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What makes Irrfan Khan melt into every character he portrays? We investigate

For Irrfan, there was no looking back after Paan Singh Tomar, and he has played a million different roles (so to say in a manner of speaking), each time disappearing into them in an almost magical way.

bollywood Updated: Oct 28, 2014 19:04 IST
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Hindustan Times
irrfan khan

There are not many actors in India who are willing to discard their own image and sink into a character they are called upon to portray on the screen. But even if they are ready for this, they may not be capable of this. We have seen this happen from the days of Dev Anand to those of Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan. Will an Aishwarya Rai do a Smita Patel in Chakra? Will a Salman become a Paan Singh Tomar?

Irrfan Khan at Star Entertainment Awards 2012.


Irrfan Khan

, who is now leading the top Narrative Feature Competition jury at the ongoing

Abu Dhabi Film Festival

, will -- and has done it. In fact, the first time this writer met Irrfan was at this Festival in one of its earliest editions. He was there with his director, Tigmanshu Dhulia for Paan Singh Tomar. The film was about a star award-winning steeplechase runner who, disillusioned with and humiliated by the administration, turns into a rebel, not a dacoit as some others saw him. Every time, someone calls him a dacoit, he corrects this by saying that he is not one. But a rebel fighting for a cause.

Paan Singh Tomar was a hit at Abu Dhabi, yet could not a find a distributor in India for two long years. But when it opened, the movie was critically acclaimed, and one felt then that Khan had arrived. In one of my first columns on him, I had called Irrfan the greatest of Khans – perhaps much to the chagrin of actors like Shahrukh and Salman. (I would not like to bracket Saif here: he is capable of some fine work. Example, Omkara, adapted from Othello, where he was amazing as Langda Tyagi or Iago.)

For Irrfan, there was no looking back after Paan Singh Tomar, and he has played a million different roles (so to say in a manner of speaking), each time disappearing into them in an almost magical way. A cop in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire as well as in the Angelina Jolie-starrer, A Mighty Heart, a Shakespearean schemer in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, a ghost in Haider and an aging loverboy in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, Khan is a performer par excellence – while the rest of the Khans in Bollywood are, well, showmen. These are men who would dare not step out of their carefully-manicured images!

The Lunchbox redefined Indian cinema in a unique way. All those Western critics who have been sneering at Indian movies – calling them a song-and-dance tamasha – sat up and cheered when Batra’s work premiered at a Cannes Film Festival sidebar.

One has always wondered why Cannes did not include it in competition, not even in A Certain Regard, the second most important section there. The performances were controlled, and most impressive. The movie had no false note. And it was a great story, poignantly narrated and yet not emotionally draining.

But yes, The Lunchbox was not submitted for the Oscars – in the Foreign Language category. It was not really Indian enough, and it told a story that could have taken place anywhere on earth. I felt this as well, and Khan has probably not forgiven me for this. At lunch the other day here at Abu Dhabi – when I sat down for an interview with him – he told his wife that “Gautaman was an important reason why The Lunchbox did not get into the Oscars race”.

The wife remarked, “Buri baat hai”. Khan interjected with a “Kabhi, kabi aisa hota hai”.

Going beyond The Lunchbox, Irrfan says that he has more or less completed two or three projects – Jurassic Park, Meghna Gulzar’s Talwaar on the famous Arushi murder case in Delhi and Nishikanth’s Kamath’s Madari, a story about a vigilante force (although some websites say Khan will

portray Arvind Kejriwal

of the Aam Aadmi Movement which Irrfan denies).

These movies will form a part of the small percentage that can be rightly termed sensitive and meaningful cinema – a cinema that struggles to find distributors and exhibitors, struggles to uphold the sanctity of the country’s entertainment industry by fighting the money and muscle power of Bollywood. “I do not know why Bollywood has become synonymous with Indian cinema”, Khan reflects. ”And not many write about this”. Some excellent Marathi films are being made – like, for instance, Court, which premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival, and Khilla, to be screened at the Indian Panorama (part of the International Film Festival of India to be held in Panaji, Goa, from November 20).

Of course, this is not even to remotely suggest that all that comes out of the Bollywood stable is bad. In Vishal Bharadwaj’s latest Shakespearean drama, Haider (an adaptation of Hamlet) – the last of the director’s tragic trilogy of the Bard of Avon, (the other two being Maqbool/Macbeth and Omkara/Othello), Irrfan plays a fascinating character, Ghost. He says that Bharadwaj and he hit upon the idea of such a character while they were discussing Khan’s role. The Ghost was not part of the original script.

Back home, Irrfan will begin shooting Piku (nothing to do with Satyajit Ray’s classic by the same name) – where he will be paired with Deepika Padukone. About a father (essayed by Amitabh Bachchan)-daughter relationship, Piku will be helmed by Shoojit Sircar (Vicky Donor and Madras Café), and its principal photography will begin very soon. “The movie is set in Calcutta (Khan still calls it Calcutta and not Kolkata) and it is all about a Bengali family…I will be going straight to that city after this”, Khan avers.

Sircar is of course a Bengali, and his characterisation of the Bengali family in Vicky Donor (a great movie, one of the best that I have seen in recent times) was just superb. The way Sircar had mixed and mingled wit and the sombre was extremely interesting.

Bharadwaj is set to write another part for Khan. “His Shakespearean works have been great. A movie like Maqbool culminates nicely. And when you have a complicated subject, you need good actors like Tabu and Pankaj Kapur”, Khan feels. Although cinema is a director’s medium, you need good actors. Otherwise a helmer can bang his head against the wall, and will get nothing out of an actor.

In this context, Irrfan talks about Tabu. “I think Tabu’s role in Haider was her lifetime best. “It is a very complex part. She is a villain. Yet, she is not a villain? Sadly, actresses like Tabu have very little being written for them. After a long time, she was seen in Haider – as his mother. Also, it was a very brave decision to play mother, especially in Hindi cinema.” Yes, once you become a mother on the screen, the next step can only be a grandmother!

“Somewhere Indian cinema has not matured. -- although the 1950s and the 1960s were a golden period. We then had our own distinct style. There may have been songs and dances. But we were dealing with issues. Even an ordinary film had something to say. Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor and the like had something to tell us without making it sound preachy”, Irrfan contends.

However, Indian cinema is once again meandering into meaningful movies. The present times appear to heralding this kind of cinema. And actors like Irrfan are an integral part of this journey.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Abu Dhabi Film Festival for Hindustan Times)

First Published: Oct 28, 2014 18:58 IST