Emmad Irfani is whip smart. Minutes into our conversation he’s quoted Mark Twain and told me “you can miss your meals but not reading”. I ask him if he has time to read nowadays. Not really. But still, he says, he finds the time.
Right now he’s rereading Open by Andre Agassi.
“It’s good for my mental health,” he says. “Whenever I need a touch of inspiration, I go to this life-altering book. Six years ago it totally changed my life.”
Around six years ago, life did, in fact, totally change for Emmad Irfani.
Although he’s been in the fashion industry since 2001 (he’s modelled for local designers like HSY), a TV commercial with Mahira Khan gave him the taste for the small screen. By 2014 he had bagged his first lead role. But it was his critically acclaimed role as Malik Mansoor in Saya-e-Dewar Bhi Nahi (for which, he tells me he drew inspiration from Jack Nicholson), when he truly proved he was more than yet another model-turned-actor.
Fast forward to 2019. He’s currently starring in the hit drama serial Cheekh as Pakistan’s favorite husband, Shayan. And big-time, honest-to-goodness, life-changing fame has shown up at his front door.
Although when I ask him about the fame part, he won’t truly acknowledge it.
“Shayan is a result of 5-6 years of hard work. Now I feel I have more responsibility after Shayan,” he says during our interview.
Not satisfied, I continue to push back.
How does this new level of fame feel, I wonder. Does it change things, I ask him over Whatsapp a few days after our interview.
He texts me: “Brb, I’m driving please.” I look up from my phone to tell my mom “Emmad Irfani is driving right now.” She, a diehard fan, clutches her heart and looks up at the ceiling.
Later, he writes back: “Fame is just a byproduct of what I do. I can control my effort and my attitude towards my work and I believe that is going to determine the quality of the results. The moment you think you have it all figured out... that is where the complacency starts to come. One has to keep on working hard.”
He adds: “You never arrive... it’s like a peakless mountain that you keep pushing [at even] after reaching a milestone.”
This somewhat evasive yet intellectual response is not just an act. It’s truly who the man is. After each of our interactions I’m left thinking: maybe he really is just a simple, down-to-earth, humble, and, dare I say… normal sort of person.
At this point, I’ve interviewed plenty of celebrities to know how to spot a not-so-humble brag about the apparently unexpected ways fame is threatening to turn their world upside down. Once a newcomer -- mere days into a newfound fame -- mourned how he could never leave his house anymore leaving me tempted to tell him that in a country like Pakistan where there is no paparazzi culture and social media success doesn’t necessarily equate to on-the-street type of recognisability, he’d be just fine.
Emmad Irfani is different.
Although he tells me he’s not a big Bollywood fan, he remembers being at a crossroads in 2010, when he happened to watch Farhan Akhtar’s Luck by Chance (a story about a struggling actor who migrates to Mumbai hoping to make it big). He credits the film for planting a seed.
“Kamyabi hum khud chun thay hain,” he says, quoting the film. “You have to go after what you want.”
He’s only recently started watching his own dramas. Before, watching himself on-screen left him self-conscious and overly critical.
He continues to call Lahore home even though Karachi is the place to be for those in the entertainment industry. He doesn’t seem to care much about credentials, schmoozing or partying with fellow celebs. He’s away from home a lot so when he’s not working, he’s spending time with his kids.
“I’m an outsider,” he says matter-of-factly.
He won’t talk about future projects because he doesn’t want to “jinx” anything. But he does let slip that he’s reading a film script right now for a period piece set in the 1910s.
He talks openly about overcoming a crippling shyness as well as a particularly dark, depressive period in his life. He tells me how he read Manto out loud to overcome a lisp.
He muses, “Mark Twain says the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why. During modeling I was seeking the why. Acting gave me the why. I believed in myself for the first time in my life. I had the foundation from modeling but I knew I was starting from scratch. If you work hard, you will never be disappointed.”
He tells me he’s infused a lot of this personal philosophy into his current on-screen avatar, Shayan.
“Shayan is repping not just hope in the story. He’s hope for everyone. Whatever you’re going through in life, you can turn things around. That’s why I think he struck a chord with the audience,” says Irfani.
Of course, a positive personality is not the only reason why Shayan has inspired a small movement of swooning old and young women alike. The real reason Shayan is so loved is because we haven’t seen many male characters like him before. Shayan is a breath of feminist fresh air in an industry that still insists on writing very traditional, antiquated, and, misogynistic male characters.
When his wife’s best friend is murdered by his sociopathic baby brother Wajih (Bilal Abbas Khan), Shayan surprises everyone by choosing to support his wife over his brothers, opting to leave behind the family home and inheritance. He even supports his wife pursuing criminal charges against Wajih.
And because this is reel life, Shayan is not just impossibly good and kind and just. He also happens to be really, really good looking.
In real life, Emmad Irfani is a nominee for 2018’s ‘100 Most Handsome Men’ list. I read out parts of an article out loud to him in which the writer equates him to a Greek God, describing him as both “pleasing to the eyes and mind”.
There are many articles and listicles like this on the Internet, I tell him. He laughs.
Is it disruptive, I wonder, to be this good looking? Does it distract from his attempts at serious acting in a serious role?
Doesn’t it bother him when people only ever want to talk about how good looking Emmad Irfani is?
“It’s not limiting,” he says. “Fame and attention is temporary. I have to be humble. To not let adulation go to my head or the criticism to my heart.”
“Ideally, I’d like to be talked about in terms of my craft and capabilities. But once you're a public commodity every tool comes into play. All this is a result of hard work, of years in the gym, of taking care of myself. Talking about my looks is flattering but I don’t let it get to my head, I take it in stride. It’s flattering, yes. But as an actor you have to accept your weaknesses and strength. I look at this as a strength because if you’re gonna be a hero… well, it’s working in my favour. "
He pauses then adds, “But I’m just an actor.”