On a movie date with Irrfan Khan

  • text by Ananya Ghosh; photos shot exclusively for Brunch by Prabhat Shetty
  • Updated: Jul 04, 2016 02:45 IST
Blazer by Anuj Madaan; Floral shirt by Tommy Hilfiger; Bow tie, stylist’s own, by Zara (Prabhat Shetty)

There is no better way to spend a lazy monsoon afternoon than lounging on a couch, sipping hot coffee and watching back-to-back movies. But how about some company? Let’s say one of the finest actors of the country. Let’s say...Irrfan Khan!

It’s been 10 years since the actor who regularly blows our minds with his talent made his international debut. So, one Sunday we decided to trace his decade-long journey in Hollywood through his films with him talking us through the experiences.

“Things have changed a lot; and for the better,” says Irrfan as we settle down on the couch. “Asian actors are now doing mainstream non-Asian roles.”

On the table in front of us is a DVD stack of each international project he has been part of. And there are more than a dozen titles, including 10 Hollywood ones. That is a lot to watch in a day. But I can’t help but wonder: Is Irrfan really a crossover actor?

Perhaps I’m thinking out loud, because he turns to me and says: “I keep getting interesting offers. If I were younger, I might have thought of relocating to Hollywood. But I never really felt like leaving India. My people are here and so are my stories. Today, small and unconventional films are redefining cinema in India. And I am happy to be part of this brave, new world. Hollywood is just a bonus.”

Coffee arrives and I still don’t know which movie to start with. “Let’s start from where I started 10 years ago,” Irrfan suggests.

The curry eastern!

The Warrior
Year: 2005

Dir: Asif Kapadia

“I treat the film as my second mother. It gave me my long-awaited birth in movies. I still have the black kurta I auditioned in!” says Irrfan laughing, as he pops the DVD into the player.

His face lights up as his name flashes on screen. “The way Asif introduces me in the movie…,” he says, watching intently as the music builds and the title, ‘Irrfan Khan in and as Warrior’, comes up, “It is so grand. It was like some Clint Eastwood movie.For the first time I saw my screen and realized that I can have a grand presence,” says Irrfan, whose career till then was limited to television. “Koi director consider hi nahin karte thhey mujhe. Main sochta thha ki koi teen minute ka bhi role de de toh kar loon.”

The movie begins with a stunningly choreographed shot of Irrfan practising with his sword in front of a lone tree in the middle of a desert. “When I was doing the scene I didn’t understand why we need to shoot this guy doing kalaripayattu in the middle of nowhere, but when I watched the movie in its entirety, I realised the significance. That’s the thing with Asif. He packs so many layers in one single shot. His dialogues are also like that – deceivingly simple but pregnant with symbolism,” says the actor.

Asif was particular that less is always more and asked Irrfan not to add unnecessary mannerisms. “Often we make some hand movement while delivering a dialogue because that is how we talk in real life or sometimes we add certain gestures thinking that it will make the scene more realistic. But in many cases these don’t really add anything to what the dialogues are already conveying. Asif asked me to keep these unnecessary gestures to the minimum and explained how in this kind of cinema every minute detail matters,” he says explaining how the movie shaped him as an actor “It made me realise the power of simplicity. In many ways it gave birth to the Irrfan Khan you know now,” he smiles.

There is another important lesson Irrfan learned from this movie. “Asif’s previous short film, The Sheep Thief, had won big at Cannes,” he says. “People were thinking Irrfan ki toh lag gayi lottery. Then The Warrior got rejected at Cannes. This taught me not to make khayali pulao. It was a crucial lesson to survive in this industry.”

“Sometimes we tend to take a very conventional approach to acting. We don’t relate it to our personal lives. If we do, the result is often very surprising,” says Irrfan Khan

Role call

The Namesake
Year: 2006
Mira Nair

Back in 1988, Irrfan had done a bit role (his character didn’t even have a name) in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. “Right after I graduated from National School of Drama. Tab lagta nahin thha ki Hollywood mein mera kuchh ho sakta hai,” he laughs.

