Earlier this year, Irrfan Khan was at a television studio to film an episode of a popular local chat show that hard-grills celebrities in a mock court to obtain entertaining confessions. Typically, a young studio audience is rounded up to pop questions at the guest. A girl in the front podium raised her hand and said into the mike, “From your first film to your last, one thing has never let you down – your eyes. It almost does half the job for you.”
Nobody can begrudge Irrfan Khan that. By all means, his eyes do a lot of work from him and he knows it. On screen, the effect of his gaze is as magnetic as his body language. If he fixes the heroine a look – especially in the few tender roles he has appeared in – it’s usually a raw, slow gaze that stays that lingers. When intense, the fury in those eyes explodes. Au contraire, in a lighter situation, they glint with mischief but most often, they are contemplative and deeply melancholic. In The Namesake, Mira Nair’s 2006 film based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about identity and cultural displacement, Khan’s puffy eyes carry the look of a man forever in mourning. In Slumdog Millionaire, the eyes turn sadistic but in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, he relies less on the stares than – well – on that turbid “Indo-Canadian-French-English” accent. “My father loved my eyes,” recalls Khan. “I think he loved them more than me. He used to say, ‘Your eyes are like goblet.’”
Khan remains an unlikely success story. He is lean and modest-looking in a country that places undue emphasis on glamour and good looks. But he can act. Khan, currently ranked among India’s finest actors if not its most famous, uses far less words to describe his talent: “I don’t analyse. My job is to go into a scene and let myself loose. All I know is that the best acting is that in which there is no hint of acting – it must appear real.” In over a hundred films since late-1980s, Khan has kept it doggedly real and methodical. It is also precisely what the Indian movie critics (and now it seems, the Western media, too) love the most about him. Some have even called his style similar to Marlon Brando’s.’
“Brando? I am not even one per cent of him. I have a long, long way (to go),” says Khan of his hero, the American stalwart of method acting.
Like Brando, Khan is also a man of his times. While the comparisons with Brando may be uncalled-for, this is certainly a golden moment in Khan’s long and arduous career. His rise in India is rivalled only by his slow and steady ascent in Hollywood. For starters, he just picked up the National award for best actor, an honour bestowed by the Indian government for his hit film Paan Singh Tomar, a gritty but painful portrait of an athlete turned rebel. One critic hailed it a flawless performance, calling him “perhaps the only actor in Bollywood right now, who has the ability to step out of his star status and become the character.” Before that, the success of films like Haasil, Maqbool and Yeh Saali Zindagi had endeared him to movie-goers as a hero of brood and pathos. If you ask him, Khan would pick Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, a 2003 Shakespearean tragedy “set in hell”, as the turning point.
“It sucked the life out of me,” he says of playing the home-grown Macbeth.
Let’s turn for a bit to Hollywood. Last year, Life of Pi and its moment of glory at the Oscar have made the loudest noise. It also accounts for much of his fame in Hollywood at this point. Although in 2007 he had shared screen space with Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart, based on reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping, it was Slumdog Millionaire and his role of a vicious cop that helped capture Western eyeballs. Next, it was the HBO series In Treatment that drew praise. While all eyes were set on Debra Winger’s return, it was Khan, according to The New York Times that “generated some of the loudest buzz.” The article further notes that he deftly “applied his soulful gaze and talent for nuance” to the role of a Bengali widower despairing over his loss of home. Adam Rapp, the writer of In Treatment, penned the role keeping Khan in mind. Khan had reasons to be flattered when Rapp dubbed him “one of the greatest actors alive.” The Namesake further consolidated his position as a truly Asian talent waiting to burst.
In India where he stays, Hollywood and European cinema remain the ultimate recognition for actors. He locates this obsession perhaps to the country’s colonial past. Yet, Khan himself doesn’t take the Hollywood buzz seriously, putting it – modestly but firmly – to him being “at the place, at the right time.”
