Actor strongIrrfan Khan its back on a deewan in his spacious verandah as the evening settles in. Sits back, but doesn’t slouch. Even when relaxing against a bolster, or leaning forward to pick up his “half cup of tea” from a coffee table in front of him, his back remains straight, almost stretched. As if he has to always be ready to do something. To act? Taking over from veterans Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah, Irrfan has proved yet again that a character actor can be as widely known as a mainstream star. He has blurred lines between parallel and mainstream cinema, and between Bollywood and Hollywood. In his next film Paan Singh Tomar, where he plays a sportsman turned bandit, Irrfan will blur the lines between hero and protagonist. Yet there is another line that Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan has blurred long ago, and left behind. Descending from a family of Nawabs hailing from Rajasthan’s Tonk District, Irrfan, at 42, is happy to brush aside past glory and acquire new ones, relished at his seaside flat in West Malad, with his wife prominent script and dialogue Writer Sutapa Sikdar and children Ayan, 6 and Babil, 7. His neighbours include filmmakers Ketan Mehta and Sudhir Mishra, with whom he has just shared what he calls a “very intoxicating holi”.
He picks up from the same coffee table a tobacco pouch and rolling paper, and rolls himself a thin cigarette, lighting it. The problem with such cigarettes is that they keep going off. So Irrfan punctuates his answers with the noisy click of an old fashioned lighter. Ten minutes into this two-hour long interview with Rishi Majumder, it seems like the part of an act. The clicks emphasize his sentences. They fill his silences. Then Ayan runs up and asks for the lighter to light an incense stick. And he laughs and gives it away
What is your connection to Islam? You’ve been very reserved about that in interviews…
I am a deeply religious man. Nothing can change that. But religion is a private matter. I think the clauses asking you to declare your religion in forms should be eliminated.
For me, anything from any religion which makes me more connected to my environment is acceptable, and I’ll practise that. The kind of Islam we were taught was – my mother used to say – (changes voice) “Zameen Pe Pair Rakh Ke Mat Chalo Zor Se. Zameen Buraa Maanti Hai” (“Don’t press your feet down too hard when walking. It offends the earth). Now, only three days back I was watching a film on youtube which was trying to define the planetary system, through it’s intelligence – indicating the zameen was not dead, but very alive. So you never know what something will connect up to.
Today religion has been abducted by those people who want to use it. A muslim terrorist in Pakistan is not acting on the behest of religion. He’s a part of business – and terrorism is a huge business. Also, religion has been abducted by politicians.
Reading about and experiencing other religions made my perception of Islam much clearer and made me realise that essentially no religion is in conflict with another – they emerge from the same nucleus. I remember attending an Oswal Jain festival in Jaipur, for instance, which was about saying sorry to people. And that was such a beautiful idea. It made so much sense. Then the idea of not eating after sundown – another Jain practice which I follow. Not because of the ritual, but because it makes sense from a health perspective.
But you don’t follow it during Ramzan…
No. I’m talking about my habits in general – rituals which I’ve adopted because they actually make sense.
What did your father do?
My father was in the tyre business. He was a skillful man, and respected in his line of work, but he had little business sense. He was more a man for the jungle, where he loved to hunt. He died young at the age of 53 or 54. And people said he was paying for his sins because he killed so many animals.
Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme? Hunting was a sort of culture among people back then?
Yes it was, but it’s because of that culture that so many species have become extinct. I think we should learn from that example. Human beings, for instance, should just stop breeding, because the earth just doesn’t have enough space. We are like cancer cells almost, which keep multiplying without any concern for other cells or the body as a whole. Simliarly, back then killing a tiger was no big deal. But now it is, because the tiger is nearly extinct. So its best to stop such ‘cultures’ before its too late.
Do you see any traits of your father or mother in yourself?
My mother has this way of living her life which I dont approve of, which I don’t want to be a part of. She is a worried woman, who clings to worries, as if not doing so will stop her machinery. This was there in me – this functioning because of worry, and I could see it, because I could see it in her. I try not to be like that. My sense of adventure comes from my father. And from memories of time spent with him in jungles.
Are there aspects of the family life and tradition which you grew up with in Jaipur, which you have passed on to your children, incorporated in your family life in Mumbai?