Since then, Irrfan and Nair had often bumped into each other at film festivals. “She’d always say something like ‘Arrey tu toh star ho gaya hai,’ but she never offered me another role. I thought our ways had parted,” he says.

So he was surprised when the award-winning director called him one day and offered him the role of Ashoke Ganguli, Gogol’s father – just after he’d finished reading the book. “While reading, I never thought there was any scope for this particular character. It was Gogol’s story.” But the dialogues were irresistible. “I realised if I didn’t do this movie, I wouldn’t be able to say those lines ever,” he says. “The film is much more dramatic than the book.”

About 15 minutes into the film, Irrfan pauses it. The scene is the one in which Ashoke, realising he shouldn’t have screamed at his new bride Ashima, tries to pacify her.

“I was supposed to manao her. I wanted to try out something different and started playing tabla on the bathroom door. It was something I would have done in real life. Sometimes we tend to take a very conventional approach to acting. We don’t relate it to our personal lives. If we do, the result is often very surprising,” says Irrfan.

Although the film got him his first international award (Best Supporting Male at Independent Spirit Awards), he was not aware that it was on the festival circuit. “So when I heard that a friend of mine had watched it at a New York theatre, I called him up. I was desperate to know how the international audiences were reacting to it… if my performance was being noticed,” he says.

Not only had the audience and the critics applauded Irrfan as the quintessential bespectacled Bengali babu moshai, but there was also a director named Wes Anderson who noticed this Indian actor.

Who blinks first?

The Darjeeling Limited Year: 2007
Wes Anderson

Irrfan fast forwards this DVD to the point where he plays a village elder. “Wes wrote a small part for me and I was more than happy to just be part of his film,” he says. Even in this blink-and-miss-it role, Irrfan makes sure you never blink.

A Jolie good tale

A Mighty Heart Year: 2007
Michael Winterbottom

Irrfan plays a Pakistani intelligence officer in this Angelina Jolie-starrer based on the search for abducted Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.

“A Mumbai newspaper ran headlines: ‘Angelina’s coming to India for Irrfan’. It was so embarrassing!” he says bursting into a laughter.

The actor calls the shooting process an ‘immersing experience’. Irrfan recalls the shooting process as an ‘immersing experience’ where the director would give absolute freedom to the actors and encourage them to improvise on the sets. “Michael doesn’t bother about the script too much.The way he edits a scene doesn’t require you to maintain continuity while shooting. In one scene you might be holding your phone on one hand in one shot and in the next shot you might be drinking a cold drink. . He shoots from every angle possible and from various positions. He wouldn’t even say ‘cut’ once the scene was over! He would wait for actors to come up with something to add. By the time the scene is shot, you, as an actor, have almost rewritten the script,” says the actor.

The game changer

Slumdog Millionaire Year: 2008
Danny Boyle

Next on my list is the winner of eight Oscars – Slumdog Millionaire, but the actor insists we skip it. He does not want to talk much about his small but important role as the pragmatic police inspector. “I did the film because of Danny Boyle,” he says, before adding that the movie was a game changer. “If today, Indian actors are being cast in roles that are not quintessentially Asian, much of the credit should go to this film,” he says.

Critics’ darling

In-Treatment Year: 2010
Rodrigo Garcia

Irrfan’s next triumph and the project that really made the West take note of him, was a TV show. “After a few episodes, my posters were at Times Square; critics were writing love letters to me… I wish I had kept some of those,” the actor says with a sigh.

In the show, Irrfan plays a middle-aged Bengali man who had been mollycoddled his entire life. Now his wife is dead, and he is in New York with his son and daughter-in-law. “The character had so many layers of complexity that I didn’t know how to approach it. I didn’t have any similar experiences to refer to. I had to create my own hell to get into a similar mental space as the character. And the process took a toll on me. In fact one day I called my wife and she didn’t know how to handle me. I didn’t know what I was blurting,” says Irrfan preparing a cigarette.

As he skillfully aligns the tobacco, his face suddenly breaks into a nostalgic smile: “Journalists often ask about one skill I have picked up while shooting; I learnt how to roll a cigarette on the sets of this show!”

