Irrfan Khan, man of many faces

As he expands into the European market and explores new tropes back home, Irrfan Khan opens up on storytelling and spontaneity

It’s a short jetty ride from Versova to Madh Island where Irrfan Khan is shooting for an advertisement. The actor himself, however, seems to be on a rather deep and profound voyage within — looking back, reflecting, assessing and wondering how to travel forward in his career. Entirely appropriate, what with him hitting the landmark age — the golden 50s — earlier this year, and having been around for almost three decades in the film industry.


It has been a long journey indeed for a man who claims to be a cultivated, rather than a born, actor, who remembers being so shy in school that none of his teachers would even remember him today. In fact, courting the spotlight had been the last thing in Khan’s mind. The basic rule in his chequered career has been not to consciously plan anything and not to build expectations. “The minute you start anticipating things life surprises you. The dreams can come crashing down,” he says. But he also strongly believes that life keeps nudging you towards a particular direction. “It gives you signals. You should just be ready to receive them.” He claims he has.

Beyond stereotypes

So, even though offers have been pouring in from abroad, he has decided to opt for an independent film (which he can’t reveal more about) set in New York, instead of big studio flicks. “I just want to find new ways to redefine myself, to explore other aspects of my personality. There was a pattern emerging that I wanted to break away from and do a small personal film,” he explains. This, after having worked with the giants of world cinema like Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle, after being feted as the face of Indian cinema for a global, multicultural audience and being called “Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Vincent Gallo, all rolled into one” by filmmaker Asif Kapadia, who gave him the big acting break in The Warrior. Why a step back then? “Every market has a tendency, a compulsion to quickly exploit you as much as possible and then throw you out,” he says. It’s up to the actor then to stay relevant by projecting himself in a different light.

Irrfan Khan, man of many faces

So the recent international projects have not necessarily been from Hollywood. He explored the European market with Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox and Anup Singh’s Qissa. Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s Bangladeshi film, about “complexities of relationships”, called Doob: No Bed of Roses and Anup Singh’s The Song of Scorpions, where he acts with the rebellious Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani, will add to the European sojourn. But it is still important for him to tell stories in India, for fellow Indians.

The actor has been widely known for his intense, dramatic performances but there have been some wonderful light touches on the CV, too — Life in a Metro and Piku. He is now adding more to that roster. The clutch of upcoming Indian movies is in a lighter vein. He decided to go for the upcoming Hindi Medium by Saket Chaudhary because it felt like “a breath of fresh air”. A happy, engaging, entertaining film, but with a significant underlying issue, of school admissions, and the theme of “mental slavery” of “angrezi zubaan (English language)”, as Khan describes it.

Taking chances

We catch him in an introspective mood in the vanity van, in between shots. If there’s a man who can be calm about the artistic restlessness simmering within, it is Khan. Quite unexpected for a man who confesses to being prone to anxiety in his youth: “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to become an actor at all or not. Would I even be able to learn the craft? I wish I could go back to the drama school [National School of Drama] and chill out more, take it more easy.” Far from those days, he seems to be unruffled now, with composure rather than impatience. Perhaps he has learnt to wear the intrinsic edginess easy.

A masterclass in acting follows as he gets talking about his changing approach to the craft. Unlike the early days as an actor, he feels he is much more in control of his craft. “Earlier you looked for inspiration — how to get into the mood. You would torture yourself doing all kinds of tricks. When your craft becomes refined you react more spontaneously,” he says. So, for a recent movie, he decided not to read a single word of the script: “I just heard the narration, decided I will go as a blank slate and react to whatever the director tells me on the sets.”

There is still a lot of love for the “negative but multilayered character” in Haasil and Paan Singh Tomar, one of his films as the main lead that reached out to a wide audience. But there are many of his roles that he would now want to revisit and reinterpret: “As you grow older you get a different perspective. You see your own work from a different point of view.”

On his directors
  • Wes Anderson: I didn’t interact with him much, but I remember him as a pleasant guy, completely engrossed in the medium.
  • Danny Boyle: I will never be able to forget the consistency of his energy. From five months before the start of the film to the Oscars, the energy remained constant. I never saw dips in it.
  • Ang Lee: He puts his own life at stake while making a movie. It becomes a question of life and death; you can see that physical transformation in him. He is a trained actor. He understands how it works. He challenges actors in a way that they have to rethink their craft from a different angle.
  • Michael Winterbottom: His shooting style is unique and improvisational. He doesn’t rely on continuity, he doesn’t rely on the script, he doesn’t rely on “action” and “cut”. The shot may not have begun, but he would have already begun shooting his actors. You never know how he would use your body language in the edit. On the shoot, he is just capturing; he makes the film on the editing table.
  • Asif Kapadia: The Warrior was not just my first international film, but it gave me birth as an actor. The repetition of TV had begun to make me lose interest. His film made me realise how the story can grow on you; how you begin interacting with it.

What has grown over the years is the hunger for good roles. What has remained constant is treating acting as a way to reflect on life. It’s the reason why though he doesn’t want to be seen as a spokesperson of any party or religion, he does want to engage with the issues of the day: “You want to pick stories which dwell, explore and reflect on issues. If you don’t reflect then you are not an actor, you aren’t a human being, in fact. How can an artiste be isolated? Where will he generate his craft from? Art can’t exist in isolation.”

The real deal

Uncertainty is a big part of filmmaking. There have been highs and lows and plateaus for Khan, too. Ironically, it helped him come to terms with the big bane of his life: “It made me learn how to deal with and overcome anxiety.” No wonder he considers work a “way to heal”, one that has also brought him recognition and fame. But he also sees the flip side: “Acknowledgement has the power to heal you, but it also has the power to cage you. It can become an addiction for you. It can corrupt you, deform you. It can make you ugly and small from inside.”

After all these years, Khan wants to retain the touch of innocence he started off with. When he came to the scene, he was considered far from a textbook hero, more a personification of the ordinary. Now he is a star, an international one. But the reluctance towards the larger-than-life trappings of stardom stays. He feels he can’t ever build that aura around him. “That will limit me, create a kind of confinement for me,” he says, adding, “I will have to be relatable whatever may come.” He remains the Khan next door.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2020 2:04:41 PM |

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