March 13, 2010

‘Stars Are Afraid I Will Steal Their Scenes’

Actor Irrfan Khan sits back on a dewan in his spacious verandah as the evening settles in. The 47-year-old sits back, but doesn’t slouch. Even when relaxing against a bolster, or leaning forward to pick up his “half cup of tea” from a table in front of him, his back remains straight, almost stretched. As if he has to always be ready to do something. To act? Taking over from veterans Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah, Irrfan has proved yet again that a character actor can be as widely known as a mainstream star. He has blurred the lines between parallel and mainstream cinema, and between Bollywood and Hollywood. In his next film Paan Singh Tomar, where he plays a sportsmanturned- bandit, Irrfan will blur the lines between hero and protagonist. Yet there is another line that Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan has blurred long ago, and left behind. Descended from a family of Nawabs from Rajasthan’s Tonk district, Irrfan is happy to brush aside past glories. He instead chooses to acquire new ones; relished at his seaside flat in West Malad, with his wife, prominent script writer Sutapa Sikdar, and children Ayaan, 6 and Babil, 11. Having just enjoyed a ‘very intoxicating Holi’ with his filmmaker neighbours Ketan Mehta and Sudhir Mishra, Irrfan hand-rolls a thin cigarette before commencing a two-hour long interview with RISHI MAJUMDER. Excerpts.

What is your connection to Islam? You’ve been very reserved about that in interviews...
I am a deeply religious man. Nothing can change that. But religion is a private matter. I think the clauses asking you to declare your religion in forms should be eliminated.

For me, anything, from any religion, which makes me more connected to my environment, is acceptable, and I’ll practice that. The kind of Islam we were taught was — my mother used to say — “Zameen pe pair rakh ke mat chalo zor se. Zameen buraa maanti hai”(Don’t press your feet down too hard when walking. It offends the earth). Today religion has been abducted by those who want to use it. A Muslim terrorist in Pakistan is not acting at the behest of religion. He’s a part of business — and terrorism is a huge business.

Reading about, and experiencing, other religions made my perception of Islam much clearer and made me realise that essentially no religion is in conflict with another: they emerge from the same nucleus. I remember attending an Oswal Jain festival in Jaipur, for instance, which was about saying sorry to people. And that was such a beautiful idea. It made so much sense.

What did your father do?
My father was in the tyre business. He was a skillful man, and respected in his line of work, but he had little business sense. He was more a man for the jungle, where he loved to hunt. He died young at the age of 53 or 54. And people said he was paying for his sins because he killed so many animals.

Don't you think that's a bit extreme? Hunting was a sort of culture among people back then?
Yes it was, but it’s because of that culture that so many species have become extinct. I think we should learn from that example. Human beings, for instance, should just stop breeding, because the earth just doesn’t have enough space. We are almost like cancer cells, which keep multiplying without any concern for other cells or the body as a whole. Similarly, back then killing a tiger was no big deal. But now it is, because the tiger is nearly extinct. So it’s best to stop such ‘cultures’ before it’s too late.

What kind of relationship did you have with your father?
My father passed away when I was very young. He used to love my eyes. He’d caress my forehead and say: “Aankhen hain ya pyaala?” (Are these eyes or drinking bowls?). He’d scold me for not wanting to eat non-vegetarian food and say, “Pathan ke ghar mein Pandit paida ho gaya” (A Pandit born to a Pathan!).

Do you see any traits of your father or mother in yourself?
My mother has this way of living her life which I don’t approve of, which I don't want to be a part of. She is a worried woman, who clings to worries, as if not doing so will stop her machinery. This was there in me — this functioning because of worry, and I could see it, because I could see it in her. I try not to be like that. My sense of adventure comes from my father. And from memories of time spent with him in the jungles.

Are there aspects of the life and tradition you grew up with in Jaipur that you’ve passed on to your children or incorporated into your family life in Mumbai?
Certain things that were taught to me filtered out. But some, which made sense remained. Some religious values for instance. My mother hated the fact that my father would hunt animals. So she quoted Islam as a reason to not kill another living being. I tell my kids these things, and expect them to understand with age. A sense of pride in my lineage, on the other hand filtered out. I wasn’t hooked on enough to it (laughs).

You come from the bloodline of a Nawab. Do you feel connected to your lineage?
People make you feel that, but as a person I don’t know what difference it would have made if you told me I was from a Kaanjeevaram family in the south. I don’t like the fact that these statements seem to imply you come from a better family than others. I still see people living their lives believing this when I visit my hometown Jaipur — where my mother and my siblings stay. There is a pride in this, which I don’t want to feel. Even religion leads to people believing in a certain superiority, which is a folly, and which the religion itself doesn’t ask for.

Does your wife share in your creative processes, your work?
She’s a terrifying critic. During our NSD days (Sutapa Sikdar is a graduate of the National School of Drama) she would be very diplomatic and silent about my performances (laughs). The first time she approved of my work was with Haasil. We are partners who have experienced a life full of stories.

What were your ambitions at the NSD? Was stardom a part of them?
It was the hero of films that drew me to acting. So I wanted to be a star. But I also wanted to learn the craft. And learn to live the craft. When I saw actors like Dilip Kumar or Naseeruddin Shah performing, it seemed as though they had gone into another world. I wanted to learn how to do that.

