There’s high-velocity excitement around Irrfan Khan. He’s had two back-to- back releases. His latest film Talvar (based on a highly controversial double murder case in Delhi) is being hailed as one of the most riveting fact-to-fiction stories told in recent times. The executive producers of Jazbaa hover around him, enumerating the first weekend collections of Talvar, hoping to cash in on its success. Journalists from a cross-section of media surround him and we faintly hear names thrown in along with questions—Tom Hanks, Aishwarya Rai, Ron Howard. His manager Manpreet walks in and out of the room discussing flight details to Delhi. He’s just back from Florence and may soon be on his way to Los Angeles. Yet another film with yet another international studio? “Maybe,” is all we are told. The papers flash headlines about Ridley Scott approaching him for a film for the second time (he was offered a role in The Martian which he turned down for Piku). It’s perhaps the busiest Khan has ever been.
He takes off his sunglasses, rubs his eyes after wrapping up a video interview and walks towards us asking no one in particular for a matchbox to light his self-rolled cigarette. “Mashaal bhi chalegi,” he says with a smile. Dressed in a simple black tee and jeans, his energy unfazed by everything that’s buzzing around him. “It’s better to be the spectator than just the subject, isn’t it?” he asks. He’s happy about the way Talvar, an unusual film (in his words), is being received, but, “It’s not possible to stay in a constant state of ecstasy. You need to settle down and see how things are unfolding, and that’s when you see why it’s happening.”
Even as an interviewee he knows how to hold your attention. His eyes, once described by his father as chalices, tell you what his words don’t. He flashes a faint smile every time he reads between your questions. He barely uses his hands, much like the way he plays most of his parts.
Prod a little further and you can tell there’s a lot going on in his head. With Piku, Jurassic World and now Talvar, 2015 is his year by every rule of the book. Rules, he loves to challenge with the parts he plays. “I don’t know if I can call it a breakthrough year, but I’m fortunate that all the good films are coming one after the other. The audiences are asking to be engaged mentally, emotionally, intellectually. Hell, they are asking us to engage them with time pass, but the good thing is at least they are thinking,” he says.
It’s been one of Khan’s strongest traits as an actor. He never underestimates his audience. No matter how mindful or mindless a film he’s part of, he always finds a direct connectwith those watching him. Be it through a simple throwback of the head, or by adjusting his reading glasses, or pausing a few seconds before responding to a question, he always manages to steal a moment with the viewer—even before he communicates with his co-actor. He lets them in before letting himself out, and with precision as sharp as his gaze. This is perhaps why he finds a story to tell even with characters that may be drawn out in just a few lines on paper. “My character Rana in Piku is just one of the many parts Shoojit had written in this world that was so real. Honestly, there was little about Rana that could be fleshed out in the context of the story because it wasn’t about him. But then, how do you play a part like that with conviction? Just by surrendering yourself to that space. You cannot imagine the things you will discover once you make yourself believe that you are truly part of that world,” he says.
It’s a philosophy that never let him define his range as an actor in the three decades that he has been performing. You still cannot predict what Irrfan’s next role might be. He has never made moulds for himself like the ‘superstars’ of the Hindi film industry. He broke all barriers—of age, language and physical attributes—to get his space.
Be it the silent widower Saajan Fernandes of The Lunchbox (2013), or Professor Ashoke Ganguli of The Namesake (2006), or even the part of Sunil Sanyal from the American TV show In Treatment (2010), some of Khan’s most lovable parts have him playing characters at least 20 years older than he is. “When I was playing Sunil Sanyal, I was really falling short of life experiences to make it convincing. I was playing a widower who’s highly insecure of his surroundings and relationships. I did not have that kind of complexity. But that’s when your experiences, your desire to create something new is tested. You push and prod yourself to a point where you start discovering things about yourself you never knew,” he says.
He confesses that it was a method he missed out on during his days as a student actor at the National School of Drama. Khan, who was born and brought up in Jaipur, got into NSD when he was 19—within a year of his father’s passing away, despite most in the family advising him against it. “My calling to learn was way too strong to be bogged down by pressures. But my NSD days were also filled with too much anxiety about the future. I could never really enjoy playing my parts because I was always worried if I’d make it or not. We did not really have faith that nature has created you and it will take care of you. I wish I could change that aspect of my learning,” he confesses. While most of his colleagues were happy doing theatre, he knew from the very beginning that cinema was where he wanted to be.
