When Irrfan got mad at Anup Singh
In a scene from Qissa: The Story of a Lonely Ghost (2013), Tisca Chopra comes charging into a room to get Umber d’Irrfan away from their daughters, her yellow-brown dupatta flies in front of her, and due to the strength of her body, the dupatta hits Irfan before she does, “the violence created by the color, not the actual shock of the fabric, makes Irrfan react in a very frightened, desperate, strong way, he pushes Tisca (who flies and hurts her back ) with an energy, an almost violence, that I doubt he has in other circumstances,” says filmmaker Anup Singh.
“Anup saab, bahut hi ajeeb roles laateh ho aap mere liye (They are really strange, the roles you bring me).” For Irrfan, who had already explored the other navarasa (nine emotions) rasas through his myriad characters, bibhatsa (repellent) was still uncharted territory until Singh brought him the complex, dark and liminal roles of Umber Singh (Qissa) and Adam (Le Chant des Scorpions, 2017). A reluctant and visibly angry Irrfan had asked him, “Is that how you see me?
Irrfan left the world before Singh could portray it differently – as a dancer in the now-on-indefinitely-waiting Lasya (which will be trained by Waheeda Rehman) or as an aged film score composer.
Singh, 61, based in Geneva, whose book, Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind (Copper Coin), comes two years after the actor’s death, says: “In him I saw the rare ability to transform the banalities of our world in grace. Dilip Kumar saab was the only other actor who could turn the mundane, the routine, the evil into a living quality. Even when Irrfan was playing good characters, like in The Namesake (2006), you see the bitterness and the resentment, and other elements of what goes into making that goodness. Irrfan, who enriches your inner world, is a spirit, a force, a jinn if you will, who belongs as much to our inner life as to his. That’s why his passing hurt us all so much, it was like something deep inside of us had died.
Intuitive and intimate, the book is a reflection in media res, it unfolds upside down and clings to the linear train of memory. The jokes of friends; the preparation of a actor; the almost comical pursuit of the two by a hungry ox; the gnarly passages in the hospital ward, seeing a dear friend plagued by illness, a fading life.
Everything he did in life gave him some idea of how to play such a role. He had, for example, called Singh at 3 a.m. to tell him about driving on a dark road one night: “I couldn’t see the road ahead. Arre Anup saab, and if the road was not there? I drove to feel that sense of fear, and then to feel the joy of surviving the ordeal and still being alive. Even when death was near, he would be curious to know the process. “A lot of times he would avoid taking painkillers and say, ‘this pain, this discomfort, this graying body, this fear of what’s to come is my life right now, why should I give it up? “, recalls Singh.
Their paths crossed in the early 90s. For an hour-long episode for Star TV, in which a powerful force changes the relationship between a young police inspector (Mita Vashisht) and a criminal. Singh wanted an “extraordinary actor to embody that strength”. Vashisht entered with her classmate from the National School of Dramatic Art. While tracing his movements, the melody Singh thought was playing in his head was hummed by this new person. Standing next to the camera was Irrfan. On both their lips, Jee karda mein held vekhi jaanwan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. After the shoot, the lanky young man said, “Aaj ke baad, whenever we do a shoot together, please give me a melody.
Melody, exchanges of onomatopoeia and comfortable silences will become their secret code. The next time the two met, years later, for Singh’s second year, Nusrat saab would again seal the deal. Based on the life of Singh’s grandfather, Umber is an ambiguous and selfish man who seeks immortality. To help him become Umber, Singh gave Irrfan sounds (Turkish, African and nusrat saab songs and cello renditions of Bach’s Sarabande) and images – Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Grove (1889), in which “the wind and the tilt of the earth make the olive tree look like it is about to start moving, and yet you feel its immense strength clinging to the earth. Umber is a brutal patriarch and doting father, whose display of violence was a mark of his love and “Qissa was really my dialogue with Irrfan with what was happening in the country,” Singh says.
…Scorpions, too, is about our times. Nooran’s (Iranian actor-in-exile Golshifteh Farahani) character mapping begs the question: “When we breathe in, we have this sense of life, which we keep taking in, but each time we breathe out, is it that we breathe life into what is do we give life or do we breathe out the poison that we might carry within us?
Always curious, Irrfan had many questions: “Who are you? Why are you here? Why did you say that the way you did? This shirt, where did you find it? This accent, where did you choose it from? He almost always responded to stimuli, even the wind, in one go. This harkens back to his passion for kiting (he wore kites on film sets), which gave a young Irrfan, in Jaipur, a twisted arm for life, and a philosophy: “every little pull and releasing the kite is a dialogue with the wind, a matter of life and death, that’s what was acting”.
For him, the sound beneath the dialogue – the tone, the timbre, the hesitation, the pause, the off-notes – that reveal a character’s secrets was all about import and joy. Each space was “a space of exploration”. He hesitated on the threshold of a room, scanning to see where he would be comfortable, whether he was gravitating towards an interesting person or an interesting aroma from the kitchen. He preferred spaces that allowed him to move freely in any direction, not those that confined him. On the sets too, he sat where he had to play, felt the ground, leaned against a tree or a wall, slept in the middle of a desert, like a camel, “he wanted to feel at home everywhere and with everyone “.
“Now we have very strange ideas about home and country, but the way Irrfan or I have thought about home is not borders but our belonging to someone, who thinks of us or even a brief exchange of glances, which makes a house”, says the graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, whose own story is fascinating.
In the years before partition, Singh’s grandfather’s family in a village in Punjab (now Pakistan) came under attack. By the time his grandfather regained consciousness, he had lost both parents. He was sent to a relative in Africa, where he “became a strange, loving man but easily driven to violence”. Singh was born in Dar-es-Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, but the 1970s, the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda and his distrust of foreigners who spread to Kenya and Tanzania, forced the family to emigrate to Bombay (corruption would make his simple businessman father, years later, to leave India). On the deck of the ship bound for India, between the African skies and the wide seas, as he watched a Hindi film – of which he often fantasizes was Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), although he does not can’t remember clearly – adolescent “Trauma, fear of leaving home, of going to a new country” gave way to feeling “part of a larger sense of home or country – it was the cinema”.
Movie theater would redefine his ideas of home in a cosmos without borders, thanks to the expansive films of Ritwik Ghatak, “his wide-angle lens and his human-nature relationship gave me a sense of place”, and Irrfan, whom Singh calls a “to be borderline”. Like Toba Tek Singh. “He takes no sides. Not because of easy ideas of secularism or neutrality, he was not neutral, as evidenced by his interviews/discussions and his choice of films, but was only concerned with how to speak with you (even with the non- human, like the camel in … Scorpions) and brought the world, each time, a new way to speak with him,” says Singh.
To be “uncertain was almost an ethical need for him. A kind of openness, of vulnerability. In a world where we fix people in boxes and conceptualize everything quickly – Sardar, MaharashtrianHindu, Parsi… — people’s experience is lost,” says Singh, “and Irrfan never wanted to work with ideas, rather with experience: to experience the other and himself in different encounters.