Irrfan: I am currently in the Rs 1,000 crore zone
Irrfan Khan is one of those few Indian actors who have made a mark -- a real one, not imagined as is the case with many Bollywood stars -- in the West. Starting with The Warrior, A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire, an acclaimed part in the television series In Treatment, a bit part in The Amazing Spiderman and now as the older Pi in Ang Lee's Life Of Pi, he is steadily building his repertoire out here.
In this interview with Sonil Dedhia, Irrfan talks about the difficulties faced while shooting for Life Of Pi, why he doesn't like to promote himself and the reason behind his success in the west.
Ang Lee is known to be a tough taskmaster. What difficulties did you face while shooting the film?
This is not a film where the director would have accepted whatever concepts I had in my head. He had a particular vision and I had to understand it.
Ang wanted me to have a French-Canadian Indian accent and I had no reference for it. I didn't know how to prepare for it... It took a lot of time to get that right accent.
The subject is not simple. The film deals with philosophy, the existence of a person, faith, nature, creation, etc. When you are narrating so many things as your own story, you should be the master of it. The dialogues that were written for my character are all literary and not spoken language.
The character that I play did not provide me any scope for improvisation. This role was not ready to come to me. I had done a lot of homework before I went for the first day of the shoot.
When I finished shooting on the first day, I realised that I hadn't contributed to the film. The next day I submitted myself and prayed that I am nobody and I am zero. From the next day I did not carry any pre-conceived notions about myself as an actor or being Irrfan Khan.
Image: Irrfan Khan in Life Of Pi
'I do have pre-conceived notions about myself'
So as an actor, do you have pre-conceived notions about yourself?
Yes, I do. I know my existence and I know what my name can bring to the table for the film. I am aware of that. I work on my characters and the story before I start a film. I do have pre-conceived notions about that, too.
How difficult is it for you to present a character from a novel into a film?
It depends on the subject. Life of Pi was very a tough novel to convert into a movie. The film deals with a lot of issues and, physically, it is almost impossible to shoot a tiger and a boy in a boat on a sea. It is an immense challenge.
The budget of the film is around Rs 500 crore, so it needed a lot of courage and effort to make it.
I think this is Ang Lee's finest work till date.
Did you get to interact with Ang Lee before you started shooting for the film?
Ang was too busy shooting a lot of other portions of the film. I did not get any time to spend with him. I did travel to Taiwan for a week but could only meet him for one day. To understand his vision in a day was not possible. I lacked interaction with him.
I also saw some rushes of what he had already shot but I think it was not enough for me to prepare as it was a rough copy and the scenes weren't edited. It didn't give an impact of what the final product delivers.
Image: Tabu, Ang Lee and Irrfan Khan
'I don't believe in making empty noise'
Did you speak to the author of the book, Yann Martel?
Yes. Later, I realised it wouldn't help because if you talk to me about Life Of Pi after two years of its release, the film has gone out of my system. Also, it was not about researching something related to a true life incident. The book is Yann's version; what I was concerned about was Ang Lee's version. I am Ang Lee's Pi, not Yann Martel's Pi.
Did Ang Lee incorporate actors' creative inputs into the process?
We constantly discussed the film and there were times when I would defy certain things, which I didn't like. It's a collaborative work. At the end of the day, it is only to improve the film and to deliver the best product to the audience.
Initially, when I met him in Mumbai, he gave me a lot of inputs. I remember Ang told me, 'For me, Pi is bullshitting in the film. You can never trust him about what he says.'
He gave me a lot of elements about the character. This created a lot of doubt in my mind. It is good to be in doubt, as it makes you think. But it became difficult for me to choose because I could not take his words as final. I had to look into that element and try to get the best out of me.
You do not seem to be overly excited about Hollywood projects.
I don't believe in making empty noise. I want to be sure that the film has my contribution. If I haven't played a major role in a film's success, what is the point of talking about it?
I can say The Namesake is my film. I was not sure about The Amazing Spiderman, as I was not sure about the length of my role.
Just because I am a part of the film doesn't give me an opportunity to speak about it. I don't want to cheat my fans and give them a false impression. I would like to talk about a film when I am very sure of it.
Image: A scene from The Namesake
'I don't get a lot of money for my Hollywood films'
Why do you think American audiences and filmmakers have responded so favourably to your acting?
I don't know. I am fortunate to be where I am today. I am enjoying the situation. You have to ask them (Laughs).
I get a lot of Hollywood offers. If I want, I can make a career only in Hollywood films, but then I will have to take up every film coming my way for survival.
I want to choose subjects that are special and challenging. I don't get a lot of money. You'll be surprised to know that I don't even get a quarter of money what I get here.
You seem to have struck gold in Hollywood with every filmmaker wanting to rope you in. What do you think has worked for you?
It's a secret; if I reveal it wouldn't everyone start getting those roles too? (Laughs)
I desire to work in stories which are universal.I was longing for such stories and suddenly Warner came and things started happening to my International career. Only God knows how things worked out.
Where do you think is the Indian film industry lacking as compared to Hollywood?
There are few areas where Indian films need to work when it comes to the release of the film. Hollywood films are meticulously planned. They know what kind of audience will be able to relate to the film and promote and release the film accordingly.
The problem with Indian films is that we find a formula and try to apply it to every film. We don't have different strategies for a film which has a budget of Rs 5 crores as compared to a film with a budget of Rs 50 crores.
Image: Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spiderman
'I am doing films because I am saleable'
What is more satisfying -- doing critically-acclaimed films or films that earn millions?
I enjoy working in both kinds of films. If you are talking about films that have earned more than Rs 100 crore at the box office, then Slumdog Millionaire earned more than Rs 800 crore The Amazing Spider-Man must have gone beyond.
Life Of Pi will definitely go bigger because the cost itself is Rs 500 crore. I am currently in the Rs 1,000 crore zone (Smiles).
Was there a point in your career when you finally thought you had become a saleable actor?
I am doing films because I am saleable. The film industry is not doing any social service by casting me. I have my own market and viability and that is why I am being cast in a film.
I am doing a film with Nikhil Advani. He is not paying me because I am a good actor. He is paying me because I can bring certain kind amount of money on the table.
Good acting is just a bonus.
Your son Ayan has played a cameo in the film...
He is doing a friendly appearance because Lee and the casting director wanted it. It was a friendly request. I thought it would be a different experience for him.
My son is playing my elder brother in the childhood version of the film. So, when he grows up, he will be amused to see that.I don't know if there is any potential in him for acting. He has not shown an interest in films. I don't think he should get this kind of exposure at his age. It's not his age to face the hardships you encounter in cinema.
Image: Irrfan Khan with his son
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar