Let's start with how you began.
I used to be very shy, very enclosed, but I had a passion for certain things, like cricket and patang-baazi. I used to go deep into it. I used to hate schools because we used to go at 6 in the morning and return at 6 in the evening. I wanted to grow and get away from school. I used to dream ki kab aayega woh din jab school khatam ho jayega. That's why I tried my hand at cricket, and took it seriously. But I realised that it needed more than just passion. It needs more support, a support system. I decided early not to waste time. And then suddenly there was this art movement where Naseer and Om came on screen - they were just mesmerizing. They just gave you a different definition of entertainment and performance. They instigated me to want to learn the craft. Then somebody told me about the National School of Drama (NSD).
You mentioned in an interview that NSD wasn't all that you hoped it would be. What were you expecting from it?
I was naive. I expected that I would go to NSD and they would teach me to act. But now I know that in any creative institution, there's no guarantee that they will teach you creativity. It's up to you to pick up things. It's a journey. I had so many questions for my teachers, but many didn't have any answers. Am I an actor? Am I decent? Is it possible for me to become an actor? There were so many doubts. Then I learnt that you can't learn from an institute. An institute can provide you with atmosphere and can give you facilities and expose you to new things. There could be one or two teachers with whom you can interact. But acting is an art that you have to do to learn. You can't think about it. It's like swimming. You have to get into water to learn it. But I was fortunate to get into NSD. It changed my perceptions about myself. Suddenly I had to see things objectively, from a distance.
Because acting requires an actor to let go of himself, does it also reveal him to himself?
Yes. There was a basic need for me to let go of myself. Acting requires that. It also cures you somewhere or the other. You try to deal with yourself. I have a hidden relationship with adulation. I want to be cured of the desire for appreciation. It's like a disease. It's not a good thing to get constant admiration. You should be able to live without it. I realise it's a need, but I'm not very easy with it.
Wasn't The Warrior something that lingered for a while?
Definitely. You're always on the lookout for an experience that will grab you. But those kinds of experiences don't happen all the time. There are very few stories, very few units, very few directors who can engulf you. And The Warrior was that kind of film. I was doing television at the time, and it was the first time I had done a film in one go. That film was shot in extreme conditions, and at the beginning I thought I wouldn't be able to take it. I had to wear a wig in 49 degree temperature, and there was the armor and the horses. But then the body adapted to it and it became an experience. And the kind of approach Asif Kapadia [the director] had was fascinating for me. I was bored to death with the kind of work Indian cinema demands. You have to say each and every thing. You can't live in the character's moment. And here was a director who said, 'Don't suggest what you're feeling, just be there. Don't indicate, don't demonstrate.' In our films we have to demonstrate what we feel. Even if the actor doesn't feel it but demonstrates it magically, they love it. I was looking for something deep, a connect, where I didn't have to show.
Is demonstration done because the audience demands it, or is it because of a preconceived notion of what the audience demands?
The demonstration is in the director's subconscious, because he depends on it - he doesn't explore cinematic language. Our industry has not evolved that much. We want to communicate through what an actor says, not through the camera or the language of cinema. There are very few directors who do this. Like Sriram Raghavan. He really knows the language. Most of us just put the camera somewhere and ask the actor to say what the story wants to say. But that's not cinema. I think they don't see the need to do otherwise. They accentuate everything: 'Actor ki aankon mein aasoon hoga, woh ro raha hoga, music bhi ro raha hoga, saamne waala bhi ro raha hoga.’ They hammer it in.
How is Vishal Bhardwaj's way of working?
Vishal is very good with scripts. He's good with atmosphere. He's a very fast learner and the kind of cinema he likes helps him grow. I've read other scripts with Vishal and they didn't have magic, but suddenly he comes out with a script that has this magic. Like Omkara's script. It's fantastic. The atmosphere was so entertaining, so real, so thick, that I don't think anybody else could have done that. He is special. He has a special knack about characters, and can tell a story in a different way, but he doesn't experiment with the language of cinema. He does it at the script level. He wants the cameraman to be his equal partner. So for him the cameraman is a very important person.
Is it difficult to make his kind of movies? They're not exactly Yashraj movies.
It's a new kind of cinema, a new kind of story, and has a different kind of impact. Yashraj films are made to please you, and make you feel comfortable about yourself and your values. That is where Yashraj's cinema dwells. It doesn't go beyond that and challenge the audience's sensibilities. But Vishal, I think, doesn't find that interesting enough. He goes beyond that. His heros don't have to be chocolatey, or good-looking. In Vishal's films it is his inner world that is fascinating.
2003 was an interesting one for you in terms of names. The Internet movie database has listed you as Irfan Khan, Irrfan, and then Irfaan with two 'A's. Were the name changes for reasons of luck?
It's a mistake. It was never Irfaan. I added an 'r', definitely, but not for numerological reasons. It was about phonetics. But incidentally Irrfan added up to a good number, and I'm not proud of it. Sometimes I don't like myself for doing this. I was trying to fool myself. My mother said it sounded correct, the phonetics were right.
Does someone like Om Puri, who seems to have found that middle path between performance and income, give you hope?
One thing I've realised is that no two actors can have similar track records. Every actor has his own journey. Om Puri was doing all kinds of cinema, every kind of film, small roles, guest appearances, B-grade roles, A-grade roles, and suddenly he started getting films abroad. People do get opportunities. I don't think you can base your journey on somebody else's. I think life will give me opportunities, but I have to keep working on my own convictions.
What are those convictions?
To work in projects that engage me, to become commercially successful in cinema. I don't want to just be an actor who's saleable in Indian cinema, but want to work anywhere.
People often talk of an actor's bankability, about whether he delivers hits or flops. But isn't an actor just one component of the project?
I think the actor gets undue importance. I think that's because storytelling is done through the actor. It's the director who should get that importance. He's the one telling you the story, he 's the one casting you. In Hindi cinema, actors are treated like magicians. People just write lines and expect actors to do magic. That's why it happens. Ek simple line hogi, Amitabh Bachchan will say it, people will be mesmerized. It's not an actor's medium, but if a film is successful the actor is given credit, and if it fails, the actor has to face the blame.
So an actor's just one part of the entire movie.
Yes, he's just one person. But our commercial cinema depends on personality. It doesn't have to deal with the truth of the situation. They depend on the charisma of an actor.
But then isn't a personality, in this sense, also a form of stereotyping?
Well, people do want to see them again and again because we don't have a culture of seeing different stories and characters. We don't have a culture of realism. We had a history of Parsi theatre. We had melodrama and jugglery. In all our folk forms there's no tradition of acting, although the Natya shastra has a method which people haven't practiced and evolved.
Would you consider yourself an instinctive actor?
I want to be. But at NSD I tried working out everything. I used to even track the thought process of the character. I never felt easy with it, I never enjoyed it. It was like a crutch. You couldn't leave yourself open to spontaneous things. But I used that crutch to not fail. It felt wrong, though. I felt I should just respond to things. Slowly, I began to rely on instinct. Now I don't want to work on something too much - I want to know the broad graph of the character. It has to happen that way, otherwise there's no magic, there's no fun. That's why people say actors should be brave. The actor must have courage to let go of himself, and to rely on his instinct. But that comes late. It is something you have to keep reminding yourself about and keep on practicing.
But you need a lot more than good acting to make it here.
Yeah, acting doesn't count, actually. But I knew that I didn't have anything else to fall back on. I had to rely on it to be successful. And I had this desire to learn. But here, you don't need to act, you're not required to be an actor to be successful in this industry. You learn this after many years. You have to become comfortable in front of the camera, you do whatever they want you to do, and you do it being yourself - you don't have to put on a character. You don't have to understand any other person. If the dialogue assistant asks you to say a line, you have to say, 'Okay, I'll say this line.' It really works.
Sounds just like television serials, especially the jaded parts.
I don't want to name people, but I've worked with certain actors who've done cinema for 15-16 years. I see their fatigue. As soon as they arrive on set they want to know the pack up time. Kab kar rahe hain pack up? Kab ho raha hai pack up? You know, I don't ever want to be in that situation.
What do you fear?
There's definitely a fear that you might become a machine who just... Look, it's a market. You're a commodity. There's a fear that you might start using your own image. You have to check yourself. The fear's there, but I'm sure I won't do that. I... I wouldn't be able to take the pain.
Is there someone who gives you feedback? Your wife?
My wife has been a very strong critic of my work. She never used to like my work at NSD. We used to have fights because I wanted her to tell me how my performances were, and she would avoid telling me. She used to find diplomatic ways of telling me this, and I would see through her. I'd confront her, 'Why aren't you telling me that I'm bad?' and she'd say, 'I'm not saying that.' I was in a hurry to become a good actor. I didn't realise that it takes time. You learn this craft through age. Your experiences are what you put in. If you don't have experience, what will you put in your work? And then there's the craft of using your experience. You might have a lot of experience, but how do you use it? How do you make it a performance?
You say you were in a hurry, and you've said before that you were ambitious then. Did you find the need to pull back and see where you were headed?
The journey would have been easier if I had done that. But I was adamant and too impatient. Things changed slowly. I don't enjoy television very much, but it gave me a chance to practice. Sometimes when you are bored with things, when there's a lot of preparation, you get stuck. But then suddenly you start flowing. You do a certain thing so many times that you don't think about it; it becomes second nature. That's what television did. I was so bored of acting that I didn't care. I then realised that since I had let go, I had begun to enjoy it.
Did you look for work actively when you graduated in 1989?
I tried. But whenever I met people and tried telling them that I'm an actor, I never got work from them because I couldn't impress them, or make an impression on them. I used to feel humiliated while talking to them. So I abandoned the exercise after a point.
How were you humiliated?
You call somebody, and expect him to talk to you properly, but people are busy. Then you have to introduce yourself. 'I'm Irrfan.' 'Who Irrfan, kaun Irrfan?' 'Main actor hoon NSD se.' 'Haan, toh?' It just puts you off, and you don't want to go through that humiliation again and again. I did try.
Was money an aim?
Definitely. I wanted to earn money. I wanted to live life with a lot of money. And I knew that if my work was noticed, I would get money. Even today I know that if a film works, I will be a viable actor and will be able to charge more, and I will have more choices. Money gives you freedom.
How do you prepare for you roles?
There are many ways. It depends on the role. For some roles, you need to know the physicality of the character. If he's a taxi driver, I should know how to drive a taxi. I should prepare the physicality of it. Then, you try and understand his emotional construction. What he wants, what his drive is, why he's there in the story. You should think of all those things. Think, what if he takes a different stance, what will it do to the story? I go according to the story, how he is placed in it, and what he's doing to it. But that's if I respect the story. If I don't, I try to entertain you. Like Gunnah. I knew it was for front benchers, so I tried to amuse them. With Maqbool, I know I don't have to supersede the story. I have to give myself in and be invisible, so that I don't distract the story, so that I carry the story. So you understand it bit by bit, scene by scene, and understand the bigger picture, the story, what the director's trying to do with it. Also, I learnt after NSD that when you read a script for the first time, it does something to you. You shouldn't lose that something. We used to kill that, the first instinct, by preparing and analysing it. Sometimes there are things you shouldn't talk about. If you start talking about those things you lose them. There are some experiences you can't formulate into language. If you do formulate them, they become something else. Language has its limitations because it can't match the experience. When you read something, it's not the real deal, it's a manipulated impression.
Let's say you were in love with someone. How would you deal with a role like that?
Over-analysing it would definitely kill it. Maqbool was a love story for me. I never thought it was like Macbeth. And there are perceptions of love that I've got from cinema only, perceptions which are not real. The concept of love, of loving somebody, of dying for somebody - I've never experienced that kind of love except through cinema. So there is an old picture of love that I have inside me, and what do I do with that? So I live that in a story, and I love it! I know it's not real, that it's romantic, that it's false, but there's some attraction in it. It's a perfect picture of love.
Would you opt to use that perfect picture of love instead of what love could really be?
Yeah, I would use that. What love could actually be depends on what you experience. I don't know what real love is. What we call love is an attraction between two people. But pictures, shairis, literature, have given it a different perception altogether. And you do enjoy it. Sometimes, when you want to cry, you listen to songs from the 60s and the 70s. What do you do with that world? I don't want to destroy it with my rational feelings. I want to believe in it. And I have experienced certain moments like those, in Maqbool, during Tabu's death. Although they didn't keep the shots, those takes were an experience for me. I have never cried with such feeling. These are experiences you relish. That's why you act.
Is there a danger that your worlds might overlap?
