Asif Basra, An Actor Who Disappeared Into A Character

Ankur Pathak
·Entertainment Editor
·10-min read
Asif Basra (Photo: HuffPost India )
Asif Basra (Photo: HuffPost India )

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the ministry of social justice. You can also mail or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

On November 12, the Senior Superintendent of Police at Kangra, a mountain town in Himachal Pradesh, confirmed that the actor Asif Basra was found dead in a private complex in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala. According to news reports, Basra was 53 and was living with his British girlfriend in the property that he had leased .

As news of his death broke, tributes poured in from actors, filmmakers and other people from the film industry who had worked with the talented actor. From Black Friday and Parzaania to Jab We Met (he utters the famous dialogue, ‘Akeli Ladki To Khuli Tijori Ki Tarah Hoti Hai’), Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai and Kai Po Che!, Basra was a prolific actor who may not have had central parts in films and TV series but was memorable and stood out in everything that he did.

He was also associated with some international projects such as One Night with the King and Outsourced.

Kareena Kapoor Khan, with whom Basra appeared in a memorable scene in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met, said, “Rest in peace, Asif Basra. Heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones,” while Anushka Sharma, who produced Paatal Lok, one of Basra’s last screen appearances, wrote, “My sincere condolences and prayers with the family and loved ones. RIP Asif Basra.”

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who was a close friend of the late actor tweeted, “It is unbelievable, yet another loss of a dear friend #AsifBasra - gem of a talent & full of life personality Rest In Peace My Friend - More Power to Family.”

HuffPost India spoke to filmmakers and casting directors who gave Basra some of his most memorable roles. They recalled a sincere, hardworking actor who did his work with minimal fuss. While several had fond recollections of their professional association with Basra, they said they didn’t know much about his personal life.

Born in the town of Amravati, Basra dabbled extensively in theatre in the early 90s before making his first Hindi film appearance as an eccentric director in Chandan Arora’s Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (2003).

He acted in over 20 plays and was a regular fixture at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, and travelled with plays across India, performing in English, Hindi and Urdu productions in the US, England and Dubai.

In Main Madhuri..., Basra is a no-nonsense filmmaker who rudely asks Antara Mali’s Chutki to leave the set where the daughter of a former star is being groomed for a launch. While it was a relatively small part in a movie that was an Antara Mali show, Basra shone as Shanawaz Qureshi in Anurag Kashyap’s breakthrough hit, Black Friday, about the Bombay blasts of 1993.

In an interview with HuffPost India, Gautam Kishanchandani, the casting director who selected Basra for the role, said “One of my friends from Prithvi Theatre had told me about him. He was a prolific actor on stage. When I saw him, I felt he had the most interesting face an actor could have—he could be vulnerable, he could be strict and cruel, he was the kind of actor who disappeared into the character.”

Kishanchandani cast him again, this time in Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Time In Mumbaai (2010), where he played a hot-headed cop and father to a young Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi). “His face told a story,” Kishinchandani recalled. “There was an effortless quality to his performance. He made it look easy but it wasn’t. Not a lot of actors can manage that.”

Before he began acting in films, Basra honed his skills as a theatre actor, most notably in Feroz Khan’s Mahatma vs Gandhi, where he played a variety of characters, including that of a rabid right-winger.

It was in the play Mahatma vs Gandhi that Imtiaz Ali first spotted Basra. “What I needed was a very precise actor for this part,” said Ali over a phone conversation. “It was meant to be both terrifying and funny. And Asif was a practised actor who’d understand the sensibilities with which I was writing those scenes. From the very beginning, he hit me as a very intelligent and an illuminating mind,” Ali said.

When Ali narrated the railway station scene to Basra, a wicked smile took over his face. “I was impressed by the way he was processing the script I was narrating. I won’t forget the smile on his face because he got the humour in it,” said the director, who converted the Lonavala railway station into Ratlam for the movie.

Ali said that while Basra and Kareena Kapoor came from very different schools of thought, their sensibilities matched seamlessly when they were on location.

“Kareena is a very strange actor because she’s a film actor and not a stage actor. The presence of Asif pre-marinated her in a way. She picks up on the vibe and responds. The way they were doing the lines, Kareena got drawn into that world and responded to it. We had shot this scene through the night and it was great fun.”

Even 17 years after his first movie, the actor got many of his roles after auditions. An associate director who worked with Basra on two projects recalled that sometimes, the frustration of this would show, though the actor never let it affect his work.

“He would be irritable and moody. At times, he would be like, ‘why do I have to go through auditions?’ It’s normal. When you are at that age and that stage, you just lose the strength to go through the cycle of auditions. But he was such a thorough professional, whenever he’d show up, he would have his lines memorised and one could tell he had workshopped his character.”

