Irrfan Khan’s last interview with Filmfare

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The news of Irrfan Khan’s demise came as a shock to everyone. Just recently, we saw him in front of the camera again in Angrezi Medium and felt that things were going back to normal after he won his battle against the neuroendocrine tumour. But, the sudden demise of Bollywood’s gem has left us speechless. There is no doubt that Irrfan is one of the finest talents that our film industry has ever seen and we’re sure that despite the fact that we won’t be able to see him on screen again, he’ll live on in our hearts forever. As a special tribute to him, we decided to take a little trip down the memory lane and share his last interview with Filmfare for our readers.

Has there been too much delay in getting where you have got to?

I wouldn’t look at it as a delay. It’s all a process. I feel pleased because there has been no strategy or machinery behind all this. It’s all out of the blue, the way things have manifested. It was as though life was preparing me for this. That’s the mystery, the magic of life. I think that’s wonderful and heartening.

What does all the critical acclaim for your work and your recent National Award for Paan Singh Tomar add up to?

For one, I think I have reached a stage where  I have choices. I can choose my director, I can choose my projects. It has taken me a long time to get here; though I feel I am not there yet. But yes, I do have choices now.

Would you have liked it if your career had spanned out any other way?

It could have been something else; perhaps my life would have taken a different trajectory. If I hadn’t connected the way I have connected, there might have been space for me to contemplate all these things. But I think that’s a futile exercise. I don’t put my energies into that kind of speculation. There’s no end to it. Whatever it is, it’s a revelation. It’s like life is opening itself and showing me its surprises. 


You play a RAW agent in D-Day. How does one begin to get into the mind, the motivations of such a person?

Sometimes you don’t need to go that deep. The way our commercial cinema functions, you don’t need that kind of penetration into a character. I was trying to gauge whether the role required that kind of dive. Because as an actor you’d like to dive. The character needed some internalisation, at least as far as the physical circumstances go. But that research had already been done. Besides, the director may not want that degree of dive, so you hold back. You just need a certain amount of information and then the drama takes over;  it works.  That being said, whenever I did something that was not expected, a detail, a nuance, Nikhil (Advani) would get ecstatic about it. That gave me faith.

Does the holding back scare you about mainstream cinema?

No it doesn’t. But sometimes you can’t relate to things. That scares me. In Thank You, I couldn’t connect. If you can’t relate to the style of film-making or the demands of the director, if things are only at a superficial level and nothing happens to your body or your heart – that’s scary. It feels like somebody has taken away everything from you. Nothing is coming in, everything is just going out, you are dissipated. When you are connected to the character. And there’s an exchange from inside out. It’s a reciprocation, it’s as though your battery gets recharged. That thing that happens in the moment – that’s the reward, that’s what keeps you alive as an actor. That’s the uniqueness of this career. I wonder if it happens to a writer or a painter or a sportsperson. When you do things mechanically, you cease to surprise yourself – you know what’s going to come. And that’s boring.

What if you get cast in a Karan Johar or Yash Raj movie? Will there be a disconnect?

See, I don’t think they would cast me unless the character has something in it for me. If the casting is good, I don’t see a disconnect at all.

Did you have a fanboi moment working with Rishi Kapoor In D-Day?

My cousin is his ultimate fan, though I have watched all his movies. I never thought I had it in me to be a Rishi Kapoor. He is hot liquid. He has worked on cultivating his craft so well and he is one of those stars you never have enough of, even if he is doing the same thing, movie after movie. I think that’s what makes his second innings so spectacular. He doesn’t have to be a star anymore, so he is having a blast being an actor.

What makes you say yes to a project?

It’s usually the director and my role – where will this part take me as an actor – and of course, money. Though I have never been unreasonable as far as money is concerned. Another important thing is a vibe with the setup, the people. Films take time, and sometimes you have to spend an inordinate amount of time with a set of people. You must enjoy the time you spend with these people, that’s important too.

What makes you say no?

Repetitiveness, preachiness, issue-based films without any sort of engagement or entertainment value, a director who I cannot trust as far as his ability to tell a story.

Have you ever done something against your grain and it has worked for you?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure of The Namesake. I wanted to do macho, presence-oriented roles after The Warrior and this was the opposite. I wasn’t sure this role would take me where I wanted to go. But I had faith in Mira (Nair) and I wanted to do justice to Jhumpa Lahiri’s words. When it finally came out, it was nothing short of stupendous. Similarly, I didn’t quite know how to shift myself into a negative role with Haasil but it worked. With The Lunchbox too, I had my reservations. I hated the dreariness of the office in which the film was shot, there was nothing to do, no one to engage with, plus the process of growing old… it all felt so hard. But I felt a connect with the emotions, the love story.

What do you make of Indian cinema’s representation abroad?

When people abroad connect with Indian cinema, they connect with a spirit of celebration. But there is so much left to achieve in terms of story, its credibility, the credibility of the characters. Nobody expects to see a credible character in an Indian film. Whoever can connect to this form of makebelieve or accept that anybody can start singing a song in the middle of the film will go and watch these films. But as far as international cinema is concerned, Bollywood has an item number value. They are not looking to engage with this kind of cinema, they watch it for fun.

Slumdog Millionaire, The Namesake and Life of Pi, do tell you that good stories can come out of India…

Coincidentally so many things happened one after the other; I was fortunate to be part of it. When Slumdog came out of the blue, people said, oh, but it’s not an Indian film. Then Anurag’s film (That Girl In Yellow Boots) happened at Cannes and they thought it was a fluke.  Slumdog or Life of Pi may not technically be Indian films, but they have Indian talent, an Indian milieu, Indians are involved in it. The generations to come will be watching these films and thinking, “This is our cinema.” They are building their hopes and dreams based on such films. The good thing is that Indian cinema is now being taken seriously.

What about Indian actors? Are they also taken more seriously?

Yes, it’s a process; it will happen. Because Hollywood has just tasted blood. The time has come for international projects  based out of India.

Tell us more about The Lunchbox. We hear it got a standing ovation at the recent Cannes festival.

It’s a small, sweet Indian film, an Indo-French-German collaboration, which was screened at Cannes 2013. It got sold so quickly, that it must have made some kind of record. Buyers were not even waiting for the end of the film. They were making a beeline for the agent. It was eventually bought by Sony Pictures.

How do you think we can bridge the gap between Indian and international cinema?

I think collaboration is the key. We should bring international talent, in terms of directors, technicians and make films that merge sensibilities. It hasn’t been explored much, but then every business needs to be given time to work. The trick is to find subjects that are universal. I think The Lunchbox did that. It’s an Indo-French-German production but at the end of the day, it’s a love story that could be set anywhere.

What do you think of the 100 crore syndrome?

I think the definition of Indian commercial cinema is changing everyday. In a few years, the 100 crore concept for success will die. People will be selling their movies for 100 crores. The market is not just expanding, it is exploding. The audience wants a choice. Look at the choices Ranbir Kapoor makes. He hardly chooses movies which are potentially considered commercial films.

Have you ever looked for work?

I have waited for work, and I have waited long. I used to think I’ll meet X director and show him Y pictures and boom! Whenever I have tried that, it has actually worked adversely. You can’t start performing when you meet someone right? And besides, I am shy, so it works against my temperament. I am lucky to never be out of work, but I have always waited. When I was in TV, I waited for films, when was in films, I waited for the right role, when I had the right role, I waited for the right film… it’s a never ending process.

What does success mean to you?

It means being able to exercise your choices, not doing things because you have to do them but because you want to. I am still learning, and every project has something new to offer. I would love for my interest to keep growing.

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