Irrfan Khan talks about what attracted him to films and how his understanding of cinema has changed over the years
First Paan Singh Tomar and now Life Of Pi. Irrfan Khan is having a great year at the movies. Ang Lee called him a treasure of talent. With his appearances in Namesake, A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire winning him critical acclaim, Irrfan has become one of those rare Indian actors to get first billing in a Hollywood mainstream film of this scale.
Yet, he believes that Hindi cinema is his bread and butter. In an interview during his promotional tour of Life Of Pi, the thinking actor discusses his priorities and his experience working with Ang Lee.
How are you enjoying your stint with Hollywood?
I have to restrain myself, resist the temptation because I keep getting all kinds of films from Hollywood. Because my survival is not based out of Hollywood. So this is a very privileged position for me. I do films sometimes for survival in India. I choose projects in Hollywood that are challenging... that have something new to offer to me. Whether it is Namesake or In Treatment… If I have to define In Treatment, it was not TV, it was not theatre, it was not cinema... It was something else. I look for challenges and areas that I haven’t got a chance to explore with Hollywood.
So do you work with a different kind of remuneration with Hollywood to be able to do these roles?
Remuneration is not very lucrative for me. It’s not even one-fourth of what I get in India. Just because you see them making multi-million dollar films, it does not mean they will pay Irrfan Khan millions of dollars. The film business is run in a way that you get paid according to whatever your importance is.
You have first billing there in a film that’s likely to get a rich haul at the Oscars given all the early buzz.
Yeah (laughs). Maybe it will change. But Oscars, I am not sure because this year is very competitive. There are so many good films that are being talked about... Lincoln, The Master...
How has your understanding of cinema changed over the years?
When I came into cinema, I was mesmerised by a few actors and when I saw them, I thought they were experiencing something special. That’s what attracted me to films. Initially, it was more about fame. But later it changed. Fame is just an ego-massaging exercise. I’m fortunate to be in this line. I’m in a medium where I can connect with a person who doesn’t understand a single word of the language I speak. But he’s touched by my performance. I become a part of his emotional psyche. And that’s the kind of ability you have as an actor.
So Life Of Pi was one such experience?
No, that was my journey before Life Of Pi. The challenges in Life Of Pi were completely different, something I have never experienced as an actor. The film is dealing with complicated issues. Whoever wants to look at these issues would interpret them in their own way. It will entertain a child who is watching as much as it will entertain an intellectual person. This film will leave you with so many interpretations. And it cannot be achieved unless and until you are aware of it. You have to work towards it. That was the challenge.
What was the biggest take-home for you from Life Of Pi?
Watching Ang. The way he conducts himself, his personality... If you see him, it seems like he has just eliminated all the unnecessary things from his personality... you don’t see a kind of baggage that you would expect from one of the most important directors of our times.
The way he’s passionate about his work, the way he is so concerned and very personal. He’s available to everybody and at the same time, also keeps to himself.
What kind of roles are you looking at doing here post Paan Singh Tomar here?
I am getting more or less the same kind of roles. I am looking at films that are different yet have the ability to make money. All things in this world are a product of contradictions. Like art and commerce. Even in life, there are two opposite forces that are colliding all the time in our universe. And something new emerges when they collide.
Are you excited and confident that films such as Paan Singh Tomar are getting recognised today?
I was confident even 10 to 12 years ago when I did Haasil. I knew people wanted to see something different. They wanted films where entertainment would be redefined. The entertainment industry cannot afford to keep repeating a formula. It needs to keep evolving and redefining itself. Am I pushing the boundaries? Is it good for cinema? Is it entertaining and engaging? Is it suited for cinema or better suited for a book or news? Is it smuggling the issues smartly enough without being in your face? These are things I look for when I choose films.