December 7, 2001


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The Warrior within

For Irfan Khan, acting was not planned.

Irfan Khan in The Warrior He joined the National School of Drama, New Delhi, only because he did not want to study. Very soon, it became a passion.

In his final year of college, he was cast in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay. However, after a month-long workshop, his role was edited. Sorely disappointed, Irfan was not one to lose hope.

He started doing theatre in Delhi. One such play was based on Lenin, which later became a tele-play. Filmmaker Govind Nihalani saw it and offered him a role in his play Little Eyolf.

Khan came to Bombay in 1990 and there was no looking back after that. He did his first film the following year, Drishti (Dimple Kapadia, Shekhar Kapoor). Following that, there was Tapan Sinha's Ek Doctor Ki Maut and Shyam Benegal's Ward Number Six. Khan started working on television as well, with serials like Darr and Banegi Apni Baat making him a household name.

Now, he has widened his horizon. With his latest film, Asif Kapadia's The Warrior, winning accolades in the London and French film festivals, Khan has come a long way. The 2.5 million pound film is based on a Japanese story.

Meet the 37-year-old actor in conversation with Ronjita Kulkarni.

Tell us about The Warrior.

It is a fresh subject and is different in style, content, making and narration. The film does not have any commercial gimmicks like violence or sex. There is no heroine in the film and so no fake attractions.

It is based in Rajasthan and is about a warrior who is the chief commander of the king's army. He carries out orders of the king to kill people.

In one of the war sequences, he meets a girl. He is just about to kill her when he realises that the locket she is wearing belongs to his son. He gets a vision, where he's standing before a mountain covered with snow. Here he undergoes a transition and begins his search for the true meaning of life. He promises never to lift a sword again.

After his gets the vision, he wants to leave Rajasthan and return to his native place. The rest of the film is about his journey and the various incidents that take place on the way.

Irfan Khan in The Warrior Like once, he passes a jungle and meets a blind woman, who is carrying holy water to cure her child. When he tries to help her, the woman puts her hands on his face and orders him to leave her, as there is 'blood written on his face'.

The warrior's past never leaves him. The king gives his other men orders to bring back his head.

But the sudden transition in the warrior hasn't been explained well...

The change he undergoes is not logical. It's an intuition. Maybe he did raise questions in his mind before. The film has not emphasised this. Of course, he is shown to be a hard-core merciless killer. But at the same time, if the king asks him to kill someone because a person hasn't paid his lagaan (tax on land revenue), he hesitates before carrying out the orders.

Tell us about your role.

I am a warrior. I may have come from a cold part of India, like Kulu. I want a job, which has fame and glory. In those times, probably the job of a warrior was famed.

But he questions his profession, as he does not like unnecessary violence.

I enjoyed myself while working for this film. I did not have to prepare much for the role. I did not try to analyse the warrior's character but acted according to the situations. It's a very special film for me.

How did you get the role?

Asif was looking out for actors in India. He is young himself hence he wanted some young actors, so that he could relate to them. He hired a casting director, who suggested my name.

At that time, I was directing my film for BBC. When we met, he selected me instantly.

But I didn't want to leave Bombay for three months (the shooting took place in Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh for three months) as I was also producing my own television show. I was in two minds.

What really attracted me were the images that he had in the script. A man standing in a desert swings the sword on a girl and suddenly finds himself before a snowy mountain. The script was so meticulous; I could actually visualise the film. I've never read such a script before. Besides, there aren't too many dialogues in the film. The film communicates through visuals. I did get excited about the film, but I still had my doubts. Finally, my casting director convinced me.

Can The Warrior be classified as an action film?

The film has action only in the first half. But surprisingly, no blood is ever shown. The film does not glorify violence. The actual killing is not shown, but you can feel it.

I would call the film a magical realism. This is a new term for me actually. The film has magical moments. It isn't realistic. It is a period film, but the exact period is not mentioned. It's like a fable.

What was it like working with an NRI filmmaker?

Asif does not stay in India, but he has his roots in Gujarat. What I realised from this experience is that when two people from different cultures meet, the experience enriches both of them. We learnt a lot from each other.

Irfan Khan in The Warrior He never forced or told anybody what to do. He only suggested what we should not do. Asif goes by intuition. He does what he feels is correct. As an actor, you realise his rhythm. So you act accordingly.

The shooting was very organised. A schedule was chalked out for everyone, including the director. Everyone knew what the other person was doing at all times because of the schedule. It was very systematic.

But of course, the system has its flaws too. If it ever fails, they will not be able to work at all. It is unlike the Bollywood shoots, where there is nothing called a system, but where nothing can really fail. There's always a way out of every situation.

Of course, the system here never failed.

Tell us about the shooting experiences.

It was very, very hot in Rajasthan. The temperature was as high as 49 degrees. And I had long hair, and was sometimes in an armour. It was not easy.

But in Himachal Pradesh, it was very cold. The temperature touched zero degrees and it was snowing. We needed bullocks there. And you'll never find them in Himachal! So we got them from elsewhere and we had to make sure they survived. Everyone in the unit became attached to the bullocks.

You've been called a sex god for this film.

*laughs* I got so many compliments for my appearance in Europe. It obviously made me feel great, because I don't get such compliments here. Asif has captured me very well. When I see myself in the film, I feel very nice. When I see myself on screen here, I get very embarrassed.

Why is it that television and theatre actors always want to shift to films?

You want more people to know you. Even the money is better. Films determine your market price. If your film clicks, you get paid higher, irrespective of your acting skills.

That does not happen in television, because serials are made on small budgets. Television actors are not that recognised. Besides, it's just delivering the dialogues, there's no acting involved. It becomes boring after a while.

Have you acted in films that you have directed?

No. As an actor, you are worried about your appearance and your act. As a director, you are not bothered at all. I combined both with Banegi Apni Baat. That was a bad experience.

But I've acted in films that I produced.

Will you concentrate on films now, rather than television?

I want to do more films. But I cannot plan anything, because the film industry is very uncertain. At the moment, I'm doing Haasil, also starring Jimmy Shergil, Hrishita Bhatt and Ashutosh Rana.

Do tell us what you think of this interview