When his contemporaries in India are busy playing the numbers game and counting crores, Sahibzaade Irrfan Ali Khan (yes, that is his real name) chooses to let his craft do the talking.
His Hollywood roles in The Warrior, The Namesake, A Mighty Heart, Spiderman, Jurassic World and several others have catapulted him beyond the ‘crore club’ and made sure he is as feted in the festival circuit as well as he is recognised in the world of commercial cinema. Wellknown to both Indian and international audiences, he has been a chameleon onscreen, whether he is playing a police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire, scientist Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider-Man or the grown up Pi Patel in Life of Pi.
Irrfan’s choice for his life’s journey was rather unconventional. At his mother’s insistence, and for the purpose of ‘getting a secure job’, Irrfan was contemplating post graduate studies when he earned a grant to learn at National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi in 1984. For those who don’t know about the admission criteria for NSD – the institution requires about a dozen certificates of prior stage or theatre experience as one of the criteria. Irrfan faked all of them and still got selected. “I often imagined giving my mother this big suitcase crammed with currency notes – like those gangsters do in our masala flicks. It shouldn’t be a surprise I opted for dubious means,” he laughs.
After completing his course from National School of Drama in 1987, Khan moved to Mumbai, where he acted in various TV serials like Chanakya, Sara Jahan Hamara, Banegi Apni Baat and Chandrakanta, Sparsh and so on, both on the national broadcaster, Doordarshan as well as private channels. This television stint and sporadic appearances on stage kept him above water during his struggling days. But Irrfan was pining to be on the big screen. His big break was a rather small role, in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988.
Coming Into His Own
It is thanks to his stubborn streak that Irrfan trudged on. Even now, he has no complaints about the phase when he was testing waters and says, “I feel very fortunate to have had these opportunities of struggle too. They taught me a lot and challenged me, and the challenge sharpens your skills.” The patience and persistence paid off. In the 1990s, he featured in Ek Doctor Ki Maut and Such a Long Journey (1998) and various other movies which largely went unnoticed. After numerous unsuccessful movies, things changed when London-based Asif Kapadia gave him the lead in The Warrior, which was shot in weeks on location in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. In 2001, The Warrior raged in several film festivals, making Irrfan Khan a known face.
In 2003, he acted in Asvin Kumar’s short film, Road to Ladakh. After the film got rave surveys at universal celebrations, the film is presently being made into a full length highlight, again featuring Irrfan Khan. That same year he was offered the title part in the acclaimed Maqbool, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
He then showed up in a few movies – sometimes in significant roles and sometimes as supporting the leads (Rog, Chocolate, being a few). He created a wave in Mumbai when he won the Filmfare Award for his negative role in the film Haasil.
The year 2007 was a significant one for Irrfan, who won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award for Life In A Metro – making mainstream Bollywood sit up and take notice. This was also the year when he established his foothold in the international circuit with The Namesake. This film meant global acknowledgment when he portrayed a non-resident Bengali Professor in the USA. Recalling his anxiety, Irrfan says, “When I went to work on The Namesake, I was wondering he’s so unobtrusive, he’s so unnoticeable. It was a big high when I could pull it off despite not knowing how I could do it.” Irrfan was no longer an obscure actor. Not just in India, but his craft had won him admirers worldwide. His appearances in A Mighty Heart and The Darjeeling Limited sealed his global appeal. But it was 2008’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire that catapulted Irrfan in the big league. For this film, Irrfan won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
But, out of all his Hollywood appearances, Irrfan picks two and says, “I loved The Namesake and In Treatment. Sometimes an actor sees a film and he starts looking at his character not as himself, but as that character. The moment when the character comes alive and takes over the actor – that’s a wonderful thing and I discovered it in both these films. That is the magic of filmmaking.”
Known for his amazing versatility, there is not a role that Irrfan can’t play with style. The actor, who was seen recently with Aishwarya Rai in Jazbaa and the critically acclaimed Talvar, also has blazed trails in The Lunchbox, Paan Singh Tomar, Haider, Piku and several others.
But he does not wish to draw a distinction between commercial and parallel cinema. “I get extremely moved by great stories and great cinema. I am here to redefine entertainment with stories which engage the audiences differently. I don’t like typecasting movies. Every movie that I have done has given me a different kick. Each and every role I have played has a special importance in my life,” he says. Emphasising that he must connect with the film’s script, Irrfan adds, “It is the most pathetic situation for an actor to not connect to a film when he is doing it. I hope and pray I am never in that situation. So I have to let the script lead me on.”
So what are the kind of roles that Irrfan longs to do? “I am a die-hard romantic. I really want to do comedy. I want to entertain people but I cannot lip sync (laughs). I want to explore romance at various levels – at real levels. That happened with Piku and I am thankful for it.
Back Where He Belongs
For now, Irrfan is, in his words, “..content and happy as a soul who’s in search of excellence and who still hasn’t made peace with his existence and the mystery of life. Yes, there’s certain restlessness that only a personal assurance from God, when I meet him, can cure!”
Did you know?
Irrfan is a die-hard romantic and really wants to do comedy. What keeps him back is that he can’t lip sync. He wants to explore comedy at various levels – at real levels, like in Piku.
(Written by Aarti K Singh)