Vishal Bhardwaj on Irrfan: ‘I’m Still Very Affected By His Going Away’

Critic Shubhra Gupta’s book is a collection of interviews with people who were close to the actor. In this excerpt, filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj remembers his special relationship with Irrfan
Shubhra Gupta’s Irrfan: A Life in Movies
Shubhra Gupta’s Irrfan: A Life in Movies

Vishal Bhardwaj — director, screenwriter, producer, music composer and singer — changed the language of Hindi cinema. He also gave Irrfan Maqbool (2003), the crackling Macbeth-inspired gangster film. Maqbool is a hood. He is a killer. But more than anything else, he is a lover: His love for the beauteous Nimmi, played superbly by Tabu, transcends all else. Bhardwaj made two other films with Irrfan (7 Khoon Maaf, 2011, and Haider, 2014), both memorable for different reasons.

Shubhra Gupta (SG): It’s well known that when you started to cast for Maqbool, Irrfan was not your first choice. What made you gravitate towards Irrfan and what was it like to work with him in that film? 

Vishal Bhardwaj (VB): I think it was destiny which brought us together, because some other actor was meant to be playing Maqbool. When I watched the trial of his film Haasil, I was blown away by his performance. Somewhere in my head, I wished I had seen Haasil earlier. But by that time, the other actor was finalised. Somewhere along the line, when we came closer to our shoot, we had some date issues with the other actor. Immediately, I contacted Irrfan. He heard the script, loved it and came on board. It was destiny.  

SG: The two of you coming together — tell me a little about that magic, that alchemy. 

VB: Irrfan was a great actor. But beyond that, he was a very evolved human being. A very aware person. His views about relationships, his worldview about politics and religion were very evolved. And as we started working together, we gradually got close and became friends. Itna khoobsurat insaan tha dil se (He was a beautiful person at heart); there was no malice within him. And to add to that, he had a khatarnak (deadly) sense of humour. He could find humour in anything. 

When we started working together, I used to find it odd that sometimes he was so natural in front of the camera, it seemed like he wasn’t even acting. So I had my doubts whether he had even come prepared or if he just walked in front of the camera without any preparation or homework. He always used to say that one per cent of what we do behind the camera translates into twenty two per cent on camera. He used to be very subtle in his approach; he was so natural. Tabu and I used to tease him a lot because of a habit he had — sometimes he used to talk double-double. Kaun-kaun, kya-kya. So we would all talk like that amongst ourselves when Irrfan was around: hum-hum, kaun-kaun, kya-kya. 

Irrfan could take a dialogue and make it is his own, turn it into a rhythm. He didn’t really sing a lot; he wasn’t good at singing, but he was good at feeling music. I think he was one of those Sufi men. There was some Sufism inside him; he was born with it. So if Irrfan didn’t work on acting in this lifetime, if he was in any other profession — politics or anything — his spirituality would have still come to the fore. 

Irrfan and Vishal Bhardwaj
Irrfan and Vishal Bhardwaj

SG: You mentioned Tabu. How did this pairing come about? Every time they appear on screen, they just light it up.

VB: When I was working on Maqbool, the first people that I cast were Tabu and Naseer bhai (Naseeruddin Shah). It was a transitional phase for Taby, because she had begun a journey after Maachis and this (Maqbool) was eight-nine years after Maachis. So a different kind of phase had begun for her. Back then Irrfan used to do supporting roles, so I did doubt what Tabu’s attitude would be, because she was coming from the mainstream, and he was transitioning from a supporting role to the lead. But the chemistry they had together — as people — they connected, you know? They connected very deeply. A lot of scenes, like the ‘meri jaan’ scene — they both performed it so beautifully. 

SG: Yes, that is a sublime scene. 

VB: It didn’t feel like they were actors — it seemed like those two characters were real in the scene. When they were crying during the climax, there was silence on the set. They connected as people. And we made a great triangle — we were so connected with each other. 

Even when he was not well — we met only once when he was not well — the three of us, we met for three-four hours. After that, I only met him once, in London, and I think Tabu met him at his place. But the three of us met together only once when he was sick, and we were joking so much, it didn’t feel like Irrfan was unwell. I think, to connect as people is essential. I don’t think just by connecting with someone professionally you can do a good job. Unless you are connected personally, unless you have respect for each other, love for each other, you cannot create magic on screen. Magic gets created on its own when all these things come together. 

SG: Everybody I have spoken to has told me about your very special connection with Irrfan. Mira Nair said she was in touch on and off. Tigmanshu Dhulia and he were close friends from drama school, and they kept in touch. But I’m constantly being told how you and Irrfan had something really special together. So tell me a little bit about that. 

VB: It was beyond explanation, our connection. And that’s why, I think, I’m still affected when I talk about him, and therefore I avoided talking to you. Because I don’t want to talk about him — I’m still very affected by his going away. I still get… I start missing him. Give me two minutes. 

SG: Please, take your time. 

