The story behind Irrfan’s tears

The tear fell and the lights flashed.

 |  9-minute read |   03-05-2020
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Irrfan just didn’t want to cry...

... And all I wanted was to see his eyes with tears.

This is a thing about us photographers, we want to subvert the obvious, disrupt the regular and make our images shock your senses and puncture your casual seeing... to make you pause and really see.

For Irrfan, intensity was regular... it was routine.


His keeping-it-real-restraint... paired with his street-drawl speech made the characters he played palpably relatable... they were us.

Raw, unpolished and un-fitting the 'mega star' mould, Irrfan was our neighborhood guy making it big in Bollywood and on the world scene. Our fascination for him was not aspirational... it was the thrill of the possible.

But look at all his pictures, glowing, stylised, ‘GQ- esque’ photographs... typical airbrushed images that you would see in film and fashion glossies... all attempting to tap into his brooding sensuality and the intensity of his eyes...

Ah! those eyes... 60 per cent of him was his eyes... you couldn’t evade them, especially, if you are a photographer... to shoot him and not capture the power of his large eyes was like not shooting the sun in a grand sunset.

I too couldn’t go beyond shooting his eyes.

I first photographed him 10 years ago. He was so much at ease. It was a breeze shooting him and I got the pictures spot on - those brooding, intense, typical ‘Irrfan photos’.

But as I saw more and more of his brilliant films, I wanted to photograph the actor, demonstrating his skill and not just posing with his big eyes looking into the camera. Over time, it grew stronger, this 'keeda', the bug of disrupting the 'obvious Irrfan intense-eyes-portrait'. I was waiting for my next chance. It finally came.

It was 2016. The nation appeared under dark clouds of a looming extremism. We saw some of the worst mob lynchings of our times. Gau-rakshaks and Romeo squads were on the loose, terrorising people. Numerous writers and scholars had returned their awards in protest against the government’s silence on this growing intolerance.

India Today Magazine was to come out with a special Independence Day issue, which was to feature a cross-section of people across the country expressing their views on what 'freedom' meant for them. I was to do a cover image for that issue. I wanted to do a stark provocative image that in some way represented the choke and the pain that had replaced the ease of freedom.

One of the writers in the issue was Irrfan...

He had just questioned the practice of qurbani, animal sacrifice in Islam, and was under attack for his views.

I was to photograph him.

He was in our office TV studios for a film promotion. It was my chance to make a comment on the mood of despair and gloom. And also (following my personal quest) to do a portrait of the actor's performative skill.

The first thought was to shoot him with his eyes closed... But that was too easy, too formulaic... having done such pictures with many people in the past. The churn of words, visuals memories, going on in my head, threw up the words 'Cry Freedom'. It is a film from the 1980s, the poster of which perhaps was lodged in my subconscious. It instantly flashed into a thought: “What if he could have tears, wouldn’t it make a startling comment on the state of affairs?”

On the other hand, tears in the eyes of Irrfan would compel people to look closely at the image and they would see in it, not just his face but a performance... and it, being an act just for the camera, would make the viewers examine it even more closely. (I am articulating this now but at that time, it was just an instinctual un-worded projection in my head.)

I met him, reminded him of our earlier shoots, he politely feigned recalling. Once the pleasantries were over, we began shooting.

I got done with my safe shots, my backup option... and then told him my real concept... why I wanted to do it: “Irrfan bhai, imagine what a comment it would make to have a leading actor in tears on the Independence issue.”

He didn’t buy it.

Actors generally don’t like performing during photo-shoots because it puts them in a vulnerable position – especially with photographers they don’t know personally. And to cry in front of the camera is too unpredictable to control... too unsafe.

He evaded my request, citing the urgency to be at many different venues on the same day.

“But keep it in your mind, we will do it another time.”

"Zaroor karenge," sure, will do it, he said as he left.

My consolation was that by then, I already had my backup shot (which is another story).

But the image of him with tears was swimming in my head so strongly all the time, it had to be done...

As fate would have it, the same week Irrfan was to be in a conversation with Naseeruddin Shah for an India Today TV series called Unforgettables... and there was a request for a photographer to do their portraits. Guess who jumped at the opportunity.

