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‘There is no art in cinema. Cinema is cinema’: Irrfan on Maqbool, Mira Nair, Slumdog and more

Cinema is engaging if you can engage the audience, Irrfan said in an interview to Shekhar Gupta in 2010. The 53-year-old died in Mumbai Wednesday.

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New Delhi: The country lost a powerhouse of talent Wednesday. Actor Irrfan Khan passed away in Mumbai, leaving a gaping hole in Indian cinema’s heart.

As all cinephiles mourn his passing, ThePrint brings you one of his interviews to Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV’s Walk The Talk in 2010, when he talked about being clubbed with the Khans, his thoughts on parallel cinema, and his love for Naseeruddin Shah.

Shekhar Gupta (SG): In the world of cinema dominated by Khans, my guest this week is a Khan, who is no longer a Khan. Irrfan Khan, welcome. No longer a Khan?

Irrfan Khan (IK): Yes, I prefer just Irrfan. I have this strange relationship with religion. When I was filling a form to renew my passport, I had to declare my religion. I had this strange feeling. Why do I have to declare my religion, which is a very personal thing? It is your relationship with God.

SG: Was it difficult to drop what is indeed a very distinct identity, not just in Indian cinema but in global cinema, to not confuse yourself with the rest of the Khans?

IK: No, it’s not that. Basically, it is not trying to connect to your lineage, just be yourself and see where it takes you.

SG: But you are happy in your skin. You are not trying to disown any identity?

IK: I’m trying to be happy and I am happy comparatively. The thing is you try to become somebody else because sometimes you are not enough for yourself. So, sometimes you are happy, sometimes you are okay and sometimes you are concerned.

SG: But that’s your business—trying to become someone other than yourself in film after film. Does that carry on in real life as well?

IK: Yes, it is real life that has brought me to acting because in real life, you want to go beyond yourself. So, how do you do that? You play sports, you become somebody else, you play music, you become somebody else, you act and you become somebody else.

SG: In your case, you can become a Bengali, you can become a Gujarati or you can become an athlete.

IK: Yes, I was passionate about sports. As a kid, I was fascinated by it, but couldn’t pursue it as a profession. I tried to earn money but it was so boring to do business and work just for money. Incidentally, I watched a couple of films at that time. I saw Dilip Kumar, I saw Naseeruddin Shah and whatever they did fascinated me and I decided that’s what I would like to do.

SG: Those days, good movies were called parallel cinema. They were not mainstream cinema.

IK: Parallel art cinema. I am not really convinced by this. There is no art in cinema. Cinema is cinema. Art could creep in, but if it is art, it’s not cinema.

SG: Cinema is as close to reality as possible?

IK: Or fantasy. For me, some films were engaging while others were boring. They were trying to work on a similar kind of formula without the glamour.

SG: Is that why so-called ‘parallel cinema’ failed?

IK: It failed because it was patronised by the government. They used to get money from them and had no responsibility of bringing in the audience. For me, cinema is engaging if you can engage the audience.

SG: Tell us about your Naseeruddin Shah favourites. Not just movies, but sequences and events as well.

IK: I was so fascinated by him when I started doing theatre that I decided I have to get into the National School of Drama (NSD) and learn this art. Whatever he was doing, I had to learn it, but I never had this idea that I would go to Mumbai and struggle for films. For me, the main thing was to learn the craft and see what it does to me. So, at that time, I went to NSD and was so fascinated by him that I thought that if I would see him on the street suddenly, I would collapse.

SG: So, what happened when you first saw him?

IK: I first saw him when he came to NSD to enact a play. I didn’t interact with him. One of my seniors kept telling him that his performance was bad. So Naseeruddin rebuked, saying “Yaar, kabhi kabhi performance kharab bhi hoti hai.” My next encounter with him was when his wife, Ratna Pathak Shah, was playing my leading lady in a Govind Nihalani film. So, one day, he came on the sets and saw what we were doing and then he saw the film. He said my performance was good. But I never liked it. I was too mechanical. As my craft was of the stage, it was coming straight from the stage and I had no idea how I could unlearn it and start doing cinema.

