Irrfan Khan stepped into his vanity van in Madh Island to check on us at regular intervals, but he told us that he would start the interview only when he had enough time to spare. The actor was busy shooting for an ad. When he finally did get started, his love for storytelling became evident. Over an hour-long chat, the actor discussed Hollywood and his initial years in Indian television.
You have been working in Hollywood for over a decade now. How would you describe your journey?
Ten years ago, if somebody told me that I would go on to work with Ang Lee (film-maker), or with all the directors I’ve worked with, I wouldn’t have believed the person. It just happened. Asif’s (Kapadia, film-maker) film, The Warrior (2001), gave birth to me, as an actor. I was in an incubation period before that; I was working for TV, and it was not enjoyable. TV was more about trying to hone your craft. Then Asif’s movie happened, and it changed my life. I never thought I’ll have a parallel career in Hollywood.
You worked extensively on television initially. Do you miss that?
No, I was in pain when I was doing fiction television. When you are working on a TV series, you are not allowed to invest [in it]. They (the makers) expect that once they have given you the lines, you will just mouth them as they are, and go home. You are not allowed to think too much, or experiment with your looks. So, the actor becomes like a machine, producing similar emotions again and again. And that’s why even though Chandrakanta (TV show) was so popular, I had to leave it because I was bored to death. I left it, and got some respite. But after 50 episodes, they wanted me back. So they brought me back with a different name. Having said that, working on television was a learning experience.
Don’t you agree that there are some stories that cannot be told on celluloid and need TV as a platform?
Television has its own merits. It’s a very powerful medium. In the US, if artistes want to work in a certain way, they can do that through TV, unlike Hollywood films, which are controlled by studios. That’s why we are not getting to see as much interesting content in cinema, as compared to TV. Our TV has to evolve. It has to bring in different audiences. Right now, it’s a numbers game. So, they are catering to the lowest common denominator. They are engaging only a particular class. I’m specifically talking about fiction TV.
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Internationally, you are getting more substantial roles now. Has your image changed globally?
That’s what you do as an actor. You create an image for yourself, and you don’t do it consciously. This image is created through your roles. People start perceiving you on the basis of the roles you do. Very few actors invest a lot of time and energy in creating an image and then in nurturing it.
You have done well in India and also internationally. What’s the secret?
I always look for a good story. That’s where my whole attention has always been. There was a time when I was doing Hollywood films and I was not getting enough offers in India. Back then, even though I was doing multimillion-dollar films in Hollywood, I was happy to sign a Hindi film that has a budget of even `2 crore to `3 crore, as long as it allowed me to tell my kind of story. I wasn’t bothered about becoming an actor whose films are made on a `100 crore or `200 crore budget. I am glad that now things are finally falling in place.
You dubbed for the Hindi version of a recently released film that’s based on Rudyard Kipling’s book. How was the experience?
They offered me Shere Khan, but then I said let me watch the film first. After watching it, I decided to do Baloo’s voice. They had told me it would require time, so I said I’d work it out. I didn’t realise that the movie would become so huge, and the Hindi one would become bigger than the English version. What Hollywood does with these franchise films is that they make them to engage the kids, but they become movies for the whole family.