SG: One thing that I’ve been struggling to put into words is: how is it possible to live in a world without Irrfan? In his passing, I have not seen this kind of overwhelming grief that so many people across the board expressed. It was like one of their own had passed. How does it feel to be without an artist of his calibre? You, of course, are a dear friend and you saw him through the really bad days towards the end.
TD: See, it’s a very difficult question, so I’ll start with his method. Irrfan’s method when he was working was also how he lived his life. He was a good actor because his observation of life was very surgical, very meticulous. That is why you will not be able to predict what he will do next. Why? Because he is portraying a life. Irrfan’s observation of life was so nice that his performance always used to look fresh, unpredictable; he used to rise above his character.

What is acting? Consciously you have to portray an unconscious behaviour. Because you are an actor, you are doing it with skill, you are conscious. But you have to portray that it’s unconscious; I can check my phone and also tie my shoelaces at the same time. This behaviour can only be portrayed well if you have understood life, na? Most actors in India, who have never stepped outside Bombay, what have they seen of life? That’s why, over the past ten years, you are able to see good actors because they are coming from smaller towns.

It’s not that we don’t have good actors, but somebody like Irrfan used to push me. See, I’m a writer as well. Every picture that I have worked on, I have written myself. The work starts there, with writing, because I’m not working on somebody else’s material. I’m working on something I created myself. And if I have Irrfan in mind, I know that Irrfan will fit this character. Without Irrfan telling me, there’s a push from behind, to write it well. And come up with a difficult character because you’re giving it to Irrfan. You’re not giving it to some normal, ordinary actor, who’ll do a competent job, and if the performance gets lost we’ll fix it with the background score. No, you’re writing it for Irrfan.

Now Irrfan never really pestered me to write like this. But your responsibility as an artist increases, in a healthy way. You’re writing material for a great actor. He rises above the script. Since then I’ve worked with many new actors, the kind of actors that the world is fond of. But they’re not at that level.

Paan Singh Tomar (2012).

SG: What did he think about your performances? Did you ever chat about that?
TD: Gangs of Wasseypur was my first performance. I remember I hadn’t seen it. I said, ‘What will I do by watching it?’ Irrfan went and watched it. Our offices were next to each other’s, so he came to my office and said, ‘Yaar, you’ve done great acting in it.’ I remember when he was producing the film Madaari – this is my regret – Sutapa and Irrfan had both come and offered me Jimmy Sheirgill’s role. I don’t know, or some reason – I didn’t have the time or something – but I said I wouldn’t do it. I don’t remember if Irrfan and Jimmy had a scene together in the film. Us sharing the screen … it couldn’t happen.

SG: Sutapa told me that even towards the end he was reading some brilliant scripts and how he was struggling with his pain but was always so positive. You were in touch with him during those days. That must have been so tough.
TD: I mean, I remember Irrfan every day. That said, if you want me to say it in a more profound and poetic way, as a good friend and an artist, I’ll try and push myself. Irrfan was a good human being as well.

I’ll tell you one incident – you must write about this. We were about to start shooting for Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, so we went to the same location where part one was shot. [During] During part one, we had a very bad experience with some beehives. It was an old, dilapidated haveli, and there were these huge beehives. And the cook there placed the tandoor right below a beehive during lunchtime. When the smoke rose, the entire unit of bees flew out. They stung a lot of people, including me.

When we started doing part two, there were more beehives, and this time they were inside the haveli also. So I said, ‘Yaar, remove this beehive. It’s too dangerous. Irrfan and other actors were staying in the haveli, because there weren’t any hotels. Next morning when I went to Irrfan’s room, he was very angry. He said, ‘Tishu, what have you done, yaar? I saw they had burnt the beehive; all the bees were lying dead. Thousands of bees were dead.’ He was so upset. I said, ‘I didn’t ask them to burn it; I asked them to move it. I’m not an expert on the method of removing.’ What bees do for the environment …

Irrfan got so disturbed thinking about that. He had this quality; he was very close to nature. That’s why all this reflects in his performance. Now these new actors that come, they want to become Irrfan. Irrfan did not want to become Naseer [Naseeruddin Shah]. He came to make his own destiny.

SG: So what about all the talk of Irrfan being a huge fan of Naseeruddin Shah and wanting to be like him?
TD: Who doesn’t like Naseer bhai? If those films of Naseer bhai and Om Puri did not exist, maybe we wouldn’t have been here. When we saw them on screen, we could feel that we can also do it. And the material we were seeing was so impressive. But Irrfan never said, ‘I want to become Naseer.’

SG: Right. He became who he was. We all know that in his television days he was not very happy and wanted to break free. And I think Haasil and The Warrior set him on the path to what he really wanted to do.
TD: I think it happened with Warrior. He was a good actor from the beginning. He chiselled his skills as he grew, and he kind of experienced life. But he was a curious actor from the beginning, somebody who wanted to learn. What he lacked was confidence. And an actor who lacks confidence will never shine. Acting is eighty per cent confidence and twenty per cent impersonation. Warrior gave him that confidence. He saw his look on horseback, with a burning field in the background.

I was the casting director for Warrior and, honestly, Asif [Kapadia] was not interested in Irrfan; he wanted to audition more. We made so many people audition and Irrfan auditioned some three or four times. Eventually, Asif decided that he’s the one. I said, ‘No one will do it better than him. Only Irrfan can do it.’

Warrior gave him that confidence. And Irrfan and Asif became very good friends.

SG: One last thing. If there is one thing that you had to remember Irrfan by, what would it be?
TD: Awaargi. Bina kisi maqsad [without any agenda], just head out and roam around with him. In the jungle. All you need is a cigarette in your pocket. Bas.

Excerpted with permission from Irrfan – A Life in Movies, Shubhra Gupta, Pan Macmillan.

Also read:

‘Dubai Return’ was the one Irrfan movie that got away

Behind the scenes of Irrfan’s acclaimed performance in Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Maqbool’

Irrfan (1967-2020): A powerhouse talent gone too soon