Certain things that were taught to me filtered out. But some, which made sense remained. Some religious values for instance. My mother hated the fact that my father would hunt animals. So she quoted Islam as a reason to not kill another living being. I tell my kids these things, and expect them to understand with age. A sense of pride in my lineage, on the other hand filtered out. I wasn’t hooked on enough to it (laughs).
But you come from the bloodline of a Nawab. Don’t you feel connected to such lineage?
People make you feel that, but as a person I don’t know what difference it would have made if you told me I was from a Kaanjeevaram family in the South. I don’t like the fact that these statements seem to imply you come from a better family than others. I still see people living their lives, believing such things, when I visit my hometown Jaipur – where my mother and my siblings stay. There is a pride in this, which I don’t want to feel. Similarly, even religion leads to people believing in a certain superiority, which is a folly, and which the religion itself doesn’t ask for.
Haven’t stories about your ancestors shaped your understanding of history?
No. Whatever we heard was about the great deeds of my forefathers, because obviously no one will talk about bad things. So after a point you look at it from a neutral perspective and can make out it is a one sided story. So it hasn’t changed my understanding of things.
What do you think about the Land Reforms whick took away the land of your family?I think it was a good thing which didn’t happen in Pakistan. In Pakistan there are huge lands in the hands of a few, and they try to run the government. Also, my father didn’t take anything from his inheritance anyway. He built his own house, and left the inheritance to his brother.
Coming back to your father, what kind of relationship did you share with him? Could you give us some more instances to describe this?
My father passed away when I was very young. He used to love my eyes. He would caress my forehead and say: “Aankhen Hai Ya Pyaala?” (Are these eyes or drinking bowls). He would scold me for not wanting to eat non vegetarian food and say (laughs) “Pathan Ke Ghar Mein Pandit Paida Ho Gaya” (A Pandit has been born in the house of a Pathan).
He was really skillful with his jeeps. I remember we had three jeeps – a Willys, a Ford and a Maurice. And when we fell on hard times financially he would use kerosene oil to drive the Ford. (laughs) He would put a little petrol to start it, and then mix in a whole lot of kerosene. This made his Ford famous in the whole of Jaipur.
And are you a vegetarian?
No. I eat non vegetarian food sometimes. But I’m not particularly fond of it.
Does your wife share in your creative processes, your work? How has she contributed to the same?
She is a terrifying critic. During our NSD days (Sutapa Sikdar is a NSD graduate) she would be very diplomatic and silent (laughs) about my performances. The first time she approved of my work was with Haasil. We are partners, who have experienced a life full of stories.
What were your ambitions at the National School of Drama (NSD)? Was stardom a part of them?
It was the hero of films that drew me to acting. So I wanted to be a star. But I also wanted to learn the craft. And learn to live the craft. When I saw actors like Dilip Kumar or Naseeruddin Shah performing, it seemed as though they had gone into another world. I wanted to learn how to do that.
Which actors were your idols back then? Who is so now?
Initially there was Naseer ( Naseeruddin Shah) Saab and Dilip Kumar. Then I started watcing English cinema, and discovered (Robert) De Niro, (Al) Pacino, Daniel Day Lewis, (Marlon) Brando… There was one actor who is a great actor today. Philip Seymour Hoffman. I saw the film Scent Of A Woman, where he was playing a two scene role. Yet I remembered him from that film more than I remembered Al Pacino. I tracked all the films he did. I used to keep thinking that he’s such an amazing actor – why doesn’t anyone use him as lead? And then suddenly out of the blue Capote happened. Also, initially, at NSD we used to only judge actors by their performances. But now how the actor leads his life also affects my perception. Like with Sean Penn, and the kind of stance he takes in his life, and how it reflects upon his work.
Do you have a defined politics? If so, what is your politics? You have never come out and spoken about it…
For me the political system sucks. It’s a system where out of 100, 51 people decide the way to go. But numbers cannot show you what is right. I don’t know of any alternate system, but this system doesn’t work for me. And also the whole world’s politics today is about selling yourself, and creating circumstances which arise out of your own insecurities.
Do you support any party or politicians?
I decided to go into campaigning for Mohammed Azharuddin and Mallika Sarabhai, because I believed they could change things. But it was about the individuals. I would have campaigned for them even if they belonged to another party.
