The London Indian Film Festival celebrated the career of the actor Irrfan Khan this year. The 46-year-old actor flew into London from his Mumbai home for an ‘In Conversation with …’ session, hosted by the director Asif Kapadia at the British Film Institute. For the actor of Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, the timing couldn’t have been better, what with Khan’s career flying high.
D-Day, in which Khan plays an Indian spy operating in Karachi, Pakistan, opened last weekend, both worldwide and in the UAE, to rave reviews. His forthcoming film The Lunchbox, which he also produced, was a critical hit at the Cannes Film Festival and has been picked up for distribution in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics. He is a rare breed – an actor who is admired and successful both in Bollywood and Hollywood. As if that were not enough, he’s also a mild-mannered and modest interviewee.
He says of being questioned by Kapadia, who helped launch him to international fame in 2001 when the director cast him in The Warrior: “I would rather listen to him speaking, but now the roles are reversed. I’m fascinated by his work, the way he approaches and brings certain elements to the story.”
The surprise is that while both their careers have blossomed, their cinematic paths have not crossed again. “I wish we will work together again. I’ve been waiting a long time for it to happen.”
Khan is a chameleon, an attribute that is useful to any actor, but only a select few have it. He can seemingly play any role: an almost mute enforcer attempting to give up the sword in The Warrior, a harsh police officer in Slumdog Millionaire, a spy in D-Day, a comic book villain in The Amazing Spider-Man, a hard-working immigrant in The Namesake and the eponymous sports star in Paan Singh Tomar. He says of his ever-changing appearance: “I had to create this situation for myself. I was not ready to be tied down to one image. I needed to do this for my own excitement.”
Nonetheless, it’s still a big surprise to see him play a man on the verge of retirement in The Lunchbox. His character strikes up a friendship with a frustrated wife when a tasty lunch she has made for her philandering husband is delivered to the wrong address. Khan gives his retiree a melancholic heaviness, but he has a rather surprising response when talking about the role: “It was very boring to play that part. I know that the story has great emotional resonance, but I knew that the shooting would be very boring, because in the movie, I’m just with myself and I’m a person who has nothing in his life. So what do you do with a part like this? You play boring. I mean the character isn’t boring. Just the process of working.”
The Lunchbox is the best film to come out of the new wave of Indian cinema that eschews the traditional song-and-dance routines in favour of realism. It’s a change in style for Indian film that Khan sees as necessary if Indian films are to appeal to global audiences. “I hope audiences make this film a success in India so these films have more power and more people will be encouraged to make this type of film. Films that connect on a personal level, that are more topical and more engaging. If we don’t, then we won’t be able to create a cinema that can talk to you.”
That doesn’t mean he wants a cinema that just apes Hollywood. D-Day, with its detailed look at the administrative workings of the spy business, has been compared to Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty. “People have this compulsion to define things and I don’t believe in that,” says Khan. “I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty. But as long as people see it as interesting, new Indian cinema, I’m happy with that.”
The offers continue to come from the US, but Khan is wary of signing up for anything that will force him to move from India for any extended period of time. “I will have my base in India. I’ve got offers for TV in America but it’s a long commitment. I did TV but it was never for that long a period, but when it is to sign for a part for years and years, I can’t commit to that at this time.”
• D-Day is currently showing in UAE cinemas
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