I had my lights set up in the anteroom of the banquet hall at Taj Land’s End in Mumbai. Naseer sahab was spot on time... I did his portraits and we began waiting for Irrfan, who just wouldn’t turn up.

By the time he finally reached, over an hour late, everyone was losing it. Naseer saheb was fuming, the show producers were edgy to get the recording underway... I barely had two minutes to do the ritual shoot of both of them together. This time he remembered me.

As I was positioning both of them, Irrfan suddenly posed - folding his hands and bowing down in front of Naseer sahab... and all his temper vanished and the heavy air just lit up with Irrfan’s charm. As they headed into the hall for the recording, I once again whispered my request to him: “Irrfan bhai, we have to do that crying shot,” and that it was the primary reason for me to fly down to Mumbai.

Baad me karte hain, let’s do it after the show,” he told me as he stepped on the stage.

To quote Robert Browning, “The blood replenished me again”, and I was pumped up with hope.

The conversation that followed between the two stalwarts of Indian cinema was spellbinding. Both, powerhouses of talent, discussing the finer intricacies of their craft, their personal journeys and even embarrassments.

When it got over, everyone, including Naseer saheb and Irrfan, were basking in the afterglow of brilliance. Both slumped on the sofa in the anteroom to unwind but the conversation wouldn’t stop... Now that no one was recording, both started talking more candidly... cuss words, juicy gossip, frank opinions and unedited views started flowing... it just became too engrossing. More chairs were added, someone called for wine and a memorable evening was underway.

Seeing everyone settle into it, I started getting worried about my shot... my assistant was hungry and was getting impatient but I asked him to keep the lights set up in place...

Finally, around midnight, everyone - by now pretty tired and substantially inebriated - decided to call it a night. Irrfan, rose from a dense haze of smoke, looking quite wasted, got up and began stumbling towards the exit.

“Irrfan bhai... I blocked the way... it will just take two minutes,” I said, my tone bordering on desperate.

Yaar phir kabhi kar lenge, we will do it another time... Right now I am in no shape to do this,” he said pointing towards his puffed up face...

What happened afterwards was something quite like a Bollywood sequence...

As he was about to turn away, I summoned all my hurt and hurled it at him like a challenge...

“In your conversation just now, you said that the job of the artist is to break the mould of the ordinary... Here I am trying to just do that and you are walking out.”

He turned back... paused...

Arre yaar! Chalo, let’s do this,” he said in his trademark street drawl - in a tone that said, “Let’s get this done with.” He murmured something to his make-up guy who handed him a bottle of eye drops.

I bristled into action... shouting instructions to my assistant.

Now, see this as a slow-motion sequence...

He stood under the light; by the time I raised the camera to my eyes... His facial muscles had morphed into an anguished gaze, his features - a study in pain. He was like a man imploding inside... I could feel it in my lens... the moisture in the eyes glistened and began forming into a tear drop... I took a shot... by now, I was not even looking at his face but only at the drop about to fall from his left eye... it fell... and so did the camera shutter...

Did I get it? I had no time to check, I was only looking at the second drop in the right eye which was now about to break...

The moment it did... the lights flashed.

Tumhe shot mil gaya hai (You have the shot),” he said.

I looked in the camera to see...

I had caught the tear falling but Irrfan’s expression had broken and his lips had curled into a smirk

I raised my face in panic, “Bhai ek bar aur... can we do it one more time?”

But he was already walking out...

I knew it was over...

Defeated, I dropped into a chair and looked at my camera screen - the shot that I nearly had... then rolled the dial to the one shot earlier...


There it was... like a boon... the breaking tear frozen on the cheek, transfixing the pain...

I gasped and realised that Irrfan was talking about this one...

Letting out a deep breath, I smiled... And I could sense a tear forming in my right eye...

Also read: Remembering Irrfan: Looking death in the eye



Bandeep Singh Bandeep Singh @junglelight

The writer is one of India's best-known editorial photographers. Known for his dramatic portraits, he is also a name to reckon with in the fine art photography space. He has been a recipient of the Charles Walace fellowship in photography and his works are part of the permanent collection of Essl Museum of Contemporary Art in Vienna. He is currently Group Photo Editor of the India Today Group.

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