Irrfan Khan has surprised himself more than anyone else. For someone who never thought he could make it as a star, "with my kind of face", his name is now famous not just here in India but around the world. The man is nonchalant about himself, his life, career, and everything else. But after his first true-blue solo hit in Hindi early this year, Hindi Medium, he is perceptibly a lot more relaxed, confident and more on terra firma about everything in life.
After all, it is also not every time that an actor gets the privilege, without being able to demand it, of doing two light-hearted romances with messages back to back. "I am not a big star who wishes and chooses certain genres at any given time. But I am choosing lighter roles to save my energies for a really intense film I will be doing soon," he reveals.
On a lighter note
Of the two films, the recently released Qarib Qarib Singlle is definitely lighter, a rom-com with an old-world charm, as Irrfan puts it. The actor is not nervous at all about whether this film and he will be accepted by the audience, but he is definitely curious. "I want to know how they will receive me and this film. It is a coincidence that two successive films of mine are like that, maybe because film-makers and then the people felt that this man can even do romance," he says with a mildly mischievous grin.
Even more interestingly, in both films, his leading ladies are unconventional faces for Hindi cinema. The former had Pakistani heroine Saba Qamar, and this one has Malayalam actor Parvathy Thiruvoth. But both have admitted to having grabbed the chance to work with the actor who has done films like The Namesake, Lunchbox and Paan Singh Tomar.
"I was excited about the relatable character I was playing," he says, describing the relationship shown in the film to be like the old-world romance that he was exposed to while growing up, in both real and reel life. "When I say old-world, it's not about the fact that we are both shown as middle-aged when it all begins," he explains further. "Those were times when the simple words 'I love you' did not come so easily. It would take time and slowly you would get to know the girl. Like Raaj Kumar in Pakeezah, who tells Meena Kumari not to soil her feet by keeping them barefoot on the floor. His soul has reacted to her, but he barely knows the woman otherwise."
Does it bother him whether a film works or not? "Of course it does! Expectations from every film are always natural, but one cannot dwell on it. Before every film, there is a strange curiosity and anxiety, but then I realise that thinking about it does not change anything because the audience decides whether it should accept or reject a film after watching it. Ideally, we actors must vanish for a week after a release and come back and find out what happened," he explains.
He adds wisely, "Over-thinking only creates anxiety. Let me give you an example - stay out the whole day doing what you want, or sit at home in front of the news on television for an hour. See your manastithi (mental status) on both occasions. At home, you will find a strange anger rising within you. So, the best thing is to leave things to God and the audience."
Irrfan is also all praise for his QQS director, Tanuja Chandra, who has not yet given any hit in her career. "It's a new chapter now in her filmography," he says. "It's now more personal and delicate, and there are more relatable characters," he says.
The success formula
Having done so many big international films like The Warrior, Inferno, Life Of Pi and more, how does he look at humbler films like these? He explains, "All films are equally important to me. A story is never small, though the budgets may be small or big. It is not as if the 100-crore-film or international movie has a greater impact. Any film made from the heart is important. I act in every film from the heart too."
How does he choose his varied films? "There is no formula or system I follow," he replies. "I do every kind of film that fires me, but one thing I never do is think of the business a film will do," he replies. "By the grace of God, I have never been short of work in 20 years, in films or on television earlier. I just prayed that I get work that I like, and I think that has started happening now. I had no fear of getting work, but only about whether I will be able to reach the people with the kind of films I want to narrate."
When asked, Irrfan has a different take from the norm on doing intense and light roles. He says, "An intense role is taxing. It drains your energy and consumes you more, so you have to rewind and detox later to refresh yourself. When you are doing a comedy, you are already in a playful mode at work and so comedy is never taxing."
However, for obvious reasons, Irrfan prefers sync sound. "The fear that I have to bring back the intensity months after a shoot while dubbing later is very intense. Dubbing can be very difficult for an intense role," he explains.
What, for him, is the difference between an actor and a star? "There isn't much of a difference. If an actor entertains, gradually he is called a star, but I do try and stay far away from stardom," he smiles.
Irrfan has just completed the international film The Puzzle and is all set to star in Amazon's political satire, The Ministry. Here, at home, he is doing films with Honey Trehan, Homi Adajania and Vishal Bhardwaj. About his Amazon debut, he simply says, "This is the first such satire on the digital medium. The script and series are being done by mature people, and it's been quite a while before we did a theme like this: I remember a Manoj Kumar film made almost 50 years ago in which the song 'Ek Tara Bole' was bitingly satirical."
Finally, a personal query. In all our conversations, this time and in the past, we have noticed the actor's tendency to use pure Hindi words not in common usage, like manastithi, achambit (surprised) and parichit (familiar) instead of commoner Hindi or Urdu substitutes. There must be some background that has made his language so rich. "I think every language has its own beauty," he ponders, smiles and replies. "I am familiar with Hindi, Urdu and English literature, but I do not think in English. But I love this freedom to use mixed languages and pity those who have limitations of expression. That is the beauty of our culture - diversity in all aspects."