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'Irrfan is one of the world's greatest actors'

July 26, 2018 09:29 IST

'You can't take your eyes off him.'

IMAGE: Irrfan in Puzzle.

Irrfan Khan's first film was the critically acclaimed BAFTA-winning British production The Warrior (2001).

After that, his career took off in India, but Hollywood did not really notice him until he acted in The Namesake (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

In the recent years, Irrfan has managed a unique career -- acting in Bollywood and smaller indie films in India, but also big budget Hollywood productions, including The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016).

Irrfan's new American production Puzzle is a relatively small indie production. It stars Scottish actress Kelly Mcdonald, who plays Agnes, a quiet housewife and a mother, bored with her life until she finds a purpose: She realises she is very good at solving jigsaw puzzles.

Irrfan plays Robert, a wealthy divorced man and Agnes'; puzzle partner, who triggers this passion in her. They find a sense of peace in their complicated lives.

'Doing puzzles is a way to control the chaos,' Irrfan's Robert says in the film. 'When we complete it, that gives a perfect picture, our way to control the mess around us.'

Producer Peter Saraf first thought of casting Irrfan in the film.

'Irrfan is one of those actors, who immediately draws you in and you can't take your eyes off him,' Saraf is quoted as saying in the film's programme notes.

'I thought about the scene where Agnes goes to meet the man who placed the personal ad for a puzzle partner. Wouldn't it be extraordinary if Irrfan Khan opens the door?'

Based on a 2009 Argentinian film, Rompecabezas, Puzzle is directed by Marc Turtletaub, better know as the producer of a range of American indies from Little Miss Sunshine (2006) to Loving (2016).

Puzzle opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 27. contributor Aseem Chhabra spoke to Marc Turtletaub in Los Angeles.


IMAGE: Marc Turtletaub explains a scene to Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan.

Marc, I usually have no patience for jigsaw puzzles but I love how the film shows two people who find comfort in solving them. Do you like puzzles? Did you get drawn to them during the shoot?

Like many people, I played with puzzles when I was child, but not since then.

On the sets, in between scenes, Kelly would open a 1,000-piece puzzle and start working on it.;

I would join her, and before long, other people would start working with her.

Suddenly there would be six or eight people solving the same puzzle.

Your producer Peter Saraf suggested Irrfan's name. Did you know his work before this?

Of course, I did. I consider him as one of the world's greatest actors.

I have seen him in his big Hollywood movies, but in addition, I loved some of his smaller and more intimate work like The Lunchbox. It was a beautiful portrayal.

I remember watching him on the HBO show In Treatment.

When my producing partner asked, 'Have you thought of Irrfan Khan?'

I said wow, but I wondered if he would consider coming all the way from India to do our small film.

Peter said we should try.

After we sent him the script, Irrfan and I Skyped together. He told me he loved the script, which is what drew me to the project also. So we began to work together.

IMAGE: Kelly and Irrfan in Puzzle.

I am curious about Irrfan's character Robert. He is not identified by his ethnicity. Did you consider working with a non-Caucasian actor from the start?

No, the part was not written for an Indian or a Caucasian actor. We just wanted someone who is an incredible actor. We didn't have a predisposition one way or the other.

It is great when Hollywood production companies engage in colour-blind casting. Irrfan has an Indian accent, but the film does not go into his back-story. The only back-story we have is that he is divorced.

But you get a sense that this man is somewhat isolated, living alone and maybe lonely. He lives in a beautiful ornate house, but the furniture is missing.

So he comes across as a wealthy, lonely man, bouncing around in this large home.

We wanted to create that sense.

Over the course of the movie, he develops this relationship and he comes alive again.

Not only does he have a relationship with Agnes, but he also begins to work again, perhaps doing what he loves.

Did you rehearse a lot with Irrfan and Kelly? Her role is so demanding.

No. When you have world-class actors like Irrfan Khan and Kelly Mcdonald, I have learned that it is best to let them bring what they bring without beating it out before hand. You can always adjust later.

We talked about various scenes and what we wanted to accomplish with the characters. But we didn't rehearse any scenes.

Did Irrfan and Kelly meet before the shoot?

No, they met briefly just as we began shooting. People give me credit for their great performances, but I know the truth: I was smart enough to get out of their way and let them do what they wanted.

IMAGE: Irrfan with Puzzle Cinematographer Chris Norr in New York. Photograph: Kind courtesy Irrfan/Instagram

How did you direct Irrfan and Kelly together and separately? Actors come from different schools of acting. Is his style of acting or how he prepared for the role different from Kelly's?

