Keeping It Real

13 minute read
Jyoti Thottam / Roorkee

On a dirt track under the midday sun, Irrfan Khan waits at the starting line. The 42-year-old actor is playing a poor army recruit from a village in central India who runs just to get the extra ration of food allotted to athletes. At his first race, his character doesn’t know what to do when the pistol sounds, so he prays. “You idiot! Run!” the starter screams. That spurs the soldier into action, and the naive confusion on his face turns into determination. Extras from the Bengal Sappers — actual young army recruits who live on the base in Roorkee in northern Uttarakhand state, where the movie is being filmed — crowd around the sidelines as he lowers his head and takes off.

This kind of character — the village boy who succeeds against all odds — is a staple of Bollywood, India’s film industry, the largest in the world. But Khan turns it into something more. In his hands, the true story of Paan Singh Tomar, a track-and-field champion turned mountain bandit, becomes a parable about the frustrated poor. Khan says the film, written and directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, an old friend from drama school, appealed to him because it follows the hero once he has been forgotten. “It talks about our system,” he says. “It’s a sign for any nation, any society — how much they are prepared to care for a talent.”

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That’s a question that applied to Khan too, but no longer. He has blurred the once sharp line dividing India’s truly gifted actors from its movie stars. He is the one who can do it all: big-budget Bollywood films as well as small independent films in the U.S., Europe and India. Khan’s specialty is adding a layer of unexpected depth and tenderness to an otherwise opaque character — the interrogator in Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, a Pakistani police captain in A Mighty Heart, the remote immigrant father in The Namesake. Danny Boyle, the British director of Slumdog Millionaire, believes that as other Western studios try to replicate the film’s success with movies set in India, Khan will be even more in demand — quintessentially Indian, and yet something else besides. “He is a touchstone connecting two worlds,” Boyle says. More than Shah Rukh or Aamir or Salman, it’s Irrfan who is the Great Khan — India’s finest actor, perhaps even Asia’s.

Bridging East and West
The cliché about actors with great screen presence is that they always seem so much smaller in real life. Khan is the opposite. When he’s in a scene on film, it’s almost impossible not to watch him — but in person the effect is magnified, not diminished. He is taller and better looking than you expect from his common-man roles, and he has a way of subtly yet firmly controlling the environment around him. He doesn’t need a big, pushy entourage to do it. When I meet him on the roof of a bland, concrete hotel in Roorkee, he has already charmed and cajoled the manager into opening up the roof terrace, lighting it with movie equipment and fetching a badminton set so he and his crew can amuse themselves in the evenings.

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Khan talks easily about movies — he loves them with the ardor of a lifelong fan — and almost as freely about his struggle to become an actor. He grew up in Jaipur, a city of crumbling palaces in the north Indian desert, as the eldest son of a conservative, aristocratic Muslim family. The popular movies he watched in the 1960s, such as Mughal-E-Azam and Guide, were pure escape — gorgeous fantasies of epic love and tragedy. By the time he was a teenager in the 1970s, the socially conscious new wave of the 1960s — so-called parallel cinema — began to enter the mainstream, bringing Indians’ everyday experiences to the big screen. Khan was transfixed. He had been an indifferent student at college in Jaipur, but now pursued a spot in the National School of Drama in New Delhi with single-minded devotion. “My father died the same year, and I was the eldest,” he recalls. “Morally and socially, it was difficult to leave.” Withstanding family pressure, Khan reasoned with himself that he would end up demoralized, bitter and unable to support them if he stayed. “So I left.”

Drama school was a new world, but not what he expected. “I thought somebody, somehow, would give me the secret to acting,” he recalls. Indian theater then had nothing like the studios of method-acting guru Lee Strasberg or Stanislavski disciple Stella Adler to give actors tools and techniques. It had its roots in drawing-room melodramas and classical literature, including an ancient text, the Natyashastra, devoted to the theory of drama. “It even tells you where in the audience a critic should sit,” Khan says. “But you cannot learn acting from that.” So he immersed himself in the films of Scorsese, Costa-Gavras and Bergman, and watched Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando over and over, trying to work out for himself how they do what they do.

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In his final year, a young director casting her first feature — a cinema verité take on slum life in Bombay — came to the school scouting for talent. “One of the things I’m slightly proud of is kind of discovering Irrfan,” says Mira Nair, who cast Khan as a letter writer in Salaam Bombay! His role was edited down to a fleeting appearance, but Nair says that even then, Khan was different. “I was very, very struck by his being in the part rather than acting,” she recalls. “He wasn’t striving. His striving was invisible. He was in it.”

Eighteen years later, Nair cast him in The Namesake, and he rendered a quietly commanding performance. Khan plays Ashoke Ganguli, an Indian immigrant to the U.S. struggling to connect with his Westernized son. Khan had never been to the U.S. before then, so to play Ashoke he called on an earlier trip to Canada, where he had noticed the many middle-aged immigrants working in shops. “Something stayed in my mind,” he says. “A strange sadness set in them. A rhythm that middle-aged people have.” Nair says he was true to the quietness of the character, but used a light touch. In one scene, he gives his son’s blonde, American girlfriend an appreciative once-over when he meets her. Nair says it wasn’t in the script, but Khan understood what a little humor can do for a serious role. It was only a brief moment, but it cracked Ashoke’s dignified veneer just slightly, letting the audience feel his vulnerability.

Khan’s ability to generate such empathy led to critical praise and also won the attention of Fox Searchlight Pictures, which co-distributed Slumdog Millionaire. Director Boyle says that Khan’s part was crucial. Khan plays the inspector who interrogates Jamal, a young man from the slums of Mumbai, suspecting him of cheating to win a televised quiz show. Everything else in the movie is a flashback, so the suspense hinges on whether the interrogator will release Jamal or keep him in custody. Khan’s way of inhabiting the character is consummate and ineffable — as economical and meticulous as the way he rolls his own cigarettes or asks for a precisely brewed cup of tea. “You can’t put your finger on what exactly,” Boyle says. But he has an instinctive way of finding the “moral center” of any character, so that in Slumdog, we believe the policeman might actually conclude that Jamal is innocent. Boyle compares him to an athlete who can execute the same move perfectly over and over. “It’s beautiful to watch.”

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Breaking Out
Khan is not the first indian actor to win acclaim in the West. Before Khan, there was Naseeruddin Shah, a star of Indian parallel cinema’s realism; Om Puri, co-star of City of Joy with Patrick Swayze; and Roshan Seth, who played Jawaharlal Nehru, the foil to Ben Kingsley’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Mahatma in Gandhi. All had healthy careers as character actors, but their potential as dramatic leading men was never really fulfilled, in Hollywood or Bollywood. “I feel very sad about it,” Khan says. But he seems to have escaped that fate. “Everybody here calls me about him,” Nair says from New York. Khan had a small part in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and appears as Natalie Portman’s love interest in New York, I Love You in a segment directed by Nair. And he may star opposite Cate Blanchett in a planned film about the relationship between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of India’s last viceroy. Khan says coyly that he is “very eager” to be on the set — but the project is on hold indefinitely until the producers can get past the unease that India’s Central Board of Film Certification has with the idea of the great statesman romancing a memsahib.

Khan’s burgeoning international reputation is perhaps more remarkable because he has established it without leaving Bollywood. During the late 1980s and 1990s, when Indian film went through a particularly low moment, many of Khan’s friends left the industry in disgust. “I was absolutely disillusioned,” recalls one of them, Vipin Sharma, who emigrated to Toronto to work in documentaries. Bollywood had become dominated by “masala movies” — spicy escapades guaranteed to titillate rural masses with increasingly outlandish plots, tawdry lovemaking scenes and bombshell heroines. Distributors would literally call the shots, sitting in on previews with directors and saying, “Let’s add a song sequence here, let’s have a rape scene here,” explains Shubhra Gupta, a film critic in New Delhi. But Khan chose his Bollywood work carefully, waiting for the occasional good story or compelling role. “Irrfan stayed and fought and created his own path,” Sharma says.

