‘I Realised He Knows His Craft’: Naseeruddin in Irrfan’s Biography

Irrfan Khan passed away at the age of 53 on Wednesday, 29 April.

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Irrfan Khan’s recently released biography <i>Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star</i>
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(Irrfan Khan passed away at the age of 53 on Wednesday, 29 April. This story has been republished from The Quint's archives to mark the actor's death.)

From playing the role of Roohdar in Haider, to Rana in Piku, Irrfan Khan has explored all sides of him as an actor, with equal charm. In his recently released biography, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star, author Aseem Chhabra has traced Irrfan’s personal and artistic life in all its many shades. Filled with anecdotes and personal interviews of various actors who’ve known him since years, here’s an excerpt from the book.

Excerpt from the book Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star’:

When Irrfan Khan arrived in Bombay, he did what most struggling new actors would do in the big city. He called on some of the contacts he had made during the time he was a student at NSD. And one such contact he called on was filmmaker and cinematographer Govind Nihalani who had just delivered his critically successful television mini-series, Tamas (1988), based on writer Bhisham Sahni’s novel.

After Tamas, Govind was thinking of doing something on a smaller scale. Since the show had played on Doordarshan, Govind approached Bhaskar Ghosh, the channel’s director general, with the suggestion of doing three intimate plays— written by European playwrights.

So that is how Govind Nihalani directed Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (Jazeere, 1991), August Strindberg’s The Father (Pita, 1991) and Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba (Rukmavati Ki Haveli, 1991). He did not change or edit the text, except that the teleplays were performed in Hindi. The settings were changed since the plays’ characters were now based in India. And he cast Irrfan Khan in the first two productions.

In the late 1980s, Govind was invited by his friend Ram Gopal Bajaj to watch an NSD rehearsal of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. And he saw Irrfan perform in the play.

‘I was impressed by Irrfan,’ Govind says. ‘As an actor (even though he was still a student), he engaged his co-actor.’ Govind adds that there are many actors who follow the method of not looking at the other actor in the scene, but, instead, they look in other directions, with the hope of getting much more attention. Irrfan would look at his co-actor.

Govind was also impressed by Irrfan’s speech. It was unique, a style of his own, and he did not seem to be imitating anyone. Naturally this was towards the end of the NSD days and Irrfan had stepped out of the Naseeruddin Shah-inspired phase of acting. Govind feels that there are actors out there who need to show off their acting skills, but that quality was not there in Irrfan.

‘Mehnat toh kar rahe hote hain, lekin agar woh mehnat dikh jaye, phir audience ka maza nikal jaata hai (They are working hard, but if the audience sees that hard work, then they lose the fun of it.). They can tell the actor is acting.’ But Irrfan stood apart from those actors, as his performance seemed effortless. ‘Hindi mein bolte hain sehajata se acting karna (They say in Hindi, it is acting with natural ease),’

Govind says. ‘He was eager to work, but his intention was that it had to be something substantial,’ Govind says. ‘Chhota bhi role ho, par usmein kuch hona chahiye (Even if it is a small role, there should be some substance in it.).’

Irrfan’s co-stars in Jazeere were Ratna Pathak Shah (who married Naseeruddin Shah in 1982) and Mita Vashisht.

Naseeruddin Shah remembers the first time he met Irrfan, when the young actor had dropped by his home to rehearse with Ratna. ‘When I saw Jazeere, I didn’t like the film and I didn’t understand it,’ he says. ‘But I was very impressed with the gravity Irrfan brought to the part and the sense he made of the speech. I thought he was a rare actor who did not emphasize on all the emphatic words, which a lot of actors do. I realized this guy knows his craft.’

There was also one day when Naseeruddin Shah dropped by at Rajkamal Studios to watch the shoot. ‘Naseer Saab liked my performance,’ Irrfan said in a conversation with the senior actor organized by India Today. Irrfan said he thought there was a lot of planning that went into the performances in the teleplay and it lacked the spontaneity he would have preferred. And he turned to Naseeruddin Shah and said, ‘Aapko Jazeere ki performance achhi lagti hai. Mujhe kabhi nahi lagti (You liked my performance in Jazeere. I never liked it).’

‘I remember being confused,’ Ratna says, recalling her experience of working on Jazeere, one of her earliest big projects, even though she had graduated from NSD in 1981. They rehearsed a lot before the shoot, but she remembers Irrfan was ‘put off’ by the way the project was going. ‘It was never clear what Govind was hoping for, how we should behave. Should we behave real, in what we are saying to each other in the film? Or is a somewhat stagey kind of dramatic acting required? I hate that kind of acting on stage, so why would I do that kind of acting in a film? But I didn’t have enough experience at that time to ask questions.’

Despite his disappointment with Jazeere, Irrfan agreed to take the supporting role in Govind Nihalani’s next film, Drishti, also made in 1990. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s classic film, Scenes from a Marriage, Drishti was Govind’s take on an Indian marriage gone wrong.

The above excerpt has been taken from Aseem Chhabra’s book Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star, published by Rupa Publications. The book is available on Flipkart.com

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