Who were your idols back then? Who is now?
Initially there was Naseer Saab (Naseeruddin Shah) and Dilip Kumar. Then I started watching English cinema, and discovered (Robert) De Niro, (Al) Pacino, Daniel Day Lewis, (Marlon) Brando... There was one actor in particular who is a great actor today. Philip Seymour Hoffman. I saw the film Scent Of A Woman, where he was in a couple of scenes. Yet I remembered him from that film more than I remembered Al Pacino. I tracked all the films he did. I used to keep thinking that he’s such an amazing actor — why doesn’t anyone use him as lead? And then suddenly out of the blue Capote happened. Also, initially, at NSD we used to only judge actors by their performances. But now how the actor leads his life also affects my perception. Like with Sean Penn, and the kind of stance he takes in his life, and how it reflects upon his work.

Do you have a defined politics?
For me the political system sucks. It’s a system where out of 100, 51 people decide the way to go. But numbers cannot show you what is right. I don’t know of any alternative system, but this system doesn’t work for me. And the whole world’s politics is about selling yourself, and creating circumstances that arise out of your insecurities.

Once out of drama school, was there a compromise in performing for TV?
There was a compromise. But for me the compromise didn’t lie in going over the top. For me the most painful thing about TV was that there was no space for silence. You act like an information giving machine, where you give information about what you’re thinking, what you’re going to do, even what someone else is going to do. You’re not allowed to just be there. That was a problem.

Have you ever had your scenes cut because the star of the film felt that you’d be stealing the limelight?
Lots of times. I don’t want to name the film, but there was one instance where I was playing the villain’s role in a film, and where I improvised a line, which the hero felt would tilt the balance of audience sympathy towards me. And so I was asked to do a scene where the hero would humiliate me. However, not all star actors are like this. When I worked with Shah Rukh (Khan) in Billoo Barber, for instance, he was very clear that it’s my film.

Billoo was a very interesting space to see you in. Did you know Shah Rukh back in Delhi?
I remember Shah Rukh from when I was at NSD, though we never met. He was with Barry (theatre director and teacher Barry John) at that time. I went to meet Barry, who was conducting our classes, and had called us over to his rehearsal. He was with a group discussing something. I remember Shah Rukh Khan, standing there, because he just pulled my attention. I kept staring at him and wondering who the boy was. There was something about his personality.

Were you in touch later, in Mumbai?
No, I wasn’t. I can’t keep in touch. I come close to a person when I’m working with him. But after that, I neither get possessed, nor do I try to possess. I’m very scared of possessing people. I’ve tried to possess people in the past —either a girlfriend, or a friend or talent itself — and it’s been a very painful, uncomfortable period. So I don’t want to go there. A favourite director had been mentioning a story for a year. And I was dying to work with him. Few days back I heard he’d signed some big star for that same role. But that didn’t bother me for even five minutes.

You went international with films like The Warrior, A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. Was this a conscious effort, or something that just happened?
It wasn’t there in my plan at all. It was something which just happened. But this is very like another incident in my life — going to NSD. No one would have thought I would get into NSD. I was not eligible at all. I didn’t have experience. I was too naive. But for me my life in Jaipur had come to a dead end. And I was so desperate to get in there, that my intention of getting in there changed the reality for me. Reality had to make place for that desire. That’s how it worked for international cinema. I was desperate to work in films where I could discover myself as an actor. And that desire — strong, pin-pointed and focussed — changed reality and gave me an opportunity without me asking for it. It was an intention, not a plan. An intention to do a kind of cinema where I could reflect my world.

Do you have any artistic reservations about Slumdog? What about criticisms about it being culturally inauthentic?
For me, a film is a film. It is not bound to be authentic. It wasn't supposed to be a documentary. Reality changes once it comes into camera. Cinema has it's own world. The only question is whether it captures you or not.

Would you call yourself a Bollywood star?
(laughs) I wouldn’t even call myself an actor — because I’m extremely critical of myself. But if someone calls me a star, and it gives me more money and makes me viable for the directors I would like to be called one.

Do you think there will be a time soon when most stars will have to prove their mettle with some minimum acting skill, as in Hollywood, to an extent?
That will definitely happen, the way the Hindi film industry is going. Films will demand a minimum expertise and understanding of craft. Our cinema is evolving very fast and changing every day. In five years it will go to great places. Now the character actors are no more ‘character actors’, because characters are becoming intrinsic to the story. But still there will be people who have nothing to do withacting and who will rule the hearts of the public. Because nobody can learn that. It just happens. And some people from the audience just decide to like everything someone does. So there will be the odd superstars who have nothing to do with acting. And we have a culture of magicians. All our superstars are like magicians who capture your mind with a very simple story — that’s the game.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 11, Dated March 20, 2010


Caulfield said...

Thanks minnie for posting this. Seems like a very honest interview of Irrfan Khan.

Pardesi said...

Excellent interview of a great actor. I like Tehelka - their pieces are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Irrfan is more like Om Puri in his youth. There is a naturalness to his acting that removes the 4th wall between the actor and the audience. You never feel that he has worked at any expression, action, it is all an outpouring of what he is. To me that is how acting should be.

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