SG: In cinema, one of your strengths is that you become the character you play. Tell me one role in which you became most of all the character that you were playing in terms of how you looked on cinema, not in real life.

IK: I did The Warrior, in which I played a very noble character. And then I got this character in Haasil. When I read the script, I didn’t know how to react. So I had to change myself and think that I could intimidate the audience. That threw a challenge to me. The Namesake was also very challenging because of the personality of Ashok Ganguly—he is a very silent person. You don’t notice him, so how do you create a person who people don’t notice? If he is with three persons, you wouldn’t notice him but you’d notice the others.

SG: I am surprised you didn’t mention Maqbool.

IK: Maqbool was a fascinating story but I think I didn’t do justice to the writing. I could just cope with it. But I enjoyed it. My whole concern with Maqbool was not to think about Shakespeare, not to think that he was driven by his personal ambition. For me, it was a love story.

SG: The fascinating thing about Maqbool was that Tabu and you did everything to make the audience hate you. And they did hate you in parts and yet you were the protagonists. So, in the end, there was sympathy and fascination for the two of you.

IK: The thing with Maqbool was that I didn’t have to change myself. And the chemistry between Maqbool and Nimmi was something. I don’t think I have seen or done that kind of a thing and so I didn’t have to change myself.

SG: I believe it was so good that you had to answer several rumours after that.

IK: Yes.

SG: It’s a hazard you got the chemistry right in The Namesake too.

IK: The Namesake was fascinating. But with Maqbool, I used to change lines and make them my own, but suddenly I felt that something was gone, something was missing. The magic of the lines was gone. The rhythm of Vishal (Bhardwaj)’s language has a music to it. After that, I didn’t try to change anything.

SG: Vishal’s such a good Hindi writer.

IK: Yes, and he also has the knack of picking up subjects and stories. The first day he called me, he said, “Main Macbeth bana raha hoon”. I asked how he’d adapt the guilt. We went out, had cigarettes and he said, “She is pregnant, but she doesn’t know whose child it is.” That was a fantastic adaptation.

SG: It seems Vishal has gone on with the star system. Do you feel you could have done more work with him? Or do you miss the fact that he hasn’t come back to you?

IK: Yes, you miss that. You feel a little bit hurt also. But I think that’s necessary for Vishal and for everybody else to do subjects with people for whom you can get enough budgets.

SG: But nobody will have a budget problem if you were in the film.

IK: No. If you are casting me and casting Saif (Ali Khan), Saif will definitely get a bigger budget. So everything becomes different. Even when Tigmnanshu Dhulia cast Nana Patekar (in Shagird), I was a little bit…but now I have grown out of it. I don’t feel anything now, I don’t attach myself and I don’t persist anybody and don’t allow somebody else to persist me.

SG: I remember chatting with Mira Nair many years ago and she couldn’t stop singing praises of you. She discovered you in some way.

IK: Yes, I was doing my final-year diploma production. She came and said, “I want to take you to Mumbai. I am making a film (Salaam Bombay).” It was a great experience because she gave me the opportunity to live with those kids. Two months I was with them, sleeping, eating, doing everything with them. Mira makes you feel special. She does everything with the same passion, whether it’s what’s being cooked at her home or what flowers should be in Tabu’s room when she comes to New York or when the rehearsal or recce should be done.

SG: So, did you change any lines in Slumdog Millionaire?

IK: Yes, but the scene was not there in the edited version. Anil (Kapoor) visits the thana where he wants to manipulate the police department into detaining and punishing the boy. I am angry and don’t enjoy his presence. But while he is leaving, I want to take his autograph for my wife. So there is this half-hearted kind of thing where I want to take his autograph. I was in a hurry to meet him and ask for the autograph. So, I was doing this gesture and then he (Danny Boyle) said, “What are you doing?” I said I want to take an autograph for my wife. He laughed loudly and said don’t do that. He thought it might not be necessary for the film

SG: Tell me some things you changed that survived in films.

