India's most underrated crossover star celebrates 10 years in Hollywood by inviting Brunch to his home to watch each of his films, except one*
Small and unconventional films are redefining Indian cinema. I am happy to be part of it. Hollywood is just a bonus
Tere is no better way to spend lazy moonsoon a aftenoon than longing on a couch, sipping hot cofee and watchin back-to-back movies. But how about some comedy? Let's say one of the finest actors of he 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 2005, 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,” 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.
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 build castles in the air. It was a crucial lesson to survive in this industry.”
ROLE CALL The Namesake 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 NSD. 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 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 surprising,” says Irrfan.
Although the film got him his first international award (Best Supporting Male at the 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 to ask how the international audiences were reacting to my performance.”
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 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 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 news a er ran headlines: ‘An elina’s comin to India for Irrfan’. It was so embarrassin !” he sa s burstin into a lau hter.
The actor calls the shooting process an ‘immersing experience’. “Michael doesn’t bother about the script, or even the continuity, he shoots from every
possible angle. 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 was shot, you, as an actor, had rewritten the script.”
THE GAME CHANGER Slumdog Millionaire 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 Dann Bo le ” he sa s before addin that the movie was a ame chan er. “If toda Indian actors are bein cast in roles that are not uintessentiall Asian much of the credit should o to this film ” he sa s.
CRITICS’ DARLING In Treatment 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!”
SPIDEY, WHO? The Amazing Spider-Man 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 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, the tiger, 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.”
IN DINO COUNTRY Jurassic World 2015, Colin Trevorrow
The actor plays Simon Masrani, the owner of the park in one of last year’s top-grossing films.
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. THE NEXT TAKE Inferno 2016, Ron Howard Based on Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, the Tom Hanksstarrer releases in October this year. Irrfan plays Harry Sims, head of the Consortium. Hope he invites Brunch for another movie date. What say, Irrfan?
Journalists often ask about one skill I have picked up while shooting; I learnt how to roll a cigarette on the sets of In Treatment Blazer by Anuj Madaan; Floral shirt by Tommy Hilfiger; Bow tie, stylist’s own, by Zara