The breeze is picking up speed ever so slightly. The sweltering heat that has had Mumbai in its tight grip for the past few months is letting go. The musky scent wafting up from the damp soil is a sign: change is in the air. And in the same way the monsoon is defining Mumbai’s temperature, a reticent-looking bespectacled Indian with unruly curls and a sardonic smile is making his mark on Hollywood. And that’s despite not being able to rise up the pecking order in Bollywood, even with the help of that name.
Please put your hands together for Irrfan Khan, the man on every film-maker’s radar after the mega success of his latest film Jurrasic World. Ironic, considering he was always there on the sidelines – a shapeshifter who just blended in.
Too lanky to carry the weight of a big-budget box office hit on his shoulders, Salman Khan fans agreed. Too sullen looking to be romancing pretty girls in mainstream films, thought Shah Rukh’s supporters, and lacking in on-screen charisma, said Aamir’s devotees. But, as India’s biggest export to Hollywood, Irrfan is now the new King Khan – the biggest, the brightest and by far the best Khan of the lot.
The numbers say it all. With more than a billion dollars in global sales, Jurassic World is the top grosser for 2015 so far. Irrfan plays the role of Simon Masrani, the flamboyant park owner who creates the new species of dinosaurs that lead to colossal havoc. ‘When the first Jurassic Park came out, I barely had the money to see it, and now I’m playing a part,’ he says in an exclusive Friday interview. ‘My character in the film is trying to entertain the world with good intentions, but sometimes being flamboyant doesn’t mean having much wisdom.’ Spoken like a man who doesn’t allow life’s ups and downs to affect his demeanour – and he should know. Irrfan has seen more than his fair share of them in his 48 years.
Born to a middle class family in Tonk, a small village in India’s eastern state of Rajasthan, the eldest of four kids was either expected to take over his late father’s tyre business or fulfil his mother’s wish of being a teacher in his hometown. ‘Instead I decided to leave town to pursue my dream of being an actor,’ he says.
After finishing his studies at the National School of Drama in 1987, Irrfan assumed that his talent would be his vehicle to success, but it wasn’t the case. ‘I used to go and meet people for work, and I’d always make a mess of it,’ he admits. ‘I thought I’d convince them that I’m a good actor, they’d give me a part and I’d make a good job of it. But it never used to work. Not that I didn’t try, like hiring an agent, doing a portfolio or trying to present myself as something I was not. It just made me embarrassed,’ he remembers.
The result? More embarrassment. Apart from getting insignificant roles in television soaps and average films, Irrfan’s career remained flat for more than a decade. “There was a time in the 1990s when I was actually contemplating quitting. I was bored of the kind of acting I had to do on TV, where you had to announce everything verbally instead of portraying it through your behaviour. It was verbose,’ he says.
Luckily, playing the lead in 2001’s The Warrior – Asif Kapadia’s period film – gave Irrfan’s career some much-needed CPR. The film went on to win the best British Film Award at the Baftas, but the good fortune was not to last. Irrfan had to make do with a few more years of insipid roles before he was cast in Mira Nair’s The Namesake. Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller of the same name, the film established Irrfan’s credentials in Hollywood. Irrfan was suddenly bagging meaty roles in multimillion-dollar films such as Ang Lee’s epic Life of Pi, The Mighty Heart with Angelina Jolie in the lead, Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. He followed this up with The Amazing Spider-Man.
“As an actor, it is a luxury to get such roles. However, I don’t make much money there,’ he explains. ‘Whatever I earn in Hollywood gets finished there itself. But I do it since I know I won’t get opportunities to play such nuanced roles anywhere else. For me it is not about survival in Hollywood.’ He adds, ‘The only thing that has worked for me is my work. So whenever a job has come along, I put whatever I have into it and that has given me another opportunity’.
With Bollywood undergoing a renaissance of its own, Indian film-makers, too, woke up to Irrfan’s effortless ability to pick choice roles. He found himself working with directors and film-makers who offered scripts and techniques of film-making that were no longer offering their audience an escape into the world of fantasy but, rather, a glimpse into a gritty, grotesque reality.
Irrfan proved that he is a performer who exceeds boundaries and genres in films such as Vishal Bharadwaj’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Maqbool. And in Paan Singh Tomar, an award-winning biopic of an athlete who eventually became a rebel, a film for which he won the National Award for best actor; and The Lunchbox, a love story that might be based in Mumbai but speaks a universal language as it explores the relationship between two people who are leading insular lives fighting their personal demons.
‘Unless a film gives you a sense of journey – something that becomes a memory and is a process that you enjoy – there is no point in doing it. I’m looking for those stories that touch audiences and stay with them. And wherever I find them, whether it is Hollywood, Bollywood or France, I’ll jump to do it,’ he says.
And what has helped him through his journey is his ‘ordinary’ looks – lean frame, bags under his eyes, unruly mop of hair. ‘I’ve never looked to create an image where people fall in love with my face or style as I’ve been trying to create a space for myself where I don’t depend on that,’ he says. ‘So, whether it is going to the gym to build a buff body or endorsing fairness creams, none of that excites me. And since I do not have an image to protect, I’d rather connect with a story and hit my audience in the heart a different way.’
It is this quest to reach out to his audience that compels Irrfan to explore a genre that he is sceptical of – love. The result? Piku. A love story that saw him play opposite Deepika Padukone, with Amitabh Bachchan playing her hypochondriac father. Released in May, the film not only won critical acclaim it went on to be a huge box-office hit as well.
‘In commercial cinema before anything happens they say, “I love you.” People need to understand that so much happens between two people before they propose to each other. Piku shows romance can be worked around an ailing parent as well,’ says Irrfan, who is married to writer Sutapa Sikdar, who was his classmate in National School of Drama and with whom he has two sons, Babil and Aryan. ‘She’s got a better sense about acting than me. When we were at drama school, I always used to ask her about my performance, and she’d give me diplomatic answers and that used to bug me. She has only started appreciating my work recently.’
His next role is in Jazbaa, a Bollywood film that’s generating a lot of excitement as it is Aishwarya Bachchan’s comeback movie. And what about Hollywood? ‘I have a pivotal role in Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestseller Inferno, which stars Tom Hanks. It is much more refined than my previous roles. I like when nuances become more important than action.’
And as he embarks on another journey of self-exploration, we wonder if stardom ever makes him feel insecure. ‘I have lost the temptation for things that come through stardom. One day I’d like to enjoy life without fame. Now, I have to admit, I enjoy it.’
Spoken like a man who might be new-age cinema royalty, but who is refreshingly normal nonetheless.