The thinking star
He’s the eternal maverick. After his role was edited out of his debut film Salaam Bombay (1988), Irrfan Khan decided to go it carefully, and built up his repertoire from small roles, a significant amount of television (as actor and as a host too) and then making a mark in even unsuccessful but quality films like Haasil and Maqbool a decade ago. He was also acclaimed for his role in the short film Road To Ladakh.
Today, Irrfan is considered a trailblazer and an impeccable actor who can be relied upon to take a film to success on his own steam (Paan Singh Tomar), and also is the apple of many foreign filmmakers’ eyes (The Namesake, A Mighty Heart, Slumdog Millionaire, The Amazing Spider-Man, Life of Pi, as well as in the HBO series In Treatment).
As he puts it, “You’d be surprised to know that I get so many offers from Hollywood that I can shift there, but I want to choose and do roles that give me that something extra to engage myself. I want a longer life as an actor, and I want to be recharged and retain my interest in work. By the way, you will also be surprised to know that there is less money there. But no one pays me simply because I am a good actor, not there and not here. I have my own market and if I were not saleable, no one would cast me. So, though I do not work in the 100 crore films here, I do the 500 crore films there,” he laughs.
Having worked on both sides of the globe, what are the prime differences he sees in the work ethics? “In Hollywood, even blockbusters have a subtext or message hidden beneath. Their marketing strategies also vary according to the needs of the films, whereas we have no such vision. Like they understand that the ticket rates for a big-ticket film and a small but meaningful one cannot be the same.”
In Hindi cinema, his other histrionic triumphs include the lead roles in Rog, Life In A…Metro and Billu, and more recently, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns.Irrfan has survived not merely on his multiple awards and honours (including the National Best Actor award for last year’s Paan Singh Tomar) but because of his sheer range. Come comedy (Dil Kabaddi, Thank You, Billu Barber), action (New York, Paan Singh Tomar), romance (Rog) or drama, he is a chameleon who is game for every kind of role — provided it takes his fancy.
As he says about Thank You, a masala comedy gone wrong, “I connected to the humour and to my character of a male chauvinistic pig. It’s only the regular, unimaginative work within the formula that does not inspire me. I like formula-based films, wherein the treatment is very raw, very real and full of surprises. Any formula becomes fake, I think, without a point of view. I loved a Koi…Mil Gaya and even clean, escapist fare like Munnabhai MBBS at the time when I was doing largely other kinds of films.
Our audience wants escapism, but we must give substance within it. After all, it was the commercial cinema of Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan that inspired me to become an actor.”The challenge, he says, is in doing your own thing within the limitations of the market. “Every great cinematic work is the sum of the limitations and your own thing done within it,” he says wisely, but with an amused twinkle in his eye, as if he has discovered the fact just then!
Method acting is also not Irrfan’s cup of tea. “I personally go by gut feeling about my role. I think of a character and it starts growing along. If you really and completely follow an established acting method, you can never become an actor. Theory never works, techniques do. I want to relate to my audience, and I want them to relate to me and to my performance.”
And Irrfan thanks today’s audiences for that, and for making our cinema an evolved entity. “Nikhil Advani, who directed D-Day, my latest release, is now exploring himself after making normal commercial cinema. All this is happening because the audience is rejecting superfluous cinema and yet, as always, wants to watch every kind of movie, including some no-brainers, because the very function of cinema is to take one away from reality.”
Irrfan stresses that Indian cinema is showing great signs of growth in the last five years. “It’s a very interesting time for refined entertainment,” he smiles. “The definition of heroism is also changing and is not just about fighting 20 people at a time. This, I had always felt, was an insult to the human spirit, as it was just a tiny physical aspect of a hero. Heroism is about choices and how it affects other people and yourself.”
About his role as a RAW agent in D-Day, he says, “The stereotypical image of a spy as a Bond or as a man in a hat and overcoat has been junked. I look like any ordinary person, and as we all know, a real spy’s life is much more dramatic and entertaining than that of the clichéd reel version.
So with mainstream cinema also wanting to experiment, reflect real life and incorporate nuances like these, we can hope to regain what our cinema always had in the past but lost from the ‘70s. Today’s audience wants credible stories, not just stars and masala or recycles of formula. Of course, diversity is a must, and that’s what I aim for in my roles as well.”
Irrfan would rather concentrate on how he interprets his role more than its physicality. “In a sequence in a barber shop in Pakistan, I react normally when that country scores over India in a cricket match that is being shown on television. After all, I am an Indian posing as a Pakistani and I saw no reason to underline that because the audience too knows it. This was against Nikhil’s brief, but he loved it when I explained the logic. I like working with reciprocal directors.”
He adds wryly, “If I find that the nuances are not reaching my director, I am not inclined to play my part as the actor’s spirit in me is stifled.”Irrfan also does not agree to the conventional view that a good co-actor enhances his performance. “This should be the case because if one is only concentrating on one’s solitary performance, it is not good for an actor. But to tell you the truth, I have not really been dependent that way.”
Having said that, he does admit that Rishi Kapoor as the arch-villain was a tremendous co-actor. “He has an interesting and fantastic energy, is always charged, and is so easygoing,” he smiles. “I was not convinced that he was the right choice for the don’s role, but after I saw his look, I realised that I was wrong.”
The success of his own Paan Singh Tomar and now Bhaag Milkha Bhaag prompts him to say, “It only shows that bio-pics should be made with a lot of emotional and intellectual investment. Unless one is ready for that, one cannot just say, ‘Let’s make a bio-pic’ and churn out one.”
At this stage, Irrfan would rather take what came his way. “That’s been my experience over 25 years. Asking for good work and trying hard got me nowhere. If I decided to wait and take what came my way, I usually got good roles.”