Interview: Shubhra Gupta, author, Irrfan Khan: A Life in Movies

ByMajid Maqbool
Aug 11, 2023 08:13 PM IST

On how Irrfan pushed boundaries with each film and, in the process, blurred the lines between an actor and a star

How is this book different from others on Irrfan Khan and his work? What was unique about him, his journey as an actor and his craft that makes him one of a kind?

Author Shubhra Gupta (Courtesy the subject)
Author Shubhra Gupta (Courtesy the subject)

The books that I have read on Irrfan, or the ones that I am aware of, are more in the vein of traditional biographies, or compilations of interviews with the actor himself. The idea was to do something different, obviously. Plus, it was important to me, as a long-time film critic, that I be able look at the actor through the prism of his craft. So Irrfan, A Life In Movies, which I feel is very aptly named, focuses on the actor’s trajectory through the films he did, picking up significant works from his filmography.

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The real differential that is built into the book comes from having multiple perspectives from Irrfan’s people: his family, his friends-like-family, and close collaborators, as well as industry watchers.

There have been many trained drama school actors who have made a name for themselves in the Hindi film industry, and this would include stalwarts like the late, great Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah, of course. Irrfan overtook them all in the way he was able to move from the periphery into the centre stage in Bollywood, and in the way he was invited to be a part of massive tentpoles in Hollywood. It took him a long time to make that journey, but at the time he fell ill, he was at the top of his game. If he was around today, big producers would have been writing movies around him, just as they do with the biggest stars; and he would certainly have been doing some of his best work on the OTT platforms which have taken over so much of our viewing lives.

I think Irrfan was unique in the way he kept trying to surprise us, the viewers, in film after film. I can’t stress just how important that ability is, because it’s what truly makes an actor both universal and relatable. When we see Irrfan playing a role, we do not see him; we see the character he is playing.

384pp, ₹899; Pan Macmillan India
384pp, ₹899; Pan Macmillan India

You have talked to a range of people who knew him. What was the most revealing aspect of his life and work as an actor that came out of these conversations?

The biggest takeaway for me was confirmation of something I’d always suspected: the fact that he was so easily bored, that he hankered to do something different, even in the most hackneyed movies that he did. Many of the people I spoke to reiterated this. There’s a lovely bit in Tillotama Shome’s interview in which she recounts just how keen he was to do something fresh in every take they were doing ( I think the film she was referring to was Angrezi Medium).

The other thing that I learnt was that he loved being amidst nature, and was very much in tune with the rhythms of the place he was in.

How was Irrfan a disruptor in the Hindi film industry which mostly makes movies for stars, not actors, as you note?

The Hindi film industry, just like any other film industry which privileges the box office and profits over all else, is always on the lookout for faces that the audiences fall desperately in love with. Most of those faces belong to established film families who employ all their insider knowledge in launching one of their own, and to keep them in the public eye, just because they can. The legacy studios are intent upon cobbling together projects which buoy a star’s persona. Given these two near-unassailable factors, to be able to break into the industry is a formidable task: a trained actor can always find work in a supporting part, and that’s usually what ends up happening, but to capture both the viewer’s imagination, and the box-office is a rare thing.

Irrfan was known for being a great actor, and he was getting central parts in big studio-led movies. In 2012, when he did Hindi Medium, which had him as the solo male lead, and the film went on to make that magic hundred crore figure, Bollywood was finally bowled over. If that’s not being a disruptor, I don’t know what is.

You say that he single-handedly lifted the status of “character actors” in the Hindi film industry. How was he able to do that given that actors with “unconventional” looks find it hard to get good work in mainstream Hindi cinema?

The end of the 1990s, and the turn of the millennium, was an inflection point for Bollywood, which was still trying to coast on formulaic star-led, singing-dancing extravaganzas. It was also a time when a group of new voices – Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerji, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Anurag Basu, Shoojit Sircar, Ram Gopal Varma – were gathering force. These filmmakers were disruptors in their own right, all intent upon forcing their way past the gatekeepers of traditional Bollywood.

The very presence of actors who could help these new directors in telling their stories — of the north Indian hinterlands, and the people that came from there, of mobsters in Mumbai who spoke in a very different leheja than the ones we had been familiar with till then, of characters who were neither heroes nor villains the way Bollywood had typified them as — made it possible for a new wave in Hindi cinema.

It was not just Irrfan who benefited from these filmmakers. It was also good actors like Manoj Bajpayee and Kay Kay Menon who found work in films that would be seen widely. These were considered good actors, as much misfits in the youthful rom-coms or social melodramas that Bollywood specialised in as Irrfan was: they were just right for the “new-age” filmmakers in search of actors for their kind of realistic, gritty cinema. The timing was perfect.

But at that time, it was Irrfan who found the widest acceptance from amongst audiences also hungry for something new. That’s because he was fortunate enough to be getting roles that were wildly different from each other: the only thing common between the eponymous Maqbool in Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, Monty in Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro, Ashoke Ganguli in Mira Nair’s The Namesake, Paan Singh in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar, Rana in Piku, the older Pi in Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi was that all these characters were played by Irrfan.

How important was that decade of working in television for Irrfan as he honed his craft and eventually got bigger roles in the movies? You write that at one time when he was getting banal roles in television dramas, he was on the verge of quitting acting.

More than anything else, the fact that he was getting paying work in TV, kept him going. According to his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, he was never short of work, and those who want to hack a living in the fickle world of entertainment know just how crucial that is. It was another matter that he got tired, all too soon, of the loud parts he was required to play in such popular serials as Chandrakanta and Chanakya.

A couple of serials did give him some satisfaction: one of them was Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, in which he did a few bit parts. His role of a man much older than he was at that point in Banegi Apni Baat, written by Sikdar, was also quite impactful. The most important one was, of course, Bestsellers on Star TV, which gave him a chance to dig into substantial roles. It also gave him the strength to hold on, and not turn his back on acting, as he so nearly did: shortly after the series came to an abrupt end, he got his first major break in British filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, and soon after that, he got both Haasil and Maqbool. He never looked back after that.

You write that Irrfan could become anybody and play the character with great empathy and assuredness. What are your favourite Irrfan films?

It’s hard to pick a favourite, not just because it’s not something I like to do, but also because there was so much to like in Irrfan’s work. But if I had to, I would pick five films, The Namesake, Paan Singh Tomar, Maqbool, Haasil, and Qissa, all of which he was excellent in.

His performance in The Warrior, Kapadia’s first feature film which hasn’t been seen in India, is so singular, so striking, that I’ve never been able to forget it. Someone should bring it here and release it widely.

You point out that we don’t give him “enough credit for being India’s first genuine crossover star.” How was he able to successfully manage this crossover?

From what I gathered through the conversations for the book, Irrfan’s hunger for roles that stretched him and took him out of his comfort zone was so strong that it overcame his initial reluctance to act in English. In a brief interaction early this year, Michael Winterbottom who cast Irrfan in The Mighty Heart alongside Angelina Jolie, spoke of him accepting the part of the Pakistani investigator after some persuasion. And then acing it.

Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.

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