Sonil Dedhia in Mumbai
Irrfan Khan is one of the most underrated actors in Hindi cinema today.
The actor has given some brilliant performances in films like Maqbool, The Namesake and, Life... In A Metro, has acted with some of the biggest stars abroad -- with Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart and Natalie Portman in New York I Love You -- and has just come out of what may be the biggest Hollywood blockbuster this year -- The Amazing Spider-Man.
His next release, Pan Singh Tomar, sees him play a national level athlete who goes on to become one of the most dreaded dacoits in the country. Directed by noted filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia, the film is already getting rave reviews.
Irrfan chats with Sonil Dedhia and tells him why he doesn't believe in promoting himself, working in Hollywood films and more.
The promos of Paan Singh Tomar have got a favourable response, particularly the dialogues.
I am happy that the promos of the film is getting a good response. Luckily, my dialogues this time haven't come under the scanner (smiles). Last year, the Censor Board objected to the use of the word 'saali' in my film Yeh Saali Zindaagi and it became such a big controversy for such a small reason.
I am glad that this time the Censor Board has not taken any objection. It shows that it is also growing with time, which is an encouraging sign for our industry.
The film is doing the rounds of prestigious film festivals across the globe.
People across the world, who have seen the film, like it. It's often thought that films based on reality are depressing but Paan Singh Tomar is very entertaining and engaging. It has a lot of action and emotional sequences.
Besides Bandit Queen, I can't think of any film that can tell you how dacoits really are.
The young generation is supportive and they want to see real and engaging cinema. I think people will like this film a lot.
'I met a few ex-dacoits so that I could learn their body language'
It's your first biopic. What made you choose it?
Mahesh Bhatt once told me that if a story does not appeal to you in its first two lines, there is nothing in it.
When Tigmanshu Dhulia narrated this story about a man who was an athlete and held a national record in steeplechase and who, due to circumstances, turns into a dacoit, it took me by surprise.
I found the story very gripping, so I decided to be a part of it.
Did you interact with the real-life Paan Singh Tomar's family?
Yes, I did. Initially, they were reluctant to reveal anything but gradually they became comfortable and then it was like a natural conversation. Paan Singh Tomar's brother told me a lot of stories.
The character is required to be played by someone who didn't have conventional looks. I also met a few ex-dacoits so that I could learn their body language to help me get into the character.
You shot in places that are not beautiful in the conventional sense. How difficult was that?
The role was physically demanding, but I believe if you give your heart and soul to the film and your character then everything becomes easy, be it shooting in adverse temperatures, injuries, or any other kind of trouble.
Recently, filmmakers have started promoting their films two or three months before the release.
Those who have money promote their film in a big way. I won't take names but I know of films that purchased articles in newspapers for lakhs of rupees but the films were still flops.
The audience can differentiate between a good and a bad film. There is no guarantee that if you promote your film for three months it will be a success.
'I want to play characters that make me happy'
You started promoting the film just two weeks before its release. Do you think the film will receive a good response?
Yes, absolutely. The audience is changing and so is the kind of cinema that we are making.
We have the new multiplex audience. They want to see different kinds of films which are fresh and original. This is one of the biggest reasons why single screen theatres are reducing and multiplexes are increasing.
Every decade the audience changes and so do filmmakers. People want to see real, entertaining, interesting films.
Your performances in all your films have been appreciated but when it comes to box office collections, it leaves you wanting. Does that bother you?
If that was the case then I wouldn't have got any films today.
There are films that earn money for a limited time and there are other films that keep making money for a long time. The box office collection should not be the sole purpose of the film.
Right from the start of your career, you have stuck to parallel cinema though your contemporaries have moved on to commercial films. Didn't you ever think of doing that?
I want to play characters that make me happy, be it in the commercial space or any other.
For me, every film is commercial as all films involve a lot of money and it has to be recovered.
I want to do films that people can connect with and they remember my work.
'For me, success lies in the fact that I keep getting work'
Would you say that it takes a lot to be an out-and-out commercial hero?
You need to have that temperament, that you want to see yourself again and again so that you don't get bored in the same role. If you have that approach, then it's not difficult and it should come naturally to you.
I feel one should stick to things that come naturally.
Do you think an actor's sensibility changes as he grows older? Personally, do you constantly look out for mature roles?
Yes, it does. Today, I would like to include in my films the kind of life I am living and the things that I am pursuing and the kind of experiences that I have in my day-to-day life.
As an actor, I don't want to repeat myself, as it would become boring. I have always believed in investing a lot of time and hard work in all the characters that I portray on-screen.
How would you define success?
For me, success is everything. It is something where I think I am responsible towards the audience to narrate them different stories through the medium of films.
For me, success lies in the fact that I keep getting work.
I don't think driving a second hand car and then suddenly being able to buy a Rs 5 crore one, is success. I can still drive a second hand car and be successful.
'I cannot perform better the kind of personality and work Rishi Kapoor has done'
As an actor, what would you say is your weakness?
I don't know how to promote myself. I tried to rectify it and I failed miserably.
I would also say that there are certain roles that I cannot perform better. For example, the kind of personality and work Rishi Kapoor has done, I don't think I will be able to do it any time.
You also stay away from attending parties.
I find it very weird to attend big parties where you can't hear what people are saying because the music is too loud.
I like to attend private parties. Besides, I have a family so when I am not shooting, I like to spend time with them.
Are you a very private person?
I am a shy guy. It takes time for me to open up. I am not a talkative person. I am not very vocal nor am I good at speaking. That is why I share things through acting.
In spite of your low profile it is surprising that you have bagged so many Hollywood films.
It just happened. I think I am working in Hollywood films because I was destined to get them. My international films came to me not because of my promotions but due to my work.
Everywhere you see people promoting themselves, and you wonder if you are being left behind. That is the struggle.
But, eventually, it's all about how you keep being yourself and try to focus on your work, keep doing good work.
'Marc Webb has seen all my films and showed so much respect'
Photographs: Lucas Jackson / Reuters
What is the perception of Indian cinema in the West?
They don't watch Indian cinema. If there is a very strong part of our films, it is song and dance. If we stick to that and make it more innovative and use it in a manner that is more interesting, it will be a good thing.
I have seen a lot of shows in the West that use many elements of Indian cinema. Just like Iranian and Korean films, I think Indian cinema needs to be localised, and has to be original to make a noise.
Tell us about your experience of working in The Amazing Spiderman.
I haven't seen the film; I am planning to see it in April.
It was wonderful working with Marc Webb. I just enjoyed it. He is a fabulous director and the way he approached me was very professional.
He has seen all my films and showed so much respect... That is very rare. I am very fortunate to have worked with him.
You are playing the principal character in Life of Pi. What was it like working with a director of Ang Lee's stature?
I am speechless. I have no words to describe the experience of working with him. He is a living legend.
Cinema for him is a very different thing and we have seen it time and again that he takes it to a new level.
A film is not just any other film for him. It's like a personal journey. He puts his life into it.