After NSD, did you change your approach to acting, with film?
In the initial days, at NSD, we use to chalk out the entire emotional map of a character. We never left anything to chance, even though I felt very caged while approacing my work in that manner. When I started doing films I began to find myself very boring, because there was no element of ‘chance’ in my performance. I thought back to an exercise we had at NSD called the ‘trust’ exercise, which would make you fearless. It would involve things like shutting your eyes and falling, to let your co-actors catch you. I had never understood that exercise. But then I realised that leaving things to chance, would be fearlessness. To not take crutches. To not plan. One of my initial films, fresh out of NSD was with Govind Nihalani. It was a film called Jazeere, where I planned each and every emotion. On the last day, when we were shooting the last scene, I did not plan. And that was the best moment in the film. And that is such a tragedy because I came alive in the last shot of the film, (laughs) after being dead throughout.
In India I don’t think we have any school of realistic acting. We have a history of melodrama in our theatre. So we don’t have any schools which can teach you this craft realistically, even though we have ancient texts like the Natya Shastra where even the function of drama in society is explained in great detail.
You mean like the Lee Strasberg Institute at New York? There’s no parallel for that here? Not even at NSD?
No. NSD gives you an opportunity to get introduced to all kinds of aspects. From the Natyashastra and Sanskrit Drama to Opera. It’s function is to expose you to various systems. But we don’t have any realistic acting school.
Once out of drama school, was there a compromise in performing for TV?
There was a compromise. But for me the compromise didn’t lie in going over the top, though I did it, especially in Chandrakanta. For me the most painful thing about TV was that there was no space for silence. You act like an information giving machine, where you give information about what you’re thinking, what you’re going to do, even what someone else is going to do. You’re not allowed to just be there. That was a problem. On the other hand, doing things that you yourself were not convinced about, because the director says so, is a great learning experience. It challenges you and your abilities as an actor.
In film, you stayed away from gimmicky roles when you started out – like the stereotypical caricatures of villain and comedian, which even talented actors like Amrish Puri and Anupam Kher had to give in to. Did you refuse to play certain roles?
No. I was desperate to do anything. The reason I stayed away was that many filmmakers would talk about what a great talent I was, but no work would come my way. The cinema of that time, during the late 80s and 90s, after (Amitabh) Bachchan Saab’s exit, was a very boring cinema. But I was so desperate that I would be very prepared to play a chamcha (crony) to Amrish Puri’s villainous characters. I was very ready to be f***** by anybody. To be laid by any director. There was no question of choosing roles. I think I did some film where I shot only for three days and played some henchman.
But now, I choose very carefully whom to work with. I would like to create a situation where I only do the films I really want to do.
Wouldn’t you say you have created that situation today?
The situation has come, but there are two ways of working it. One is how you work on your craft. The other is positioning yourself in the market. For instance, I would love to work for certain directors like Imtiyaz Ali, Dibakar Banerjee, Vishal Bhardwaj and Shimit Amin, but I might not be viable for them. I’ve been waiting for 15 years to work with Shriram Raghavan. There’s also Anurag Basu.
Why do you say you’re not viable for them?
Because, for instance, Anurag (Basu) is directing a 100 crore film with Hrithik (Roshan). So he’s playing the same game – trying to build on his craft, and position himself in the market. And I have no complaint against this.
Have you ever faced incidents where your scenes have been cut, because the star of the film felt that even as a secondary character you’d be stealing the limelight?
Lots of times. I don’t want to name the film, but there was one instance where I was playing the villain’s role in a film, and where I improvised a line which the hero felt would tilt the balance of audience sympathy towards me. And suddenly there was this meeting, and I was asked to do a scene where the hero would humiliate me. Not all star actors are like this however. When I worked with Shahrukh (Khan) in Billoo, for instance, he was very clear that it’s my film.
Billoo was a very interesting space to see you in. Did you know Shahrukh back in Delhi? How has your relationship with him evolved?
I remember Shahrukh from when I was at NSD, though we never met. He was with Barry (Barry John – theatre director and teacher) at that time. I went to meet Barry, who was conducting our classes, and had called us over to his rehearsal. He was with a group discussing something. I remember Shahrukh Khan, standing there, because he just pulled my attention. I kept staring at him and wondering who the boy was. There was something about his personality.