We don't have that kind of cinema. We don't give an actor that kind of a world to immerse himself in. We're almost detached. We don't want an actor to put himself in the line of fire, we just want him to perform. If we have those kind of films people will be affected. I heard Saif Ali Khan say after Omkara, 'When will I be over and done with this role?' Sometimes it does affect you. That's why after The Warrior I detested the idea of taking up Haasil. The Warrior's world was completely different. It was about fighting with his own past, it was a mesmerizing journey. And here, in Haasil, is Ranvijay Singh, a person who's trying to manipulate things, and there are so many negative thoughts. I didn't want to think like that, I didn't want to deal with that person. So it took me quite a while to get over The Warrior. I turned down every offer that came to me after it, saying that I wasn't ready for it. And it was good in a way because I wanted to elongate the experience.
You've said that when someone gives you too many instructions you tend to feel trapped. Would you prefer the director give you a sketch of the character, or a detailed account of the character's life?
Every director has his own way. There are some who want you to think the way they are thinking about a character. But I find that it's a trap. You should have the freedom to explore it on your own. If an action makes a difference to the story, then you definitely have to follow the director because he's trying to get an effect out of it. I would prefer a director tell me, 'I want this kind of effect from you'. But then sometimes a director gives you general instructions. 'Yaar, thoda zyaada ghussa chahiye.' That puts you off. What does 'zyaada ghussa' mean? It's too general. And generalities don't allow you to experience a true moment. I would prefer a director who lets me explore my own world.
In Naseeruddin Shah's movie, he really gave instructions. And I trusted him. If you trust a movie or a director, you don't mind doing what the director asks of you.
Tigmanshu Dhulia, Haasil's director, set you up with some locals at Allahabad University for a few days to understand student life and politics. What was that like?
It was really helpful for me. First we went to the Kumbh Mela, where we took atmospheric shots of the climax. Then we started shooting in Bombay. I could not get a hang of the character. Nobody knew it. Even Tigmanshu thought everything was fine. But I kept wondering when we'd go to Allahabad, because the way they think about violence there is so poetic, and it's completely different. I could only say my lines with such ease because I saw these people, I met them, I could see their world, how they reacted to violence, how they talked about it, what bravery was for them.
And Tigmanshu has this thing about being entertaining. I like him because he has this talent for making realistic things entertaining.
How do you perceive realistic acting?
First and foremost, the film and the actor have to grab the audience's attention. I could see Tigmanshu's approach, and I loved it. I find realistic actors boring sometimes. They equate doing mundane things with realistic acting. People become casual, believing that what they are doing is real. But that's boring. What you do in theatre and cinema is a very calculated, manipulative, thing. It has to have some meaning and has to add to the situation.
In Haasil, you complain to Jimmy Shergil: "What should I do? God has made my eyes this way." Was it reflective of the fact that in real life your eyes had acquired a reputation and life of their own?
They have acquired one, and I still don't understand why. People do react to my eyes like that, they say that they're special, that I act through my eyes. I haven't done anything like that. Maybe it's the physicality, or maybe there's some transparency in my eyes. I haven't yet understood. They look intimidating sometimes. They became a limitation before I got Haasil. I heard friends who were making a film discuss, 'Yaar, what will we do about his eyes? He doesn't look normal. He can't be a normal man'. Initially people used to say ki charsi hai, when I had no such habit. Sometimes I'd do it, but it wasn't a habit. I can't take charas much, I can't function. When Tigmanshu wrote the line, I realised that he found my eyes intimidating too. And you can feel the smile on my face when I say the lines.
How did Salaam Bombay! happen?
I was doing a production in NSD, Mira was casting, she came to see the play, and she called me. I was supposed to have a significant role. Finally they decided to chop off the role because I didn't look like I was one of the street kids, I looked older than them. That was the first jolt I got. I cried and cried and cried. Then Mira Nair called me for another, smaller, role - that of the letter writer.
How did Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake happen?
I got a call from Mira's office, saying she wanted me to act in the film. There was no long-winded process. It was very smooth with her. When she read the book, she knew I would do this role. She didn't have other options for it. That was good because I'm not very good with auditions. I'm not very good when I know I'm being tested. I'm very bad at exams. I hate competition. [Laughs] I don't perform well in those circumstances. I'm fragile. So I do enjoy it when somebody says, 'You are doing this film.' I come with all my energy and spirit.
How did you research and approach the life of Ashoke Ganguli?
