“In commercial cinema before anything happens they say I love you.” I am in the midst of discussing romance with Irrfan Khan when the actor comes up with this observation. The media, in its hurry to label actors, has often failed to scratch our lone international star beneath the sticker of intensity.
So when the promos of “Piku”, his latest release opposite Deepika Padukone with Amitabh Bachchan completing the unlikely triangle as the father of the girl, started inundating the air space, one got curious about Irrfan’s idea of romance. “My idea of romance is different from the one that is being propagated by commercial cinema. There are so many other things in romance that have not been addressed or dealt with in our films and I try to explore them. Like in ‘Lunchbox’, the two people in love don’t even get to see each other. There is longing, there is attraction. It is like finding your soulmate without even seeing her. In ‘Yeh Saali Zindagi’, the guy is ready to do everything for her despite knowing that she doesn’t belong to him. There is complete submission to this need that he has to save her. Stalking the girl or to be obsessive about her is a very broad way of looking at romance. Life has so many shades of romance. In ‘Piku’ we have explored some of it. People have to understand that it takes time for you to say I love you. So much happens between two people before they propose each other. ‘Piku’ shows romance can be worked around an ailing parent as well. In our so called romantic flicks parents are either absent or they become the main conflict of the story. Here the father is not the only one who is aging, Rana and Piku are also aging and exploring.”
He has a different notion of violence as well. Recently we discovered it in “Qissa” where he internalised the emotion so well that he didn’t need any props to express it. “Internalisation is something that gives you an experience of doing a role,” he explains. “My whole idea of becoming an actor is to experience something that you haven’t. For me the whole point of becoming an actor was to be somebody else. To live that person. Otherwise, sometimes, I am boring for myself.”
However, he says, there are certain roles where when you connect with them it is not a very pleasant space. “As a person you would want to go away from them but then you are an actor so even if you don’t enjoy that space still you want to do it. You want to explore that character for yourself and share it with the audience. Sometimes there are characters which you want to be forever. Umber Singh was not one of them definitely because I didn’t want to be in that space for such a long time. That’s why I took one and a half years to say yes.”
Do such characters leave a scar on the actor’s psyche? “It gives you more than a scar. The way it unfolds, it expands you as a human being. You live somebody else’s experiences through you and that is the uniqueness of being an actor. In Hollywood their discipline is something else. They shoot one film at a time. So there are more chances to go deeper and deeper into a character and it becomes difficult for you to come out. But here we don’t need that kind of depth. We don’t need to connect that deeply and still we can tell a story.”
It was not always the case, though. Dilip Kumar internalised so many tragic roles that he was advised by a psychiatrist to try some light-hearted roles. “It happened because that kind of filmmaking was happening at that time. We lost it completely. If you see ‘Devdas’ you can understand why he was advised lighter roles.”
And then there is Amitabh Bachchan who seems to be attached and detached with the character at the same time. Irrfan says he tried to understand his method and there were some pleasant surprises. “The way he approaches the character, the kind of dedication and alertness he has. At this age he is ready to be raw clay eager to be moulded. And yes he says he doesn’t identify with the character but still he enacts them with such conviction. He is detached from the whole process still he delivers it. I don’t have those skills. This can happen only to people who are born actors.”
But he is a trained actor. “Even among trained actors no two actors can be the same. Training doesn’t provide you a formula that everybody can apply in a situation and it will work for all of them. Acting is a very sensitive process of searching your own method. You have to very minutely figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. It is a trial-and-error method. Nobody can teach you in training school how to generate emotion. They tell you about emotional memory where when you are playing an emotional scene you are expected to remember a similar situation from your life but you can’t keep on doing that in 13 takes. And if you have a reshoot how will you bring it back. Once or twice you can summon an emotion from your personal experience but after two takes it usually goes dry. So how do you generate that emotion? You have to find a way yourself. There is no technique for that.”
He cites the example of “Life of Pi”, where during the climax he gets very emotional about the tiger. “If I start counting I must have done that scene for almost 100 times in front of the camera. For the first time I had to generate emotion and I did it. After six months I got a call from Ang Lee that he wants to reshoot the entire thing. So again I had to generate those emotions and the character just didn’t need to emote, he had to cry as well, and I was not supposed to use any external material to bring the tears out. How it happened, I am still not sure about it. You just have to bring yourself up to that level of challenge and deliver.”
In National School of Drama, he says, generating emotions used to be his main concern. “I could indicate to public my thought process through my gestures but how to generate emotions was my main concern. No teacher could answer me that. At one point an exercise was going on about emotional memory and each of us was supposed to share an emotional happening from our lives. I started talking about my father and I started crying. But my immediate concern was if I keep on doing that there will be a time when it will stop working for me. That used to boggle me.”
Does it threaten to turn an actor into a fake person in his real life? “Not really. An actor develops another personality which keeps observing him all the time. That’s the most important thing that I learnt from the drama school that you should keep a check on yourself all the time. You should watch your mind, your body, your heart. You are not guided by your impulses. You have a better dialogue with yourself. When you are swayed by anger there is another person inside you who keeps a watch on you.”
At the moment his secretary is keeping a watch on us. Come June and Irrfan is headed to get into the skin of Harry Sims, the head of the mysterious organisation in Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestseller “Inferno”. “It is a pivotal role for sure,” says the actor whose demand is increasing in Hollywood with every outing. “It is much more nuanced and refined than my previous roles. I like when nuances become more important than apparent action. As for the character he is much more flamboyant, there is a sense of humour and style in him.”
However, despite all the global attention India continues to be his base. “Oh yes. I will be back,” he signs off with the smile of a man in control of his game.