Were you in touch later, in Mumbai?
No, I wasn’t. I can’t keep in touch. I come close to a person when I’m working with him. But after that, I neither get possessed, nor do I try to possess. I’m very scared of possessing people. I’ve tried to possess people in the past – either a girl friend, or a friend or talent itself – and it’s been a very painful, uncomfortable period. So I don’t want to go there. A favourite director, for instance, had been mentioning a story, for a year. And I was dying to work with him. Few days back I heard he had signed some big star for that same role. But that didn’t bother me for even five minutes.
Does this attitude work in the Bombay film industry, which is known to work according to camps?
I tried to do things which people are typically supposed to do here. But it didn’t change my circumstances, and I didn’t enjoy doing that. So for me it’s working perfectly.
You ‘went international’ with films like The Warrior, A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. Was this international exposure the result of a conscious effort, or something which just happened?
It wasn’t there in my plan at all. It was something which just hapenned. But this is very like another incident in my life – going to NSD. No one would have thought I would get into NSD. I was not eligible at all. I didn’t have experience. I was too naive. But for me my life in Jaipur had come to a dead end. And I was so desperate to get in there, that my intention of getting in there changed the reality for me. Reality had to make place for that desire. That’s how it worked for International Cinema. I was desperate to work in films where I could discover myself as an actor. And that desire – strong, pin pointed and focused – changed reality and gave me an opportunity without me asking for it. It was an intention, not a plan. An intention to do a kind of cinema where I could reflect my world.
By intention, do you mean will power?
Not will power. A deep desire which attracts the world I want to live in.
What did the experience of Slumdog Millionaire do for you – professionally and personally?
Slumdog has come and gone. I had a great time, especially working with Danny Boyle. I also had a lot of controversies which the film got into. On the whole the film got what it deserved. It was an audience pleasing film.
Looking back now, with all the fanfare around the film settled, do you have any artistic reservations about it? Are there any criticisms of it that you would concede or take on board? What about the criticism about it being culturally inauthentic etc.?
For me a film is a film. It is not bound to be authentic. It wasn’t supposed to be a documentary. Reality changes once it comes into camera. Cinema has it’s own world. The only question is whether it captures you or not.
What change, if any, has come about in the role of a ‘character actor’ over the last 20 years – according to you?
The character is slowly becoming bigger than the actor. Even the stars have to try to pretend that they’re playing a character. That has become the need of our times. Our cinema is evolving very fast and changing every day. In five years it will go to great places. Now the character actors are no more ‘character actors’, because characters are becoming intrinsic to the story.
Do you think you have played a role in this change?
I think Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) has played a role in me being here. And I think I might be responsible for other actors. My contribution may be there, but I haven’t noticed. Because noone offers me a Padma Bhushan (laughs).
Would you call yourself a star?
(laughs again) I wouldn’t even call myself an actor – because I’m extremely critical of myself. But if someone calls me a star, and it gives me more money and makes me viable for the directors I would like to be called one.
Do you think there will be a time soon in the industry when most stars will have to prove their mettle with a minimum acting skill, as is the case in Hollywood somewhat?
That will definitely happen, the way the Hindi Film Industry is going. Films will demand a minimum expertise and understanding of craft. But still there will be people who have nothing to do with acting and who will rule the hearts of people. Because nobody can learn that. It just happens. And some people from the audience just decide to like everything someone does. So there will be the odd superstars who have nothing to do with acting. And we have a culture of magicians. All our superstars are like magicians who capture your mind with a very simple story – that’s the game.
As your own worst critic, have you caught any weaknesses in your performances, during your journey as an actor?
When I did Haasil and Charas, I found myself getting trapped in a way such that I was trying to play ‘power’ on screen. Luckily I got Namesake exactly at that time. Namesake gave me all the opportunity to challenge and dismatle the craft I had been banking on. Similarly with Billoo. I was required to play a character with no smart alec lines. A character which doesn’t amuse. That was a challenge for me. I didn’t know how to hold people’s attention, if I didn’t entertain them. But I think that worked for the character – playing it meek. He had a self respect which was endearing.