You had asked me if the experience consumes you. This film consumed me. It became an experience I almost wanted to get away from because it dealt with old age. And when you are about to touch old age, you want to push it away. But here I had to experience it. Here's this guy who's almost invisible, he doesn't have any presence. That was the most challenging thing for me to do - to do a role in a manner that you don't catch attention. Being that docile, that unobtrusive, really took some effort. And to go through the experience of old age was painful. It was taxing to experience it. For that I called my family to New York and spent all my time serving them. It helped me understand how Ashoke Ganguli dealt with his family and his own trauma through his family.
When you experienced old age, did it occur to you that you didn't want to be there?
I was never serious about old age and never thought it would come to me. I never realised that your body starts telling you that it can't move swiftly. That's the most painful part about old age. Although there are some good things about old age - you understand life better, you deal with yourself a little better - the physical aspect is a painful thing.
People often confuse a good physique and presence with good acting.
We don't have an understanding of characters in cinema. We see people who are larger than life, who do things that audiences would like to emulate. Someone who's not real, who's fantastic.
In that sense, are we looking at actors to fulfill the kind of stereotypes we've got?
Yeah, we do want stereotypes. Our audiences do want something that's not real, that has a dreamy quality about it, which has nothing to do with mundane life. Also, people confuse good acting with roles. If a person has a good role, they say he's done well. But it's the way the role was written that does the magic. If the character does something, they think it's the actor who's done it. It's actually the writer who makes the character do certain things.
A layperson can't tell where the role ends and where acting begins. But can other actors?
Yeah, one can make out when an actor's trying to supersede the story, or when he has underperformed, or how much scope the role had. Definitely.
Is knowledge of film history important for actors, to know where they come from?
No, although if you have information, somewhere it all adds up. But I don't think it's necessary. It's your understanding of the situation and human beings that counts. Otherwise I don't think an actor has to be intelligent or socially aware. Sometimes a dumb actor is better than an intelligent one because intelligence can be a hurdle in believing in an incredible situation.
I watched Rog over the weekend. It was a strange film. Not in a good way.
Yeah, it was supposed to be strange and mystical in a positive sense, but... [giggles].
On what basis do you select your films?
That was because of Pooja [Bhatt]. She tries a different kind of cinema. And when I heard the idea, it was okay, you know. I thought if it was done well... But the scripting was not proper. It was dated. Whatever element came in was because of Mahesh Bhatt. I kept telling him we couldn't shoot a whodunit in today's times. He kept saying it was a love story. I said where's the love? Initially it was a stone, it was dead. I got frightened when I saw the script, but Mahesh told me it would be fine.
How would you define a good role?
Something that gives you insight about a situation, about a character, about a different world, and is also engaging. The best role I have ever seen is Capote. He is manipulative, and he manipulates himself. He has his own world, his own pleasures, his own pain. Although he's doing all this he gives himself the impression that he's being faithful and doing good. In real life you don't notice many things, but when you're in the cinema, you notice them in the frame. It's about showing them something in a new way.
Are the actors you like watching the same ones you learn from?
I do. Sometimes. It's automatic. You like people who surprise you. You'd be surprised, but I like Deven Bhojani. There's a serial called Office Office. You should see how good he is. He's so entertaining, so fluent. Nowadays I don't watch DeNiro. He's done it all. Now acting doesn't mean anything to him. He's into something else. Towards the end I could see fatigue in Marlon Brando. He was tired of this pretending.
Every artist has a lifespan.
Yes, every artist does. After a point your priorities change. At a young age, you need that attention, your priorities are different. After a point age takes over and your concerns change. But then there's Anthony Quinn, there's Om Puri. Om's the same, he's so balanced! I tell him, 'Tum kya, sant ho?' He goes into any setup and it doesn't affect him! I think it's because he doesn't tax himself much, which is why it doesn't become a burden.
Is it tempting to give people that one great line, that one great scene, which they remember you by for ever?
No. I'd like to go beyond that. I don't want to be known for that one moment that I created. I do wonder when I'll get a script that will make people forget Maqbool and Haasil. It bothers me and depresses me when I think, 'Is there nothing beyond those two movies?' I want to keep doing things that become a rage. I don't want to look back at the past and say, 'Oh, those were the good times, that role back then was the one.' Now that would be a pathetic situation. I don't want to think like that. Never. Never.
This interview appeared in the Tehelka issue dated July 22, 2006.