Irrfan, Vishal Bhardwaj and Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Irrfan, Vishal Bhardwaj and Priyanka Chopra Jonas

VB: Yeah, sorry… So that’s why I was not … I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to talk about him. I thought maybe I was over it but I was wrong; I am still very affected by his departure. Because it was not just… we never talked deeply about work, about acting or performance or scripts. Everything used to just casually happen on its own. Even during Haider, when I approached him. He was very busy in those days, and I told him that he should read it once. ‘This is a very zabardast character — you’d be able to play him,’ I said. Sometimes he didn’t do parts simply because the role was very good. His intention towards every project was clear. He read it and told me that this script should definitely be made into a film: ‘To this day, nobody has done anything like this on Kashmir, so I will do it,’ I don’t know where he dug out those five-six days. On 26 January, we started the shoot in Kashmir. He was available only on those five-six days. 

Once, during Ishqiya (2010), we had a small fight. He was supposed to do Arshad Warsi’s part. When he didn’t do it, I had a small fight with him over that. 

And I didn’t work with him for many years; then I approached him again. Because everyone was saying no to that character he played in 7 Khoon Maaf — that masochist husband. I said, ‘Look, everyone is saying no’. He said, ‘I will toh do it, because I have to make it up to you.’ He did it just for that reason. And what he did in that, he did very beautifully. This was also his way (of saying) that this style of storytelling is so khoobsurat that I want to be a part of it. After that, he was upset with me again. His part in 7 Khoon Maaf, no matter the length, was very poetic. The entire story had no dialogue; the whole part was done in only poems and songs. Finally, because the length was becoming a bit too much, his story was cut down the most, so he was very upset. 

So when he came to do Haider, he said, ‘My first condition is that you will release my entire story of twenty-twenty-five minutes on You Tube.’ I wanted to do it but I could not find that cut. 

He was great. I have never told this to anyone, that Meghna (Gulzar) was going through a very bad phase in her life, in her career (before the making of Talvar, 2015). So he said that Gulzar saab must be feeling very low that his daughter is not able to do well. And this was a good script; he wanted to do it. ‘If not for Meghna, I want to do it for Gulzar saab’. He was a great human being, and his selection was not only based on the role. He would look at the intention of the whole film and then want to be a part of it. 

Irrfan and Vishal Bhardwaj on the sets of 7 Khoon Maaf
Irrfan and Vishal Bhardwaj on the sets of 7 Khoon Maaf

SG: Everybody used to offer him these very intense roles; did he really want to do the other kind of roles? Not so intense, so serious. 

VB:  Yeah, I think his comic timing was excellent, and this dance-vance of his. There was this ajeeb thing about him — whatever Irrfan did, it never felt fake. Nothing seemed false. So to me, it felt like even if he did the song and dance, which he did later — 

SG: With AIB?

VB: Yes, AIB and all those other videos he did — in those, he was so natural, he never looked fake. So he had this quality — kuchh bhi de do, woh usko apna bana leta tha aur usme dhal jaata tha (give him anything and he would make it his own and lose himself in it). He made everything his own. Obviously, who doesn’t want to do commercial cinema and who doesn’t want to be a superstar? I remember, after the first time he saw the trial of Haider, he came to me. He had a very filmi entry in it. He told me, ‘If you wanted to give me such an entry, why did you give me money?’ Do you know that when we reached there at the time of the shoot, it was very cold? There had been a lot of snowfall, and we had gone high up for that shot. Dachigam village. The costume designers had given Irrfan white on white and I was not sure how that would look. But Dolly Ahluwalia (costume designer) — she’s great — she said, ‘Ghost ka feel aayega if (against the) snow he’s wearing a white shawl and he’s seen coming out of it.’ And Irrfan picked up some snow and rubbed it on his glasses. Look at him — he comes and cleans his glasses, like this (*gestures*). So he used to do those intriguing things. He was very spontaneous. Sometimes it felt — like I was saying earlier — as if he came to the set without any effort. But I started understanding later that he comes in after doing so much work and then leaves it all. He unlearns everything. He becomes a blank slate. No matter the preparation; if he has to do the opposite of it, he will do so. That’s why he was great, that you do so much homework with so much dedication, method-wala, and then you come to the set and just leave it all behind. I think that’s the quality even Naseer bhai has. He also comes with a lot of preparation, then leaves it all. 

SG: Irrfan opened the doors to people like, say, Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi. Like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, who were supposed to be Irrfan’s gurus, paved the way for him. I asked Naseeruddin if he thought Irrfan was a good shagird. He said that Irrfan was his own actor; he was nobody’s disciple. 

VB: Actually, he built his own school — the Irrfan school. Now there are a lot of people — Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj (Tripathi), even, for that matter, Vicky (Kaushal)

SG: Ayushmann Khurrana

VB: Ayushmann is still conventionally good-looking, a bit fair and handsome, which is required in Hindustan. But you see the rest — unconventional. This path was paved by Irrfan. Especially for Rajkummar Rao. This path is also opening up for Vijay Varma.

SG: Do you think conventional Bollywood knew what to do with an actor of his calibre? Barring a policeman or don, they didn’t think of any other character for him for so long. 

VB: Mainstream Bollywood will make a film for a star; not for an actor. They’ll make a film which can make money. So I don’t think mainstream Bollywood even has that intention, which is rightfully so, because it’s a business for them.       

From Irrfan: A Life at the Movies, by Shubhra Gupta, published by Pan Macmillan (Rs. 899).

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