Post a 23-year journey and equally at home in both Hollywood and Indian films, Irrfan Khan can give you a master class on the art of subtlety.
Irrfan Khan, who now prefers to be referred to by just his first name, made his acting debut as the letter writer in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988, but he’s best remembered for playing parts such as Ranvijay Singh in Haasil, Maqbool in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth, the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire, Paan Singh Tomar in Paan Singh Tomar, Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox, Roohdaar in Haider and Rana in Piku. Of course he has been a part of forgettable films too, making choices that even he might question now. These included Supari, Footpath, Aan: Men At Work and Rog, to name a few.
The multi-faceted, ubertalented 48-year-old has successfully traversed television, Bollywood and Hollywood, commercial and independent cinema. He is as comfortable rubbing shoulders with Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) as he is co-starring with Tom Hanks (Inferno) and Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man).
It’s an enviable career, and one Irrfan wears with nonchalance. This misleading insouciance, which comes across on screen as well as in person, is part of his allure — a kind of enigma. He’s not a conventional Bollywood romantic hero, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s rarely been presented as one. Maqbool and 7 Khoon Maaf were aberrations until recently when Irrfan internalised the loneliness of Saajan Fernandes, wooed through his stomach and love letters in The Lunchbox, and disarmingly charmed Deepika Padukone in Piku.
Long way up
Born in Jaipur, Rajasthan, a graduate of the National School of Drama, Irrfan moved to Mumbai to pursue a career in acting. Years of struggle and patiently working regularly in television finally paid off when he was cast in British-Asian director Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001). While international acclaim began then, it took Bollywood a while longer to recognise his talent. Tigmanshu Dhulia tapped into it with Haasil and the actor and director have since worked together in Charas, Paan Singh Tomar and Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns. Irrfan’s other enduring partnership has been with Vishal Bhardwaj (Maqbool, 7 Khoon Maaf, Haider) and Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, The Namesake, Migration). A Padma Shri, National Award and numerous other awards later, Irrfan, who is married to writer Sutapa Sikdar and has two sons, is currently in a golden phase.
The success of The Lunchbox and Piku is being followed by the release of the highly anticipated Jurassic World. Irrfan plays Masrani, the owner of the dinosaur park. While his wife handled many of his matters, he now has a PR agency, a manager and an agent in Hollywood. Yet he remains discreet and stays off the paparazzi radar.
View from the park
“The park is now hi-tech. My character, Masrani, is a flamboyant businessman and entrepreneur who has taken over the park from the previous owner, John Hammond,” said Irrfan, speaking about the sci-fi adventure in which he stars alongside Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio and Bryce Dallas Howard. His other co-stars, the dinosaurs, are of course visual effects and computer generated. But Irrfan is no stranger to working in visual effects driven films. “The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi also had a lot of computer graphics. The difference is not in the method of performing. You are working in a blank environment and have to imagine what might be around. The difference is in the story and your behaviour changes according to the character and situation,” he says.
Talking about the experience of shooting this feature, Irrfan adds, “I loved the part, the story and the team. The whole package was very attractive.” He mentions this difference between Hollywood and his home industry, where story is paramount and sequels do not just happen to capitalise on popularity. “When you are coming up with a franchise, it is all the more important to give the audience something new. Why did Steven Spielberg wait so long (the last film, Jurassic Park III, released in 2001) to make the next Jurassic film: Because he was waiting for the right script. Writing is the important star there,” he said. Expanding on this difference, Irrfan said, “Even if an actor comes up with an interpretation of the character, it still has to work around the story. There can be no compromise on that. The actor has to give in to the script and story.”
In Hanks’ company
Perhaps his most high profile film to date is the one he is currently shooting. Inferno, the latest in the Robert Langdon series, based on the book by bestseller Dan Brown, headlines Tom Hanks. In this film directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, Irrfan plays Harry Sims, ‘The Provost’. “I don’t usually read fiction, but this one I read. It’s a very interesting thriller,” he said about the book. Asked why he thought Howard cast him in the part, Irrfan replied, “Ask the director,” his wry sense of humour bursting through.
Irrfan appreciates the respect he receives internationally and also acknowledges that Indian films are being given recognition on the world stage. His owns films, like Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire and The Lunchbox, have contributed in no small measure to affecting this changing perception of Indian films. “People are beginning to see the effort and layers we bring to our work,” he said. This recognition of Irrfan’s contribution was evident at the 14th River to River Florence Indian Film Festival which featured a retrospective of his films. Among the films screened was A Mighty Heart and episodes from his TV show In Treatment.
Piku and others
Relishing the nationwide affection for Piku, Irrfan said he was most impressed by his co-star Deepika Padukone. “She was drawn by the story and committed to it. She was ready to explore and expand her ouevre and that’s why you feel that magic on screen.”At an open forum recently, director of Piku, Shoojit Sircar said of Irrfan’s acting style, “Irrfan won’t do rehearsals but he puts the things in his head. The script is in his blood and veins.” His forthcoming Bollywood films include Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Meghna Gulzar’s Talwar with Tabu and Nishikant Kamat’s social thriller Madaari which Irrfan is also co-producing. The Indo-French production Divine Lovers, with Irrfan and Kangana Ranaut, is still under-development.
Speaking of the Indian film industry and its changing face, especially after the success of his own The Lunchbox, Irrfan said, “The film industry is definitely expanding. There is a lot more new and fresh talent and a changing scene. The audience is looking for good cinema. There are a few courageous, imaginative filmmakers who are passionate about storytelling and who do not follow conventions. They go with the demands of the script. However, there are other capable directors who compromise for the sake of the box office.”
Irrfan’s career is as admirable as is his matter-of-fact attitude to his achievements, accolades and versatility. And he’s far from done. After films about constipation, dinosaurs, and lunchboxes, he has said that he would love to do a film about music. Here’s hoping.
Renowned for being silent on sets, Khan says he’s kept to himself right from his college days. Calling himself shy, he admits that during his days at NSD (National School of Drama), he could never call his teachers by name. In fact, with few friends and a limited social life, his only source of fun was sports. Now, however, the actor can name some of the industry’s biggest names as co-stars. Like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the upcoming film, Jazbaa. “Aishwarya doesn’t carry the baggage of her stardom and that’s required for her role. She is doing it intelligently and delicately,” he said in a recent interview, adding that sometimes even intelligent actors commit mistakes. “For instance, in A Mighty Heart (2007, in which he also starred), I feel Angelina Jolie was stronger and more heroic than the role required her to be.”
Behind the Man
Shoojit Sirkar was clear right from the beginning that the role of Rana Chaudhary in Piku had to be portrayed by Irrfan Khan. “He is a very cool actor. He would always want me to narrate the script with the writer around, so he could understand the essence of the character and what I wanted. He would want to know why the character steps back, wears what he is wearing, says those words, everything. He doesn’t mug up lines. He will just listen to us and absorb everything. On the sets, he would walk in and out of his vanity van and we would wonder if he was ready for the shot or not. So we would wait, observe his actions, and then take a call. His dialogue delivery is very organic and that comes out of discipline,” says the director. As for Khan maintaining a low profile and not being publicity hungry, Sirkar adds, “He started out in life like that. PR is the last thing on his mind. Anyhow, everybody knows him now, and he doesn’t need PR.”