Substance over style

Substance over style

By PREETI SINGH | | 22 July, 2016
Irrfan Khan
Irrfan Khan is that rare thespian who, with his effortless on-screen performances, can make people believe that acting is second nature to him. But what many tend to overlook are the hard-won aspects of his craft, his early years of struggle as a drama student and his deep understanding of world cinema. He speaks to Preeti Singh.

Q. Prior to becoming one of the most recognisable and successful figures in the Hindi film industry, you were known as a television actor. How difficult was it for you to make this transition from the small screen to big? 

A. It was difficult in the sense that I was not getting opportunities in cinema. I kept telling people about “the role” which will establish me. So, it was a long wait and it was difficult. People used to identify me as a very good actor, but they did not want to offer a chance to a TV actor.  Because we always get into such definitions that go: ye toh TV actor hai; ye film actor hain. [This one is a TV actor; this one is a film actor.] Everybody wants to repeat the formula. Nobody was ready to look into the potential that I had. So, yes, it was a long wait for me.

Q. When did you finally get your big break in mainstream world cinema?

A. My break was both national and international — happening simultaneously. I got the main lead in The Warrior, an international film, and then got the main lead in Haasil, which is an Indian film. Both happened almost at the same time. It was kind of a turning point in my career.

Q. There was a time when commercial cinema was not taken seriously by film critics. But some of the finest films being made today are commercially successful. Do you think in the contemporary scenario, quality and box-office success are not incompatible?

A. Box-office success is one thing. There is another kind of quality cinema today, which is also doing quite well at the box office: films like Piku, Talvar. All these films are part of a new type — they are successful at the box office and also have something fresh to say in terms of the storytelling. These films are not one-dimensional and are yet entertaining. So basically, the scenario is changing. Earlier, there were commercial films and parallel cinema; and parallel cinema was not commercially viable at all. It was patronised by the NFDC [National Film Development Corporation of India]. These films were not expected to get any returns on the investment. But today, we don’t have that kind of scenario where cinema needs patronising. Now we have a new breed of directors who are trying to tell stories in a different way, so that intelligent audiences can engage with, as well as enjoy a film. And these are not one-dimensional, “time-pass” films. 

“I don’t even know what method acting means. I have no idea. For me, acting is very personal. It has to come from your experiences. And you have to personalise the character, whatever it is that you are playing. That is the only method I know.”

Q. How do you prepare for a role? And what are your views on method acting?

A. I don’t much consider method acting. I don’t even know what method acting means. I have no idea. For me, acting is very personal. It has to come from your experiences. And you have to personalise the character, whatever it is that you are playing. That is the only method I know. I don’t know any other. How do I prepare for a role depends from role to role. I don’t have any formula to play my roles. Every character has a different challenge. You find and seek ways to explore the character. If you look at my roles in Paan Singh Tomar, Life of Pi — these take time and don’t come easily to one. These were roles that I took a very long time to come close to.

Q. How helpful was your NSD training to your acting career? Would you recommend film schools to budding actors?

A. For me it was necessary because I went to learn the craft. But I won’t suggest this to everyone, because there are many actors in the industry who are not really “actors”, but they have been to film schools. It depends on your priorities: whether you want to do characters or you are just looking for stardom. For stardom, I don’t think so you need to go to film schools. But if you want to learn the craft of acting, I would surely recommend film schools. 

Q. You have recently donned the hat of a journalist, seeking interviews with prominent politicos. How did your interview with Lalu Prasad Yadav go?

A. I did such a thing for the first time. I had never interviewed anybody before that. Since I am doing this film about the system [Madaari] and playing a common man in it, I wanted to meet certain politicians to interact with them and ask certain things as a common man would. So I sent invitations to many people including Mr. Narendra Modi and Mr. Arvind Kejriwal among others. Since I got the response from Lalu ji, I went there and I enjoyed the interview very much. [After this G20 interview was conducted earlier this week, Irrfan Khan was also granted an audience with Kejriwal in Delhi.]

Khan in a still from Jurassic World.Q. How was it working with Tom Hanks for your upcoming film Inferno? Is working in Hollywood radically different from what goes on in Bombay?

A.  It was fantastic working with Tom Hanks. And Hollywood is different because they are making films for a universal audience, so their storytelling style is different. Our system, the way we work, is quite different. They somehow know how to tell a story that can be seen by any kind of audience anywhere in the world. This is something they have specialised in. And our cinema is very different from theirs. Our approach to cinema is much more celebratory and fantasy-oriented.

Q. How much credit would you give to filmmakers like Ritesh Batra, who made The Lunchbox, for altering the landscape of Indian cinema? And what can be done to support independent filmmakers in India?

A. I feel we need more writers and directors of the calibre of Ritesh Batra — people who can change the public perception of Indian cinema. We need directors and producers who are willing to tell stories like The Lunchbox. Batra’s film reached across the world and it’s supposed to be an Indian film. We definitely had a great impact on the international market with that film. And that film really opened the doors to Indian cinema for many actors and directors in the Western world.

Q. You are part of the third season of the HBO series In Treatment, and have done many Indian TV series in the past. Would you like to once again associate in some way with television shows in India?

A. But where is the good work happening in Indian TV? Can you give me one example of a show that could be watched by a section of people who have little time for watching cinema. We don’t have any series like that. TV has degenerated. And not only feature shows; TV news has also degenerated. News has become a circus and there are no signs of all this improving. I don’t know when it is going to change but I hope it changes, as young audiences have nothing to watch at all on Indian television. That is the reason we are all searching for TV series and films that are made in America.

Q. Tell us about your next film Madaari and about your upcoming projects?

A. Madaari is an emotional film and we have tried to make a thriller which could be watched by an everyday audience. It is a father-son story and a story about the system. I have already shown my film to younger audiences  and they have loved the film. About my upcoming project: there is only one film, Inferno, in the pipeline.

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