No one would bracket Irfan Khan among Bollywood heroes with smashing looks. He is not handsome in the conventional sense of the word as understood in filmdom. His looks are so mobile that he smoothly flits and floats between and among characters that have a wonderful but subtle love angle, characters that are completely out-of-the-box and every character you can think of. He does not wear that imaginary halo around his head but there is this subtle sense of attitude one can discern if one looks closely.
Irfan Khan opens out in an one-to-one during a recent visit to Kolkata for the marketing of his new film Madaari.
You’ve been in the business for around 25 years playing all kinds of roles in national and international films beginning with Indian television. How do you define the term ‘acting?’
I define acting as ‘not to act at all.’ An actor must be mentally, intellectually and emotionally connected to a given situation or story. He has then to relive that situation and story through his body and mind. Acting means doing, to actually enact something without any pretensions. For example, if a particular shot needs me to lift a cup, I will lift the cup the way the character and the situation demands, not any which way. Things are effective when they are actually done and not pretended. The line between pretending and doing is quite thin. To blur that line, an actor must practice working around himself
You have now turned co-producer with Madaari directed by Nishkant Kamat. What is the film about?
Madaari is based on the real-life incident on the collapse of an under-construction Metro bridge in Mumbai that happened in 2012. It is the story of a father and his son placed against the backdrop of this tragedy. I play the father who has lost his son and as an act of revenge, kidnaps the home minister’s son. Jimmy Shergil plays the other important role of the cop who is investigating this. Madaari is a metaphor for the common man who is a victim of a system that does not care for accountability for the common man. The film is about the constant game-playing that happens between the madaari (street performer) and his jamoora (sidekick).
Let us hear something about your background.
I was born in Jaipur. I got a scholarship to study at the National School of Drama, Delhi, in 1984. I met my wife Sutapa Sikdar there and now we have two sons, Babil and Ayan.. She is a script writer in films. I did a lot of television but recognition came with the international film The Warrior (2001) followed by Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool (2003) and Haasil the same year. The journey has not been smooth or easy but one feels happy looking back. I have done Mira Nair’s celluloid adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, I did the police officer’s role in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionnaire, and Pi in Ang Lee’s D adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. But I had to wait till Paan Singh Tomar to get the National Award.
How do you define yourself as an actor?
I would like to define myself as an actor who exercises learned spontaneity. I am not a director’s actor. I like to work with a director who knows much more than I do. I am just a cog in the giant wheel of the film that is being turned by the director. I like a director who I can place my faith in. If needed, I put in some homework for a given character. But many characters do not need homework. I follow my instincts and the director’s directions. What I had been missing till Lunch Box and Piku happened was romance which I hardly had an opportunity to explore. I enjoyed working in both these films, one slightly off-beat and the other quite mainstream. I have been signed on for a romantic Hindi film opposite Pakistani actress Saba Qamar called Hindi Medium directed by Saket Chaudhury. It promises to be a romantic comedy, a genre not totally new to me but well, it opens up the chance to explore. Piku saw me in a romantic lead and I owe it to Shoojit Sircar for placing his trust in me for a romantic role.
What decided you to turn producer?
I turned producer in order to be able to have a say in the creative side of production, not the business side which my co-producer will handle better. I am no businessman looking out to become a big banner as producer. As creative producer, which I was for Lunchbox directed by Ritesh Batra, my focus will be on the creative side of filmmaking and not on saving money. I am also co-producing the Bangladeshi film Doob (No Bed of Roses) directed by Mostofa Sarwar to be made in Bengali and English. I am co-producer of Mira Nair’s nephew Ishaan Nair’s debut film Kaash.
What does the National Award mean to you?
It means a lot. The cell-phone has not stopped ringing ever since the news was out. I came to Kolkata for the shoot of Gunday and I recall having done not less than six interviews within the span of an hour. The subject was very close to my heart and to everyone associated with Paan Singh Tomaar. Tigmangshu is a friend from the National School of Drama and working with him was a long cherished dream-come-true. The film is important not because it is just cinema but it goes far beyond cinema. It tells a story and of where talent can go in any field when a man has his back to the wall.
What are your criteria for accepting a film?
The size of the role should be big enough for me to remain visible enough for the audience to remember. The character I portray should make a difference. The co-star matters a great deal depending on the kind of film we are working together in. As an actor, your on-screen rapport with your co-actor is as important as your own performance. I have excellent chemistry with Tabu for instance. And my work in Namesake is one of my favorites. So far as I am concerned, every character starts from scratch. There is no fixed approach to a role. I feel that every individual actor should bring his own perspective to enhance the story he is participating in. I hate being slotted into definite characters so sometimes, even if I love the script and my role in it, I reject it.
They say you are very choosy about taking on an acting assignment. Comment.
I am choosy because it’s not my face that sells. My work is what people like and want to see again and again; so I can’t repeat myself. I have to look at the stories, which are exciting, which give me scope to do what I haven’t done earlier, which have entertainment, which can engage me for a long period of shooting. And the journey goes on.
Written byShoma Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time