The journey was tough, to a point that made him want to give it all up. He still remembers being edited out of his first film Salaam Bombay , an experience that broke his spirit. “I remember sobbing all night when Mira told me that my part was reduced to merely nothing. But it changed something within me. I was prepared for anything after that,” he says.
From the very start, he came across as an actor with the intensity only very senior actors like Pankaj Kapur and Naseeruddin Shah possessed. It wasn’t like he was a troubled child, but there was something that was always brewing within him. “I was not an unhappy kid, but I was always craving my mother’s attention. I would do anything to get her affection and I think at some level, acting helped me channelise a lot of those emotions.”
After Asif Kapadia’s Warrior (2001), which got him global attention, he emerged as an actor to reckon with. Back home, while there were films like Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003), it was with Mira Nair’s The Namesake that some of the best creative minds in international cinema took notice. “I remember there was a scene in Maqbool where I watch my newborn from a little window frame in the hospital door. It was the last time I was going to see my child, and at the end of the scene a tear drop trickles down from the glass frame. Now that was not planned, that’s the kind of moment that just happens.” Though his canvas as an actor only expanded from there on, it was these moments of truth he says he strived to achieve with every role.
When Ang Lee cast Irrfan in Life of Pi, he said of him, “I was always familiar with Irrfan’s work, so casting him was almost a no-brainer. He’s someone who surprises you every minute with his interpretation of the story and the character. And I discovered that after I watched The Namesake.”
Over the years, he has even been criticised by many for taking up small parts in massive Hollywood films, like the role of Dr Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spiderman. But for Khan, it was about putting himself out there on sets that were alien to him. “When I do something like The Lunchbox, it’s highly exhausting and even boring because most of my scenes are with a sheet of paper or a dabba full of food. Then when I go and act in a superhero film in Hollywood, it’s a completely opposite experience. Both films shook me out of my comfort zone, asked me to look for new ways to say things, surprise myself.”
Today he is happy to be living out of a suitcase. He’s got two parallel lives at the moment. One in India where he sometimes gets the kind of roles he wants to do, and sometimes doesn’t. And the other is his role as the most sought after Indian actor abroad. After The Lunchbox , which not just changed things for Khan, but also changed perceptions about Indian films within European and American markets, it’s been a non-stop journey for him. “It makes me happy when people outside India recognise my work, because at some level I am also able to change their idea about our cinema. Our stories are getting more real, our audience is changing and the world should know about it.”
Ask him if it’s extra pressure having to represent the country as an actor in places like film festivals at Cannes and Florence, and he says, “As an actor, the kind of emotion I create in a scene is relatable because I don’t rely on false perceptions. Similarly I don’t put up a face when I go abroad. It’s the one thing I strived for during my learning days. To find my truth. Even today when I stand on the podium with five other stalwarts, who I look up to, I try to remain true to myself and I guess that’s what they appreciate,” he says. He says he doesn’t change his approach when he works with a Ron Howard or a Tom Hanks because he believes he doesn’t need to. “Their world is different, but they hire me for what I bring to them, and if that changes I will cease to be myself.”
Among his biggest challenges as an actor is to keep his opinion and his craft separate. “Talvar was the kind of script that changed many of my opinions that were formed without full knowledge. We are quick to judge and succumb to hyped reality. As an actor I think it is important to be able to not fall prey to that, especially with a script inspired by reality.” That he has now mastered his craft is something everyone agrees on, except he himself. “I have moments of panic even today. There’s nothing known as mastery. You give people something they can take from, something aspirational, something inspiring, and that doesn’t always come methodically. You have to rely on instinct,” he adds.
Years ago his only dream was to present his mother with a bagful of money. Today things have changed. “Today I have changed, my mother has changed and so have my dreams. She will now ask me to keep the bag of money aside and spend some more time with her. Even now she may rebut me for something I would do, and I will still strive to gain her attention. That’s not the actor within, that’s just me.”
We ask him if “Irrfan Khan can really do anything” as the line in his recent video with AIB goes, and all he does is let out a silent smile. “I don’t want to be able to do everything. I want to create something, break it, create and then break some more. Why look at mastering anything? Life is perishable. You will anyway become a story in some time. So why not become a great one?” he asks.