They still talk about him in the present tense. Three years after his death, Irrfan lives on in the memories of his directors and co-actors, each recalling in detail their interactions with the actor who navigated with unprecedented ease the gaps between offbeat and mainstream cinema.
Considered one of India’s most formidable actors, Irrfan died at the age of 54 on April 29, 2020 following his battle with a rare form of cancer. He was the rare actor who made his presence felt in the west as well in films such as “Life of Pi” and “Namesake”.
Shoojit Sircar, who directed him in the road drama “Piku” with Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, said he recently dreamt of him.
"He is alive in everyday life. I miss purely talking to him, like sitting with him, and just talking. We would talk about spiritualism, astro-physics, life, etc. Sometimes, he would walk into my office and say, 'Let's have jhal muri and chai'. In so many situations, I think of how Irrfan would have reacted,” Sircar told PTI.
Irrfan, he said, was the one person he connected with beyond films, box office or the next big idea. In fact, he sometimes even suggests that his actors think and perform a scene like his favourite actor would.
The two were set to collaborate together on the 2021 biographical “Sardar Udham”, based on the life of freedom fighter Udham Singh but Irrfan could not be a part of it due to his health.
“I miss him in every film that I am doing now,” Sircar said.
Dhulia, who gave Irrfan two of his career’s best films “Haasil” (2003) and “Paan Singh Tomar” which won him his first National Award besides collaborating on 2013 movie “Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns”, echoes his words.
The filmmaker said Irrfan is the first name that still pops up in his head when he is planning a venture. “If I have to do something ambitious I would not be able to do it ever because he is not with us here. He was one such actor for whom it was fun writing a character. As an artist he would push me to grow more. My growth has slowed since he left us. He has left us, what can we do about it? But what do I do?” Dhulia said.
Tanuja Chandra, who directed him in the "Qarib Qarib Singlle", said she was surprised that people had not imagined Irrfan in romantic roles earlier. She cast him as Yogi, a slightly annoying and free-spirited man in the 2017 film opposite Malayalam actor Parvathy Thiruvothu.
The director said Irrfan had an "attractive" personality, a must for a romantic film.
“It’s amazing how ‘Qarib Qarib Singlle’ has gathered more love in the years after its release. I get messages of affection from viewers regularly. I wish he was cast in many more romantic films - would’ve been delightful to watch,” she said.
Homi Adajania, the director of 'Angrezi Medium', the actor's last film, said Irrfan taught him to cherish every moment.
“I miss the actor, the friend, the human being... It was a great learning lesson to understand that we are not curing cancer, we are not sending someone to Mars, make it the best way you can make it, but the important thing is, enjoy every moment of the experience,” the filmmaker told PTI.
Irrfan’s co-star Radhika Madan, who featured as his onscreen daughter in “Angrezi Medium”, said she would observe the actor closely and was amazed to see him devoted to his work.
“He was the most honest student. There was an important scene, I was up, walking outside with my script, I saw a shadow opposite me, Irrfan sir was walking and rehearsing his lines... He worked very hard and is an earnest student of his craft. I feel grateful I had that experience," she said.
Sircar gave an example of Irrfan’s meticulous approach to his craft. The actor, he said, would make mental notes about his characters and scenes.
“He will have a bag, or is eating a banana, or has some other thing. Most of the actors that I have seen are very uncomfortable doing the job and acting at the same time, either they act and do dialogue or they will do the job." And Chandra said she was enamoured by his fluency in Hindi and Urdu.
"He had an intimate knowledge of those languages so dialogues seemed to be expressed by him, the character, and not lines that were written on the page."
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