'A Dull and Dry Character Could Be Beautiful – Only Irrfan Could Do That'

"I had never seen him in front of a camera. I’m watching the monitor; he’s there doing nothing, just hanging around, but I just felt that oracle there."

The following is an excerpt from Shubhra Gupta’s book Irrfan: A Life in Movies. In this excerpt, Gupta interviews director and producer Shoojit Sircar. Sircar directed the Irrfan and Deepika Padukone starrer Piku.

SG: Now that Irrfan isn’t with us, who else can you think of for your films?

SS: Who else now? He’s no more and I feel that void. Whenever I think about it, I wonder: where do I go? I have no one to cast. I have nobody. It’s a pure compromise I’m doing at this moment. Because these two–three film subjects which were running in my head were with him in mind. Irrfan is the biggest loss. His particular way of looking at the character, the mannerisms or the method that he brought into a character, was way above … he was almost like an oracle who is fulfilling a prophecy.

I remember one scene in Piku, from the first day that he came in. I had never seen him in front of a camera. I’m watching the monitor; he’s there doing nothing, just hanging around, but I just felt that oracle there. Oh my god, you know … He was just telling me something. He brought that mystic quality with him, which you rarely see in actors. In rare films you could feel that mysticism; why and how, it’s very difficult to explain.

Shubhra Gupta
Irrfan: A Life in Movies
Pan Macmillan India, 2023

In Piku, of course the character was written, but I wanted to see more of him, his pure performance. As a director, I craved that somehow he could be there in some more scenes and for some more time. That’s why he is so beautiful. He was a solace not only for the director, but also for the film. His presence was so, so deep. For example, when I would tell Irrfan that this is what we are doing for tomorrow’s scenes, he would say, ‘Aap sab ko brief kar ke aa jao mere paas.’ [Come to me after you have briefed everyone else.] So I’d brief everyone and go to him. And he would roll his cigarettes. And he would keep listening. At some point, I would get exhausted talking about the character. So he would say, ‘Nahi, nahi, you keep talking; mujhe bolte raho.’ He had some hard disc in his head, which he filled and filled and filled. So when a scene happened, you wouldn’t know what he’d do. I’d given complete freedom to all the actors, ki you don’t worry about your restrictions; you do whatever. Sometimes he’d turn back, sometimes he would just come in front of the camera.

Sometimes he would not look at the camera for some of the important scenes; he would just look away and do something else. But everything was so organic. Such a dull and dry character could be beautiful – only Irrfan could do that.

SG: Yes, ‘organic’, the word you used – which is to say that he literally grew out of the scene. It was as if you could not imagine that scene without him.

SS: Yes. And also, his emphasis on certain words would make a difference. Normally you have to push the actors to the last moment and you have to extract. For him, it was a free flow, you know? I could enjoy sitting behind the screen and watching him. Once I had finished my briefing and he’d taken it all in, he was just on his own. It’s like theatre: he’s on a stage and he’s on his own. In Piku, the advantage was also that I shot very, very long scenes. The camera would roll for ten–eleven minutes. It’s almost like a small act on stage. He was so happy that we were not calling ‘cut’ and just letting them do whatever. Of course I had lived with the script for two years, churning out, detailing everything. But when you see things playing out in that frame, it’s beyond my control at some point. And what Irrfan does is like an enlightenment.

SG: Was it fun to be on set with him? How did he react to Amitabh Bachchan’s presence? Were they very intense actors disappearing in their different little corners and then returning for a scene before going away again? Or did you all hang out?

SS: That takes a couple of days, for them to acclimatize with the environment of the set. It was all pretty normal. There were days when Irrfan and Deepika [Padukone] would just go off the set and prepare. So I would ask, ‘Are you ready to shoot?’ They would say, ‘Ready.’ That surely happened between them. With Mr Bachchan, I think everyone working with him for the first time is very aware that they are working with him. I had seen that Irrfan would sit on the side and observe Mr Bachchan. Not just his acting, also how he was preparing. And whenever I was sitting with him in his van, he would say ki, ‘Yeh aise hi prepare karte hain har film mein tumhare saath?’ [Is this how he prepares in every film he does with you?] And slowly, within a few days, he was completely free of the legend of Big B.

Before we took the script to Irrfan, he thought it was a romantic film. After the first reading, he said, ‘Mujhe toh laga yeh romantic film hai.’ So I said, ‘Nahi, Irrfan, yeh kuchh ajeeb sahi hai but aisa hi hai.’ [It is something strange, but it is what it is.] He was expecting some love story because it had Deepika. So we kept talking and talking, and he was thinking. Then it took us a few days of reading and sitting and having chai before he understood our groove. When he got into our groove, he was absolutely what you see.