Had a teenaged Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan happily refilled tyres at his father’s small shop in Tonk (100 kms from Jaipur), he could developed into a skilled mechanic, perhaps better at the job and richer than his father who had a royal lineage but not much money.
But refilling tyres held no excitement for the gawky teenager. He had a dream: to act in movies. And because he was inspired by the saying that, when life comes in the way of art, you give up life in pursuit of your art, one fine day, he stopped going to his father’s shop.
That was the flashback.
Cut to the present. Today, the grown-up version of the tyre-filling teenager is an internationally acclaimed actor with many awards to his credit. His repertoire consists of movies like A Mighty Heart (2007), and The Amazing Spider Man (2012), amongst many more. His movies, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Life of Pi (2012), won Academy Awards, and just a week ago, hewon with the National Award for his fine performance in Paan Singh Tomar (2012).
So 18 years after entering the Indian film industry, having journeyed from Tonk to the National School of Drama in Delhi and then arriving in Mumbai, Irrfan has finally got his due. “You feel good when a credible body accords you with an honour because in India, there is no other award that carries this respectability and credibility,” says Irrfan about his National Award.
Respectability and credibility, sure. Irrfan had those attributes even before he won this award. But what about money? What about big commercial movies? Has the film industry finally woken up to his talent? Questions like these abound amongst his fans, but Irrfan doesn’t think twice about the answers. “Unless the mass audience accepts you, your success is incomplete,” he says. “And my audience’s respect for me has doubled after the National Award. So big money won’t be that far away.”
Neither will big movies: he has an impressive line-up of films this year including Gunday, D-Day, Lunch Box and Qissa — Ghost Is A Lonely Traveller. Just before he flew to Kolkata for a shoot, we caught hold of Irrfan and pinned him down for a chat.
You said you are struggling to buy a second car?
An expensive car is a luxury. The kind of responsibilities I have with my family, it doesn’t make sense for me to spend that money. My brothers are not well-settled, close relatives are still struggling in life and I feel the need to support them. So given a choice, I would buy an old ambassador but my son wants a luxury car.
The perception is that despite your international acclaim, Bollywood is yet to wake up fully to your potential.
I don’t know whether I have become more viable for Bollywood. They are yet to find scripts and stories to fit me. Maybe it’ll take time and I am hopeful. But I am confident of the public acceptance of me and the inspiration I’ve provided to the next generation to take the leap forward. They feel movies like Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire are our films.
‘I will not prostitute my convictions for money’
If you don’t earn from Hollywood, then why do you give so much time to it?
That’s because it gives me experience, exposure and genuine compliments. I remember when we went to collect the Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), I met an aged Indian guy outside the venue. With tears in his eyes, he said that he had never felt so proud in the last 30 years of his stay there.
Also, the gruelling experience that I went through with Life Of Pi (2012), I never could imagine that Ang Lee could challenge me like that. These are small but significant experiences for me.
Are you in awe of Hollywood, the way most of our actors are?
Oh, no. I am not in awe, but I am fascinated by the sensibility of the directors and the actors. You can pick up finer nuances and incorporate them into your performances. And I feel soon it’s going to happen in Bollywood as well, especially with collaborations coming to the fore. Look at AR Rahman and Resul Pookutty — collaborations have raised their bar to global tastes.
Why did the limelight avoid you for so long?
Probably because of my choice of movies. Had I done all the roles offered to me in the past, I would have been one of the many. Yes, I would have made some money and secured myself, but what’s the point when you are one in the crowd? Thank God, I didn’t do it. I would have been ashamed of it all through my life.
How did you get interested in movies, considering you weren’t exposed to them in your childhood?
My encounter with movies was magical. I was born in Tonk — a small, beautiful, barren village where time seems to have frozen till date. There, people don’t earn enough money but they are happy. There’s a kind of strange romanticism around that village. And next to my house was Raj Talkies, a theatre that showed Hindi movies. Whenever we got a chance, my friends and I would catch a glimpse of the film being shown by standing outside the door of the cinema hall. If lucky, then the usher would allow us in for some time. Those stolen glimpses stayed with me. That’s why I romanticise films like nobody else does.
With Indian cinema evolving, do you foresee us at par with global cinema?
There was a kind of sophisticated sensibility to cinema in the ’50s and ’60s, which got lost in the ’80s and ’90s. Fortunately, in the last two years a new breed of filmmakers, full of angst, is emerging and they want to create a new language of cinema. I have immense faith in filmmakers like Anurag Basu, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Imtiaz Ali, Abhishek Kapoor and a few more. These are people who can give blockbusters and yet keep our tradition alive.
Aren’t you fascinated by stardom?
No. I am fascinated by actors who leave indelible impressions on people’s minds. That’s what Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan), Mithun Chakraborty and Naseer saab (Naseeruddin Shah) did to me. We were teenagers when Mithun Saab’s Mrigaya (1976), Hum Paanch (1980) and Disco Dancer (1982) released. Never in my life did I imagine that Amitabh Bachchan would talk to me someday.
So you are not up for a Kuch Kuch Hota Hai kind of film?
Someone would be mad to write a film like that with me in the lead. I can’t fit in such things. I may see myself in Shah Rukh Khan’s role in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) provided it’s written with my kind of sensibility.
Are your sons movie buffs?
Today’s kids are very smart and have their own taste in music and movies. They appreciate sensible movies and dislike buffoonery, which some of our movies indulge in. Fortunately, my sons have an understanding of false behaviour on-screen. Yes, they love my work, but they also urge me to make more money. Among recent movies, they were high on Kai Po Che.
Almost all your films have intimate scenes. How comfortable are you with them?
I am not comfortable because I am a very shy guy. But also, unlike other scenes where you can fake it and get away with it, intimate scenes require a certain sincere rhythm which will make the other person comfortable. You are concerned about the comfort level of the other person all the time, so you hold back a lot from the beginning. And I can be easily put off if I sense any discomfort from my co-stars.
How does your wife Sutapa take all this?
She is an evolved person. If I am mentally not with her, she senses it instantly and that’s a reason for her insecurity. Not all this. She doesn’t create insecurities for herself.
Tell us something about your family.
My younger brother is unemployed so that he can look after my old mother. I am happy that mother is being looked after.
How are the Oscars different from our award shows here?
The Oscars are immaculate. They cannot goof up or be partial. The process is not manipulated by a body of people. There is lobbying, but it’s only to a point. Think of the credibility they have created — even a nomination becomes like an award. If you are nominated, you will be called an Oscar nominee all your life. And if you are an Oscar winner, your respect and credibility just shoots up. Aggressive marketing is one important aspect in the Oscars race.
Have you ever had an awkward experience with an intimate scene?
I have been very lucky in these types of scenes, but yes, once it got out of hand. It was a short film. The director wanted the scene in a certain way and as I was contract-bound, I had to oblige. Suddenly, the girl I was enacting the scene with flipped, and I sensed her discomfort. Thereafter, it was terrible to shoot, but I had no choice but to do it. It was hell.
But you could have made som