When actor Irrfan Khan passed away, cinema fans world over mourned his loss. Here's an account of an adman's brief encounter with the actor.
One of my big regrets in life is that I never got to work with Irrfan Khan.
I came close, though.
We were planning to shoot a series of films for Pan Vilas, and I and the entire creative team had unanimously chosen Irrfan to play the role of the eccentric Nawab (which was magnificently essayed by Manoj Bajpayee eventually). Account Management reached out to his people, but somehow never got a response from them.
We had given up all hope and started looking for alternatives. Then, one day, I had to travel on some shoot to Mumbai from Delhi. Those were better days for advertising and I happened to travel business class. I had just settled down in my seat and was reading a book when I heard a discreet and polite ‘excuse me.’ I looked up to see the great actor himself. He edged his way apologetically past me and sat on the seat next to mine.
Now while there are plenty of brilliant actors in the world, in my book, just three have a personality so magnetic that you can't take your eyes off them when they’re on screen: the young Amitabh Bachchan, Jack Nicholson and Irrfan Khan. They can have you riveted even if they just recite the alphabet.
After a period of trying to look disinterested and casual, as if I travelled with superstars all the time, I could no longer control my excitement and turned to him and started talking. He turned out to be as interesting off-screen as he was in his films. I told him that we really wanted him to play the Nawab’s role in the Pan Vilas films. He smiled and declined regretfully because he did not want to endorse a 'gutkha' brand.
Our conversation turned to his film career and he told me he was working on an interesting film called ‘Paan Singh Tomar’. I made a weak joke about him playing a character called Paan, but refusing a role in a 'gutkha' ad. He chuckled politely.
Wanting to make the most of the time I had with him, I asked him about his life. He opened up to me, a total stranger, with no hesitation at all. He spoke about his early days in Jaipur, his family, the ads he had done and a hundred other random things. Then suddenly he stopped mid-sentence and said, ‘Ab meri baat toh ho gayi, aap apni bataayeeye.’ (Which roughly translates to, 'Enough about me. Tell me about yourself.')
I was taken aback. Why would a big star like him want to know about me? But he insisted. So, I told him a little about myself. He listened with rapt attention and real interest. I have never had such a rich, interesting and genuine conversation with a celebrity. The flight landed eventually and I walked with him all the way to the exit gate. When we shook hands at the exit, I felt as if I had known him all my life.
He held me warmly by the elbow and said, ‘Inshallah, phir milenge.’ He started to leave, then paused and said with an unaffected smile, ‘Lekin agar na bhi milein, aaj accha time pass hua.’
Prophetic words. I never met him again.
This man entertained the world throughout his outstanding career. He made our mundane existences bearable with the sheer power of his performances. There is no way we can repay him. I’m happy that at least I could afford him a couple of hours of ‘timepass’.
(Ajay Gahlaut is the CCO of Publicis India, and has spent over 25 years in the world of advertising.)