“I’m not a natural actor,” Emmad Irfani tells me during the course of our interview. I remember him saying this to me earlier as well, on another occasion. He says it matter-of-factly, with a shrug of his shoulders. “I have to work really hard on a character, the crux of a scene, the emotions.”
This honest declaration completely negates the notion that Emmad may be a diva. One could easily assume that he is one, simply because he is drop-dead good-looking and riding the crest of a successful TV acting career. His modeling background ensures that he carries himself well and, as it turns out, he is a very prolific speaker.
In an industry teeming with actors who believe that it is their right to turn up late, he is also very punctual. I quip about this to him when he is there promptly for our interview — from experiences with other actors, I had expected at least a half-hour delay.
“I have always believed in being punctual,” he tells me. “I see no point in unnecessarily delaying things by being late.”
Does this mean that he ends up waiting on the sets of TV productions while the rest of the cast eventually turns up? He laughs. “On the first day, I go on time. I wait and I analyse things, and I figure out what a good time to turn up will be.”
In an industry teeming with unsuccessful models-turned-actors, former model Emmad Irfani is riding the crest of a blossoming TV acting career. He’s played memorable psychopathic villains and compassionate heroes. Yet acting has not come easy to him. Why? And what role has sports played in his acting career?
And he doesn’t throw any tantrums? “No, I believe in working with my co-workers as a team. We’re all aiming for the same goal. It’s better to make an effort towards building a positive working environment.”
These are wise words and, as it turns out, Emmad Irfani had many more of them to say. He is not a diva, certainly, but he is quite the philosopher.
Playing to win
In an industry rife with egos, why is he so keen on declaring that he is not a natural? “There’s nothing wrong with being a method actor,” he points out. “So many great actors confess that they plan ahead of enacting their roles. Life doesn’t wait around for the unprepared. I turn up to my work completely prepared, not allowing the chance for loopholes to come my way.
“This has been my attitude towards my work from the very onset of my career,” he continues. “I first decided that I wanted to act back in 2012, on the sets of a commercial being directed by Asim Raza, where I was supposed to present a cup of tea to Mahira Khan. I did everything that I could possibly do wrong and it took an hour for my scene to be filmed. The humiliation that I felt ended up being a trigger. I decided that I would never again not be able to deliver.
“I was an introvert and it’s taken me a while to work on eye contact, body language and how to speak the right way. I even had a lisp that I had to overcome!”
Seven years down the line, his efforts have paid off. Emmad has a good repertoire of TV drama roles to his credit and, while he admits that in the early days he did take on some roles that ‘weren’t politically correct’, he has lately been making his mark with some intense, convincing performances. It can be said that an actor has proven his mettle when people start referring to him by his screen name and, back in 2016, random people would address Emmad as ‘Malik Mansoor’, the vile political psychopath that he played in the drama Saya-i-Dewaar Bhi Nahin. Nowadays, though, his popularity has reached a new high with his role in the drama Cheekh. Emmad, at present, is also known as ‘Shayaan’, the scrupulous, compassionate hero in the drama.
“I think that people have liked Shayaan because he is a far cry from the dictatorial husbands that tend to dominate our dramas,” Emmad observes. “I put in a lot of thought into defining the character, figuring out what makes him tick and how I can make him as realistic as possible. It is a role that I had been apprehensive about taking on because he only appears after the 10th episode. But, then I figured, sometimes the 12th man manages to win the match.”
There’s nothing wrong with being a method actor,” he points out. “So many great actors confess that they plan ahead of enacting their roles. Life doesn’t wait around for the unprepared.”
He uses sports terminologies very frequently and when I observe this out loud, he agrees. “I suppose I do. I think that it’s just because most of the lessons that I have learnt in my life have been on the sports field.”
He could have even been out on the sports field except that fate had other things in mind for him. Till his late teens, Emmad had dreamt of pursuing a career in sports. He had officially been playing for Pakistan’s junior cricket team, as well as representing Punjab in football. Unfortunately, an injury made it impossible for him to continue playing professionally but his passion for sports is still evident. He tells me that his son — Emmad is a father of two — is very athletic.
“I went through a very tough time when I was told that I could no longer pursue sports professionally,” he says. “In retrospect, I think I was just born to be a performer and while I had thought that it would be in the field, it turned out to be in front of the camera. I apply the same rules to acting that I once did to sports: I still want to be the best player in the team and I want my team to win. I’m very patient and I think I learnt that through sports as well. I have shed blood, sweat and tears to get where I am today.”
One of the obstacles that Emmad encountered when he made his acting debut was that his work would get dismissed under the pretext that models couldn’t act. “Yes, people were quick to judge,” he says, “but when the first few bad reviews came, I decided that I would turn my haters into my motivators. To be honest, models often opt for acting careers because they are accustomed to the limelight, but the transition isn’t always easy. Models have to be stiff, like mannequins, and in acting there is no room for stiffness. It’s tough, but a lot of models give up too soon. I hung in there simply because I enjoy living for the fight. I set high standards for myself and, every time I would get a bad review, I would analyse it and try to figure out how I could perform better the next time.”
Actors are also often a victim of industry politics, where certain groups prefer to give work only to particular favourites. Has he encountered such unfair partisanship in the course of building his career? “I find industry politics to be so petty and unnecessary and, yes, every actor experiences it at some point or the other. I just think that, even if there are people who choose to ignore me, they can never stop me from following my ambitions.”
I apply the same rules to acting that I once did to sports: I still want to be the best player in the team and I want my team to win. I’m very patient and I think I learnt that through sports as well. I have shed blood, sweat and tears to get where I am today.”
His commitment is commendable but he did leave a flourishing decade-long modeling career to enter the acting territory. Does he ever regret it? “Modeling had always been something that I was doing on the side,” Emmad says. “I was never passionate about it. I was also well aware that models have a shelf-life after which they have to begin thinking of a new career. I don’t regret diversifying towards acting at all.”
It is often whispered that harassment runs rampant in the local fashion industry and that male and female models are particular victims of it. Was this also one of the reasons why he moved on towards acting? “In my 10 years of modeling, I was never harassed,” he says. “There are wheelers and dealers everywhere, but I was lucky because I always associated with a well-respected clan of people and was very selective about the work that I did.”
It seems to me that he is still being selective. Post-Cheekh, Emmad is yet to sign on to a new project. Why? “I don’t want to jump on just any script and be seen in different channels at the same time. I don’t think that actors should over-expose themselves by taking on mediocre work, or even float out too many details of their personal lives. They should try to maintain an aura of mystery and retain some semblance of privacy. I’m very careful about what I post on social media and, likewise, with my work, the focus has to be on quality over quantity.
“Every project that I take on is a labour of love for me,” he asserts. “Life is never a smooth ride. I have endured the low phases, the struggles and enjoyed the successes. I hope that it continues to be this way.”
And, to make a sports reference of my own, I’d like to say ‘May the best man win.’ Hard-working, humble, dedicated and an actor who has honed his skills in order to deliver some very good performances, Emmad is playing for the win, certainly.
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 30th, 2019