We all worked together. They are easy to work with.

Every now and then, before we would shoot a scene, he or she would suggest a change in the dialogue or in the blocking.

I have a worked on a lot of films as a producer and learned how important it is for the actors to find not only the words they want to say, but also where they want to say them and how they want to move on set.

You have to allow them that freedom. Then they can relax and give you the best performance. Because we had such great actors, they made the chemistry work.

I think about this one scene when Irrfan and Kelly are in the kitchen and he is reading her younger son's letter, his application to college. The letter has shaken her up.

In my mind, as I looked at the location, I thought of them standing around the table. He gets closer to her and asks whether he could kiss her.

It was going to gradually come together. But Irrfan suggested that we should try the scene sitting by the table.

It wasn't my instinct at all, but I think it turned out to be a nicely done scene.

The actors have to find the space where they are most comfortable.

How did Irrfan work with Kelly, how is he with his co-stars? Does he focus only on his performance?

No, they talked together. It was very collaborative.

When you have actors like Irrfan and Kelly, they get lost in the characters.

You are drawn to them because they are fascinating and their performances are wonderful.

But it is not about them. They are not drawing attention only to themselves.

That means they have to be in the moment of working with their fellow actors.

IMAGE: 'On the base camp at Yonkers for the shoot of Puzzle,' Irrfan writes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Irrfan/Instagram

How does Irrfan act? When he would come on the set, before you said action, would you see him mentally preparing?

That's a good question. He is very comfortable in his skin.

He is very relaxed and comfortable in who he is and very convivial when he is off the set.

But ever so often, you get the sense that he is thinking about how he wants to play the next scene. But he doesn't discuss it.

The very first day we were shooting, we had talked about what the scene was supposed to be, what the important beats were in it.

But I didn't know what the actors were going to portray. And, as you know, in this movie he moves around a lot.

It was often unexpected -- the gestures he would do, when he would throw his hand up in the air or a circular gesture. I saw it for the first time myself.

Like everyone watching, I would think, 'Wow, where is he going to go with it?'

Of course, it ended up being the performance you see of an eccentric, wealthy, charismatic guy.

I could never have predicted until I saw it myself.

Are you saying he created the character himself, from within?

Yes, he brought that from within. That's Irrfan's intuitive sense of how that character should be played.

I know the film belongs to Kelly, since it is her character's emotional journey. Irrfan is in a relatively smaller role; he doesn't appear until about 25 minutes into the film.

Yes. But his character is so interesting that you can't take your eyes off him.

I hired a female editor (Catherine Haight) because it is a coming-of-age film about a woman, who is over 40.

I wanted a woman's perspective in editing the film.

While we were making the film, she was doing the editor's cut. She was picking the takes that she thought were the best.

When I watched her cut, it was all about Irrfan -- Irrfan here and Irrfan there.

I asked, 'Cate, what happened? I thought you were trying to protect the female voice in the film?'

And she said, 'Yes, but I fell in love with Irrfan.'

This is what happens.

But in a real ensemble, everyone has his or her moments. I think the father played by David Denman also has his moments in.

IMAGE: Irrfan enjoys a kimono walk down a New York street during the filming of Puzzle. Photograph: Kind courtesy Irrfan/Instagram

He is terrific in it. One thinks that he would break down or crack up, get violent and abusive, but he does not do so.

I wanted him to be nuanced. I didn't want him to be a stick figure.

I wanted him to be somebody who loves his wife, he just doesn't know any better. This is the world he has known.

I have heard the audience say they sense his love for his wife even when he does some horrible things to her.

Which were the difficult scenes for the actors: The kissing scene or working on the puzzles?

This movie was easy to put together because of the actors and the crew. The latest night we stayed at the set was 11.30 pm.

We were home every night.

The crew got along beautifully -- not one argument in 30 days! That doesn't always happen.

Irrfan was with you at the Sundance Film Festival, so he has seen the film. Unfortunately, he is unwell and cannot do any promotions.

Sundance was an incredible experience. There were 1,300 people in the theatre and everyone stayed for half an hour after the film for the Q&A session.

Well, congratulations. The film is deeply moving.

It's about human relationships.

When I got the script, my first reaction was why would I be interested in a film about jigsaw puzzles.

But once I read the script, I realised jigsaw puzzles are just the avenue that bring these people together and help them change.

Aseem Chhabra