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Television serials were the best refuge for serious actors at the time, and Khan appeared in a good number, including Banegi Apni Baat — a drama that served as an incubator for several big names — and Kahkashan, in which he played the Marxist Urdu poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin. He also married his girlfriend from drama school, a scriptwriter. They had two children, now 6 and 11, and he focused on his craft. Not that such craft was especially valued in a business where there was no freedom for actors to interpret the roles, and where directors dictated every phrase and gesture. “That used to suffocate me,” Khan says. “I used to watch myself and feel embarrassed.” A funny thing happened, though, in those years that Khan toiled in television. The film industry caught up with him, and in the nick of time. Khan was ready to leave the profession when he was offered a part in The Warrior, a 2001 period piece filmed in India by a British-Indian director. It was the first time a director asked him to “do nothing,” and he finally felt free. “That changed my life,” he says. “I couldn’t work in television after that.”

He didn’t have to. Other roles soon followed as the economics of the Indian film industry radically changed. Studios in Bollywood, as in Hollywood, discovered alternatives to the high-risk, high-reward blockbuster. India’s new malls featured smaller, luxurious multiplexes to appeal to the urban middle classes, a far cry from the bare-bones cinema halls and marquees of small towns and villages. “You went from 1,000 seats to 100 seats, where it was easier to show films that did not require 1,000 people to break even,” says Gupta. Studios could make healthy profits with smaller budgets, giving directors the freedom to do more inventive stories, without huge stars or musical numbers. Khan starred in one of the early “multiplex movies” — Maqbool, a 2003 retelling of Macbeth — and the genre has thrived.

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Actors, too, have found a new model. There was a time when any young hero longed to be Shah Rukh Khan, the shimmying, flexing, weeping pretty boy who is still the industry’s most bankable star, or Aamir Khan, the slick lead of the recent megahit 3 Idiots. Instead, Irrfan Khan has become the inspiration for all those talented actors who don’t dance and aren’t leading-man handsome. “It’s very deep,” Nair says of his impact. After watching Khan’s performance in Maqbool, Sharma moved back to Mumbai and restarted his career as an actor. He recalls thinking, “This was something different in Indian cinema.”

Khan’s influence is also apparent in younger actors like Abhay Deol. From a family of Bollywood heartthrobs, Deol could have easily followed that path. Instead, he starred in one of last year’s biggest multiplex hits, Dev.D, playing a brooding, drug-addled rich kid in a film with no singing, no dancing and a not-so-happy ending. And in last year’s hit Billu, the shifting balance of artistic power wrought by Khan is on full display. Khan plays the eponymous barber whose world is upended when his childhood friend, a Bollywood superstar, comes to town. That star is played by none other than Shah Rukh Khan, who, in essence, is gently caricaturing his own persona. Irrfan is all praise for his co-star, who he says was “very sincere” in his acceptance and handling of the supporting role. “He wanted the film to be Billu’s story.”

On the set in Roorkee, everything Khan has worked for seems to come together around him. Sharma, the disillusioned actor, plays a sympathetic army officer. Dhulia, a director who once struggled to get his films made, has the backing of UTV, a thriving studio that specializes in multiplex movies. The young soldiers, some with wives and children in tow, follow Khan around the set, taking his picture with their mobile phones. After a few takes at the starting line, Khan has to run against several of the Sappers, who are extras in the film. His pale gangly legs don’t quite match their tanned, toned ones, even after weeks of training. But as Khan runs, arms and legs pumping, his body seems to rejuvenate with the effort. He can’t manage more than one take, but it’s enough, and the camera captures the moment — the lean lines of a born runner, angling into the bend.

with reporting by Madhur Singh / New Delhi

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