“He is the only Indian actor who can make it in the West because he doesn’t have the face of a chocolate-boy hero. He is unconventional and Hollywood celebrates the unconventional,” says filmmaker pal Tigmanshu Dhulia who directed him in Paan Singh Tomar. What also works in his favour, in Dhulia’s words, is that he is not “desperate to get somewhere.” Dhulia thinks of him as a pretty sorted guy who knows his mind and knows where he is heading. The director was one of the few people that saw the big things coming. When Khan, frustrated at the years of joblessness and vagrancy in the 1990s announced one evening that it’s time to call it quits, Dhulia recalls placating him, “If you stay, I will get you a National award.”
And he did.
Born in Jaipur, a city in North India famous for its shambling pink palaces, Khan’s story was like others from the erstwhile aristocratic families. Growing up in a household where fine art was a source of scorn, movies held a “forbidden fruit-like” appeal and curiosity for the young boy. Unknown to his orthodox parents, Khan had decided at an early age to become an actor.
In 1984, he joined the National School of Drama (NSD) to give acting a serious shot. NSD proved a rocky road. “Actually, it was like being in a cage,” he says, “but the good thing was that it introduced me to world cinema.” In his initial days at NSD he relied on texts to achieve what he calls a “studied performance.” He recalls applying that technique to an early film, a shot that misfired. “I used to draw out a map of how the character would behave in a particular scene,” he says. “But on the last day, I was bored. I thought to myself, ‘Where is the element of ‘chance’ in my performance?’ I went and gave an instinctive shot – it was the best I had given in a long time.”
This, over the years became the trademark Irrfan Khan style – natural and rooted.
“He takes to camera like fish to water,” says the acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair. “Yet, he is not swayed by what he has achieved. He is a true outsider.”
It is true that Khan is unlike other stars in that respect, one with all the markings of an outsider. The surname Khan is a Bollywood metonym for royalty. But in terms of sheer box-office clout and star appeal, Irrfan Khan is generally deemed the lesser Khan, trailing behind the big three - Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. “My audience is different. I want them to come and see the character I am playing and not Irrfan Khan, the star,” he says. Unusually lacking in professional competitiveness, he says, “I am not in a race. Let other people run and win.”
Khan says he never fitted into this celebrity culture. Seldom will you hear any gossip about him or link-ups with female co-stars. In a glamour-driven film industry, a controversy-free actor seems like an anomaly. A neutral figure, he is neither despised by anyone nor loved, reinforcing once again his impossibly private, isolated life.
“Not private, I lead a boring life,” he laughs. A boring life in which he finishes shooting and drives straight back home at the day’s end to his screenwriter wife and two kids. On screen though he wishes to be far from boring – “entertaining, that’s what an Indian actor should aspire for.”
“This is a country where most people are poor and their only recourse to entertainment is through cinema. They want a hero they can take back home, they wish to see a heroine who is beautiful. In cinema, they see beauty. Otherwise, the reality can be harsh – sometimes, too harsh,” he says, sounding much like a left-leaning politician. “That’s why I feel my responsibility is more towards my audience. I act as much for them as for the love of it.”
To keep the actor in him alive, a few years ago Khan made the difficult transition of giving up the bustle of his city life, relocating from mainland Bombay where he has stayed for many years to Madh Island, a fishing creek in north Bombay. A movie-city like Bombay, he says, can corrupt an artist and have a bad influence on his work. “I am not so rich so I couldn’t afford a bungalow. But I got myself a nice apartment,” he says, expressing a wish to enjoy solitude but doubting if at 46, he is too young for that. “Solitude is when you evolve as a person. This is the time for being busy and anxious,” he says. Moving to America and settling down in Los Angeles for the sake of a Hollywood career is not an option for him.
“I am too old to move,” he says. “In fact, when people get old they gravitate towards their roots. After a day’s work, you want to come back to a familiar place – a place you can call home.”