He’s been around two decades. Despite being known as a fantastic actor, recognition came late to him. Here’s Billu, a.k.a Irrfan Khan on his career, kal aaj aur kal, in conversation with Vajir Singh.
It’s been a long journey.. hasn’t it?
I know. Life was very different then. But you know what, had I achieved this success then, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it much. Even back then I was called a good actor but I was only doing small roles. God always plans everything for you and you get it when it’s due.
Do you believe in destiny?
Of course. I must say that I got things when I was ready for them… when I was ready to face things. I don’t regret anything.
You mean stardom?
Yeah! Popularity and also the way I face the camera. My idea was to perform well, this long wait was never a frustration.
Have you got your due?
I don’t think so, but I surely believe that this is just the beginning. I think things have just started. Everyone gets one chance in life. It’s up to you how to use it.
Talking about your earlier days.. you did a cameo in Salaam Bombay but it was edited from the film.
Aha! I was kicked out of the original role in Salaam Bombay. But I guess Mira (Nair) felt bad for me and I was given another small role.
Talking about my earlier days, there used to be instances when producers robbed me of my money. I remember I did an episode for a lady producer for a TV show.. I was to be paid Rs 750 but she gave me Rs 350. Because she felt I didn’t act well. (Smiles) And after almost two decades, you played the lead in Mira Nair’s The Namesake.
I kept meeting Mira.. at festivals or screenings, and she always used to say I’m a star and I’m doing good. And I was like, if she believes that I’m a star and doing good, why doesn’t she call me?
One day she called and offered me The Namesake and incidentally I was reading the book at that time. I landed in New York and she said you’re playing the father.. I think she owed it to me.
Do you believe that your actual talent was tapped by Hollywood as your career changed with The Warrior (2001)?
I don’t agree. People used to praise my work during my television days as well. But our industry is such.. they use the product which has been tried and tested and verified. No one wants to take a risk except a few. But I have no regrets.
If I had got a break earlier.. I don’t think I would have done so well. I got the break when I was completely ready and okay with my work and comfortable with my craft.
Do you see any similarity between Slumdog Millionaire and Salaam Bombay?
Slumdog is just not about poverty.. it’s about the human spirit. It’s about positivity of life so there’s a contrast. Slumdog is about a guy who was literally in shit.. and then how he wins. Salaam was more about relationships. But yes, both had the slum backdrop.
It’s said that your role was chopped in Slumdog Millionaire.
Leave it. It takes time for you to deal with it. It’s not a concern at all.
But you didn’t accompany the team at several festivals?
During Golden Globes, I was already committed to go to Jaipur. I kept those days to meet my mother and I couldn’t have got a chance to meet her again in the year. But yes, I was at the BAFTA. I am back now and I am still sorting out my dates for the upcoming award functions.
Okay. It’s said you advised Shah Rukh Khan to change the title of Billu Barber to just Billu B.
Ha ha. I thought why not have Billu B after Dev D? But getting the title changed to Billu from Billu Barber shows Shah Rukh’s generosity.. the association came to him and expressed that they were hurt. He obliged and reacted amicably.
In fact, even I have retained only Irrfan from my name. I have taken out everything from my name which was Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan.
But you know, in India we have the censor system and once a thing is approved by censor, we should respect it. If someone calls me Irrfan actor.. I wouldn’t mind it.. I would be proud of it. I respect the job I am doing. I am an actor.
You have to respect the job you’re doing. If you don’t respect it, who will?
Are you aware that you got this role because Priyadarshan thought you could emote through your eyes?
(Smiles) I wasn’t aware of it and Shah Rukh (Khan) told this to me recently. I was told that Priyan narrated the story to him and mentioned my name. And then they asked each other if they knew me.
Finally, Shah Rukh called me but I was in LA, I didn’t pick up the call. When I got back, I was told Shah Rukh was trying to get in touch with me. I cried when Priyan narrated the script to me. I was so touched. And I was also humbled by the way Shah Rukh treated me in our first meeting.
Did he pay you well?
Yes. But remuneration is a negotiation thing.. it happens in every film. With him, the money is ready before you ask. He was actor and producer without an overlap. The experience was great.
Vidya Balan was the first choice to play your wife but she refused it.
I’m not aware. Lara is fantastic and our chemistry has become so important.. it’s the strength of the film.
Has the industrywallahs’ perception changed towards you now?
I am not aware if it has but I am working towards it. But I think Life.. in a Metro changed the perception.. it took me beyond negative and heavy characters.
Has it changed you as a person?
I go easy on myself. That’s the thing.. to start respecting yourself. To bring yourself to a situation where you like everything about yourself.
And does the gossip about you affect you?
It does... but I have people around me who trust me. I’m fortunate. It’s sad the way people become helpless to create these stories. I wonder how the writers justify these stories.
It’s not about one person in isolation.. it’s two or more people who get written about in these gossip columns.
The latest rumour is that you’re dating your director Jennifer Lynch.
Jennifer laughed when she read about it.
What about your family?
My family trusts me. Period.
Lastly, news is that you’ve replaced Sanjay Dutt in Sanjay Gupta’s Alibaug.
I can’t replace Sanjay Dutt.. the role was offered to me.. they must have had something.. so it came to me. The movie hasn’t started yet.