Before the release of D-Day, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irrfan Khan. I walked into his room and he said to me ‘I’ve seen you before’. I was a little stunned at this and politely said that I haven’t spoken to him before, though I’ve certainly seen enough of his films to know what I want to ask. He smiled and said he had found me intriguing as I was the only girl with a camera in the press con. I blushed, said nothing and found myself a place next to him as he started rolling some tobacco.
Tell me about your character.
Irrfan: Wali Khan was picked up by RAW chief and sent to Pakistan. In the time he went there, he was a different person – he went with a mission, with a kind of conviction. When you start living with people, you have a perception about them. But when you spend time with them, it changes. So I find it very interesting how the concept he had about Pakistan changed when he went there. Then, he got married. But getting married to a Pakistani girl and living in that culture must have done something to him.
I’m not sure whether he was trying to test himself or what it was. But the interesting thing about the story is that at one level, it’s an operation where you have to bring back this guy from Pakistan to India. On another level, there’s a family line — Wali has a wife and kid and they aren’t supposed to know about his profession. They’re not supposed to know about it and that’s very interesting about these lives. I never knew how these spies used to work, what their living conditions are, why do they do these kind of jobs. Because there’s no reward in it – you don’t get medals, don’t get recognized, don’t get acknowledgement. If you fail or are exposed, the risk is ultimate.
Not specific to this film, how do you create a character sketch in your mind?
It’s the script – the way it’s written and what the director’s take on it is. Where does he want to take it? You try to understand that and then your personal inputs start coming in. Sometimes what happens is that you can push the story into another direction and the director is trying to push it to another. Sometimes it can create dynamics; sometimes it can destroy the impact. For me, it’s very necessary to work in collaboration with the director.
Have you faced such clashes in the past?
Yes, yes. Sometimes, I didn’t know what he was trying to do and I was doing something else. I thought that my detailing or homework was a hurdle. But it’s the director who has the final say. He’s the person who is telling the story. He’s in charge of everybody.
Did going to National School of Drama give you an edge over others? Because from most of your films, it seems like you always get the tougher roles to portray.
Maybe the tougher roles have come to me. Drama school gives you a kind of insight or training to do different characters. In India, we haven’t done too much of realism. So we don’t have a realistic school where you learn the techniques. Every actor has his own method. But drama school gives you exposure and prepares you in understanding and doing characters rather than cultivating a style.
Is that something you’re trying to bring about into Bollywood?
I’m trying to create my own space. That’s the only way – you don’t open a drama school and start teaching. An actor has to convince the industry and audience that they will be entertained when they see him perform. He has to convince the director and producer that he will do justice to the role and bring back the money.
You’ve worked in Hollywood in ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’. What elements of the industry would you want to see here?
We don’t reflect life in our films or explore subjects in a story. We depend too much on melodrama. There’s a large chunk of today’s audience which is dying to watch credible cinema. It’s high time that we start doing it.
But isn’t it happening now to a certain extent?
A little bit. People are in two minds. There are good subjects, biopics, lot of possibility to explore real situations. But suddenly, you see that the actor and director are deciding to go the other way. Even the talented and prominent writers go the other way to ensure that the film does good business and bring in elements that are not credible or interesting. We’ve been seeing that for ages! We are celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. But do we have a point to celebrate? We can celebrate that we survived. But we didn’t go forward and we still need to evolve.
So what’s the Hollywood perception of Indian films?
Naach gaana, masala…I think it’s recently started changing because there are films that were based in India and they could see the Indian talent in the technical department and things like that. Fortunately, those films were acknowledged in the Oscars and so, the studios have opened up. Now they can base a story in India. The exchange can now happen and will influence the coming generations.
Diverting further, are you as serious as you’re made out to be in film?
(laughs) Not much. I watch comedy channels. The whole trip of my life is to make things lighter, happier and more enjoyable rather than broody. The industry gives me serious parts. But I try to find lighter elements even in those characters. Maybe it’s because of the way God has made my face.
There are a few characters that you want to come out of. In ‘Treatment’, a series I worked on, I was in America for three to four months. It was a heavy character who was too burdened and suffering. It’s not fun to do a character who’s suffering. It takes something from you. If the character demands that kind of involvement, I don’t get out of it. ‘Treatment’ was like that and the ‘Namesake’ character was like that. But in Bollywood, we don’t have a kind of writing where you need to connect so deeply. It’s a little superficial. We’re still not banking on nuances; we’re banking on louder things. They depend on the plot and the plot is their safety net. We still try to underline things. If a person is saying a sad line, the music would be sad. It’s over-emphatic and there’s no layering.
Would it be safe to assume then that you watch a lot of films?
Not Hindi films. Sometimes I watch documentaries or obscure ones that I come to know about. But I like to watch films in the theatre.
Fair enough. What are your upcoming projects?
I’ve done a film called ‘The Lunchbox’ by Ritesh Batra, who’s a new director. The film was in Cannes and got a fantastic response. I’ve wanted to do love stories but got few opportunities like with ‘Maqbool’ and ‘Yeh Saali Zindagi’. This is a special film and I suggest that if you are in love and want to increase that feeling, go and watch it. You’ll come out much more romantic. I’ll be shooting one movie after the other from August onwards.
So you have a romantic side to you as well?
(amused at the shock I ask this question with) I’m an out and out romantic. Romanticism is something that gives you a break from the mundane reality. So you try to find that in music, film, poetry or just create your own form. You can look at people and feel romantic. You seek that romanticism through different sources.
What are your thoughts on Bangalore?
I haven’t explored it but I’ve heard a lot about it. The apparent thing which I can experience immediately is the weather. But I keep hearing that it’s not the same as it was earlier. But that’s the story of every City. The way our planning in India goes, we don’t give too much importance to infrastructure. All the cities are growing in an unplanned way like a disease. We call it ‘development’.
I’m much happier when I’m in a forest or where I can’t see any man-made alteration. I love that. It just rejuvenates me and brings me back to myself. You enjoy city life if you go to New York or Paris or Istanbul. In New York, whatever interests you have, you will find like-minded people. There’s so much happening there.
What are the fears of a modern-day actor?
There’s no guarantee – this job is insecure and you have to keep working. Even if you’re on top, you keep working to remain on top. I’ve seen very few actors who are okay. The basic nature of an actor is to draw attention, to thrive on attention. So that is something that’s very risky. There must be very few evolved actors who could really do a transition in a smooth way and can leave the temptation of drawing attention and still remain healthy mentally.
But the good thing about acting is that it gives you a chance to explore your surroundings, your life, yourself. I wouldn’t have been a happy person if this profession didn’t have the possibility of exploring myself. That has saved me. Otherwise, I’d have gotten bored with it. The presence of destiny is noticed much more in this profession than others. Losing that attention is the biggest fear that an actor feels. One day, people will forget me and that’s the reality. In today’s generation, there are some people who don’t know who Dilip Kumar is. That’s the way it goes.
Thank you, Irrfan.