IK: Improvised, not changed. For Life in a Metro, we had this beach scene. We were shooting on Hotel Horizon and Anurag Basu told me, “You know, we have to finish that scene.” I asked him what the scene is and he said he’ll let me know in the car. But then he drove off, leaving me behind. I called him to ask about the scene. And he said we’ll talk at the beach itself. When we reached there, he told me two to three lines related to the scene. Mere dimag mein kuch aaya and I said, “Anurag, beer manga yaar.” He got the beer and I told Konkona (Sen Sharma) to just go with the flow. And we kept improvising on that—rota hai, phir halwai ki baatein karne lagta hai…phir iski baatein karne lagta hai. All that was improvisation.

SG: So, was the dialogue also improvised then?

IK: Yes. It was supposed to be a small scene with just three to four lines but became a long scene.

SG: I will go back to Vishal Bhardwaj. You said you had a little sense of hurt. Have you and Vishal talked about it, may be like going out for a smoke and discussing?

IK: No. It is too insulting and embarrassing for yourself and the other person. You know it. If I get a chance to go to Hollywood and work with Steven Spielberg, I will go. He has all the right to make the surroundings comfortable for himself.

SG: So, you continue to be friends?

IK: Yes.

SG: There has never been an explanation sought or an explanation given?

IK: No. I do tell him sometimes ki yaar choti film bana lo hamare saath but feel bad about it later.

SG: Some people have exploited the success of Slumdog, say Freida Pinto and Anil Kapoor, for example, but not you. Why?

IK: I can’t function like that—(film) Oscar mein chali gai so I change my whole being and start doing things that I have never done.

SG: Or move to LA?

IK: I want to live here. No matter how big an opportunity, I will never settle in America or in any other land.

SG: You say this with vehemence. Is it something about America or something about Mumbai?

IK: America. You know the (American) society which is trying to make the whole world similar. But, you know the good thing about America is that because the society there is materialistic, there are people who are reflecting about it. So if anything like ‘spiritual revolution’ comes up, it has to come from America.

SG: Have you been given a tough time either by way of profiling or the usual security problems?

IK: Security problems I had, but that is a usual thing and it happens to everybody. Also theirs is a very formal society, but I love the city, New York.

SG: It was a great role you played in New York.

IK: Yes.

SG: Are you sometimes worried about playing the policeman, different kinds of policemen—Indian, American, Pakistani? Do you sometimes worry you are getting caught in the ‘Iftikhar Syndrome’. Because in the ’60s and ’70s, Iftikhar was always a policeman.

IK: Yes, if I do three or four more characters of policemen, you can say so. But, they (the policeman roles) haven’t bothered me that much. If they are becoming repetitive, I think I will be the first person to react . You know, policemen can be of a thousand kinds.

SG: What is left to conquer? And is that frontier in India or overseas?

IK: Both. I would want to keep doing something to make myself more viable for producers and directors. Sometimes, I need to do films just for the sake of it, just to be in circulation. I would really like not to do those films though. I would like to do films which engage me and then make life more comfortable for myself. For example, if I want to live in Uttarakhand, I can live there and have the same status when I come here.

SG: If you got three offers—from Mira Nair, Danny Boyle and Vishal Bhardwaj, and you could say yes to only one in terms of your time, who would it be?

IK: It depends on the project and whoever gives me more importance and has a better story. If Danny Boyle gives me a character role, I wouldn’t do that. I’d do it with Vishal if he gives me a lead role because character roles are not justified. Film-makers can’t do justice to them like what happened with Slumdog. I had a major role, but it was sacrificed for the main lead—the boy. I don’t want to be involved in projects wherein I put all my heart and then get eliminated because of the other character. And then you don’t get money. But I want to do a film like Paan Singh Tomar.

SG: This is on the life of a champion runner who became a dacoit?

IK: Yes. We heard the story eight years back and Tigmanshu has been tracking him since. So, if you get the power to do films that fascinate us that is what I would call my achievement, not going to the Oscar or getting a National Award.

SG: Good thought, Irrfan and good to see you smile. We have got so used to seeing your grin in your movies.

IK: They use me like that.

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