, you try to figure out what must have been happening around the actor during a scene and where he found that emotion. But Irrfan’s magic was invisible. You couldn’t tell where it came from. It was the sheer insight he had into the emotional behaviour and psyche of human beings, and his deep understanding of situations in life. He didn’t just show you the truth, he showed it to you in a way that conveyed a profound understanding of that moment. And you connected with his pain.
He and his craft remain a mystery to most of us. We were awaiting the continuation of his career because he had so much to offer. And he had just started to be a lot more open in interviews. He was a very shy and reclusive person before and now he was trying to part with some of the knowledge that he had. And we were all waiting desperately to learn from him. He was just getting warmed up for a bigger innings. He still is one of the greatest actors in the world, but he was looking to become the greatest.
I met him for the first time at film school, after I’d watched Haasil and Maqbool (2003). He was shooting A Mighty Heart (2007) with Angelina Jolie in Pune and he said that he didn’t want to take a class, but he wanted to meet the students. He came in and of course he received a standing ovation. It felt like a CBI officer or someone from a government office had come in because he had on beige trousers and a pista green shirt and a watch. He looked like a person from the income tax department. I later found out that he was actually in character at the time — he had that tendency to transform and ever so gently and subtly.
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The second time I met him was at Cannes. I’d gone there because Monsoon Shootout (2013) was playing and he was there with The Lunchbox (2013). Meeting him was so surreal. I told him that I’d met him at the Film Institute and he said, ‘Woh chodo, ab tum mere saath yaha par ho.’ I saw The Lunchbox later that evening and I was devastated. I got to watch only the first half because I had to leave for press interactions, but even while I was giving interviews, I couldn’t get that performance out of my head. He did barely anything in that film and still moved mountains. He was one of the masters of the craft, like a magician that could pull out any trick and surprise you. You’d never see it coming.
Later on, as an out-of-work actor, I reached out to someone who was managing Irrfan and said something like: You have been managing Irrfan, if you manage me too, something in my life will work out. So she took me on as a client. Later, I found out that after Irrfan had watched Pink (2016), he kept recommending my name to various producers who were looking for young actors. A couple of producers have told me that Irrfan told them, ‘Isko lo yaar.’ He had this way of helping people that was so generous.
I’d been to a couple of his movie premieres including Inferno (2016), Angrezi Medium (2020) and Life of Pi (2012). Each time, he was fully nervous, he wanted to disappear and kept asking people, ‘Did you like it? Are you telling the truth? Sach bol rahe ho?’ He wanted to know that people weren’t just buttering him up. There’s a lot that I’ve learnt from him but so much more he had to offer the world. I haven’t seen three or four of his films and I’m saving them like a treasure I can cherish later. I haven’t seen Karwaan (2018), which I will watch when I need real inspiration. I’ll savour it then.
As told to Gayle Sequeira.