Method to madness : In In-Treatment Irfan was playing a widower who has been cut off from his roots and shipped to New York to live with his son. And the actor wanted to get into a similar mental space as the character. “I was staying at a place in the middle of Times Square. I refused to put curtains on the windows. So the whole night these bright blue, red, purple neon lights used to flash inside my bed room. It was like living inside a circus. I wanted to become irritable like my character. It really started getting onto my nerves. In fact one day I called my wife and she didn’t know how to handle me. I didn’t know what I was blurting. I went to a birthday party and couldn’t communicate to anybody. I was so consumed in the effort to find this character I was supposed to play!”

Spidey, who?

The Amazing Spider-Man Year: 2012
Marc Webb

“I don’t want to watch this film, or talk about it!” says Irrfan the minute it’s the turn of The Amazing Spider-Man, arguably his most glamorous release. The actor’s role as Dr Ranjit Ratha was snipped, giving screen time to a computer-generated lizard. Four years later, the wounds obviously haven’t healed.

The bestseller

Life Of Pi Year: 2012
Ang Lee

In the multiple Oscar winner, Life Of Pi, Irrfan plays the older version of Pi Patel, who is recounting the story to a writer. As he regrets not saying goodbye to his co-passenger – a tiger named Richard Parker – a single tear settles in the corner of his eye. And I feel a tear land on my own cheek.

“After watching the shot, Ang Lee told me it was one of the best moments of his cinematic career. He thought what made the scene so impactful was the moment I chose to cry,” says Irrfan.

It was a tough scene. But after six months Irrfan got to know that they were replacing Tobey Maguire with Rafe Spall in it and it needed to be reshot. “Ang was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to replicate the performance. So he wanted to shoot only Rafe,” says Irrfan, reminiscing.

The actor wasn’t too confident either, but he refused to take the easy way out and reshot the entire scene. “I knew Pi’s version, and how convincingly he narrates it the story in this scene, was very crucial to this open-ended story,” points out Irrfan adding that this text-driven role had absolutely zero scope for improvisation as far as the dialogues were concerned. “This was a kind of text where you can’t put even a single word of your own.”

In dino country

Jurassic World Year: 2015
Colin Trevorrow

The actor plays Simon Masrani, the owner of the park in one of last year’s top-grossing films. “It was very important to own the part; to be this flamboyant character. It is like that guy who recently fled the country,” Irrfan laughs, referring to Vijay Mallya.

The actor had never imagined himself in a Jurassic Park movie. But he played Simon Masrani because of the way Trevorrow imagined the character. “His flamboyance borders on the foolish. His dreams are not realistic. His intentions are good, but he doesn’t know where to draw the line. And his actions raise an important question: Should science be used for entertainment?”

A movie about dinosaurs is heavily dependent on special effects and although Irrfan was not new to shooting in front of a green screen, there was a problem. “Before the shoot started, the director had shown us one picture of how it might look, but the final look was kept under wraps. So we would shoot in an empty jungle with our collective imaginations running overtime!” says Irrfan.

Almost missed the bus:“Spielberg was already considering me for a part in one of his movies. So he called Trevorrow and asked him not to take me in this one as he wants me in his movie. But after a few months that movie fell through. And only then Trevor got me, and I got Masrani.”

The next take


Year: 2016
Ron Howard

Based on Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, the Tom Hanks-starrer releases in October this year. Irrfan plays Harry Sims, head of the Consortium. Hope he invites Brunch for another movie date. What say, Irrfan?


From the writer’s diary

A movie date with one of the finest actors of the country. Sounds like a dream, right? That was my assignment last week (I love my job!). I was supposed to watch Irrfan Khan’s movies with him while he took me through his fondest memories while filming them.

In conversation with Irrfan Khan at his house in Oshiwara, Mumbai, India, on Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (Photo by Aalok Soni/ Hindustan Times) (Aalok Soni)

I had already seen most of his movies and of course was in awe of him. But what amused me was his wide-eyed reaction to his own screen image. “You see how my name comes in the title? Irrfan Khan. In and as Warrior!” he said almost jumping up from the couch in excitement as the front credits started rolling for the first film on our list. Good times!

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From HT Brunch, July 3, 2016

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