Basra met Feroz Khan in the late 90s. “He came to me at a very early stage in his career. He just showed up and auditioned for the play Mahatma vs Gandhi, which I was casting at the time. He was new and raw. But despite the rough edges, his belief as an actor was very strong. There was something very sincere about him. Whatever you threw at him, he aced,” Khan said, adding that Basra was also a sharp listener.

“Which is a very good quality in an actor. You listen more, you explore so much as a performer. He was also very charitable in terms of giving to other actors. You could experience him being there but he wasn’t overbearing ever. In most of his roles, he’s effective without screaming for attention, he doesn’t distract you.”

Asif Basra (Photo: HuffPost India )
Asif Basra (Photo: HuffPost India )

Filmmaker Rahul Dholakia, who made two films with the actor, Parzaania and Lamhaa, told HuffPost India that Basra would call him after every announcement by the maker.

“He would call me and say ‘Mai hu na?’ and I would say of course. Then he would laugh heartily and say mazaa ayega. Somehow we would adjust dates and money to accommodate the film. He was very positive and loved by everyone. I feel bad I did not know what he was going through.”

He added that Basra was so fantastic in Parzaania, he didn’t have to think twice before casting him again in Lamhaa. “He was such a friendly and accommodating actor that it was a no-brainer to take him on. My only regret is that we could not work on a bigger roles.”

Khan said that while many actors worry about the length of their parts, Basra would never lose his sleep over this. “He was dependable and concerned about doing his job well. There are no small or big parts, there are only small and big actors. Even in a small part, he was a big actor.”

Several filmmakers that HuffPost India spoke to mentioned that Juhu’s Prithvi Theatre was Basra’s favourite spot in the city and he’d be often found there with some of his other theatre actor friends. Earlier this year, when he told friends that he was moving to McLeod Ganj for a while, many were happy to hear that he was shifting to a place with more peace and calm than Mumbai.

“We used to mostly meet at Prithvi Theatre. At least two annual events: Jennifer’s (Kapoor, who runs Prithvi) birthday, the other being the Prithvi Festival. His success delighted me. He made so much progress. He was just coming into his own. He could have taken a big leap from here. It’s so tragic,” added Khan.

There are no small or big parts, there are only small and big actors. Even in a small part, he was a big actor. Feroz Khan

Anurag Kashyap, too, met him at Prithvi. “I knew him from my Prithvi theatre days. We met at a workshop . And we used to hang a lot . He was just an ever-smiling, nice guy and a great actor. Even before I decided to direct a film, I knew him. So it’s not like one had to discover him,” Kashyap told HuffPost India.

Said actor Rajkummar Rao, “It’s such a huge loss. I’ve worked with him in Kai Po Che and then in an ad film. He was such a happy soul and was always trying to make the scene better with his performance. He was so natural in front of the camera. There was this constant smile that he had which became a part of his personality. What happened is very very unfortunate. I still can’t believe that he is not with us anymore. I hope he is at peace.”

The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput had briefly led to a conversation about mental health in a high-pressure industry, before it was hijacked into a witch-hunting conspiracy. Kishinchandani said that everybody is “silently struggling” and while there were many social media posts about how people facing difficulties should “reach out”, not many gathered the courage to do so.

“All actors, ADs, DoPs are freelancers. We make friends on a set. But when the film is done, we disconnect. Then we land up on another set, we connect from where we had left off. I used to audition Asif time and again. Par kaisi freelancer wali dosti hai yaar. Most of our friendships are very project-related. I had heard a few months back that he had moved to Himachal. I was thinking, fuck, Asif Himachal chala gaya. I should have called him to check on him,” said Kishanchandani.

Echoing a similar sentiment, Imtiaz Ali added that the nature of artists in the film industry is such that it makes them susceptible to a variety of mental health issues.

“I am well aware of the vulnerabilities that this industry throws you in. We’ve taken the risks, we’ve not come here for a life of assurances and guarantee. There’s a constant sense of uncertainty, but at times, it gets too much. This pandemic has also exposed our vulnerabilities. Actors and filmmakers are like a travelling caravan. We’re constantly banding, disbanding as a group. If you do not attach yourself to something, there’s loneliness. Everybody is yours and nobody is yours.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the ministry of social justice. You can also mail or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).


How We Should Be Talking About Sushant Singh Rajput's Death

Inside Rhea Chakraborty's Year Of Love, Friendship And Loss

Bollywood's 'Usual Suspects' Spoke Up For Rhea. What Would Others Lose If They Did As Well?

This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.