Irrfan Khan on his choice of cinema, how Bollywood and the West are vastly different in their perception of talent and language, and that he is in no danger of losing his apartment
Roshmila Bhattacharya (MUMBAI MIRROR; April 4, 2017)

A conversation with Irrfan Khan is always a revelation. On a Saturday afternoon, the actor surprises you by admitting that years ago, when he was doing TV, he was ready to get into films in any way possible and had Haasil not come along, he might have got sucked into big budget commercial cinema and ended up becoming a character actor. “Fortunately, Haasil was the right break and gave me direction and clarity. After that I never accepted a film flippantly. Yes, sometimes I did do commercial films like Thank You and Jazbaa but that was for survival and to see how effective I could be in that kind of a space. The focus always was on telling a story and redefining entertainment. Even an upcoming quirky comedy like Hindi Medium which can be described as 'commercial', is not fluffy entertainment,“ he asserts sipping his juice.

Prod him on whether he enjoyed these films and he nods but says he wouldn't repeat himself, not even for Anees Bazmee with whom he shares a great rapport, which is why he turned down the Aankhen sequel. “I get offered a lot of money to do these roles but to work just for money can be boring and pointless. Life throws up regular opportunities so there's no compulsion to accept everything even though I don't have another business as a back-up,“ he smiles.

But like other actors, he too has jumped into production? Irrfan reasons that he's not a prolific producer who makes films for money. “I make them to enhance the chances of a story like Madaari to be told, to which regular producers may not react,“ he maintains, going on to reveal that he's just completed a road movie produced by his wife, Sutapa Sikdar. “We travelled with this sunny romcom from Mumbai to Bikaner and Jaipur, through Rewari and Delhi to Rishikesh and Gangtok.“

He looks relaxed as he leans back on the settee but Irrfan's busy. On Sunday, he started another comedy, Abhinay Deo's Raita, with Pink girl Kriti Kulhari, and is in talks for an international indie film with a strong storyline. Meanwhile, he's wrapped up two other international films, The Song Of Scorpions, with Qissa director Anup Singh, and Bangladeshi director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki's No Bed Of Roses. “While doing Hollywood films I wanted to do indie projects with a presence in the European market. I began with The Lunchbox, followed it by Qissa and did The Song Of Scorpions just so I could collaborate with Anup again. He's a passionate filmmaker and his way of working challenges your sensibility, making you look at the craft differently,“ he says.

He's equally gung-ho about Mostofa, admitting he did No Bed Of Roses just for him, but not so much about Bangladesh, which has lost many of its 700 rivers and green landscape to the virus of unplanned development and whose locals don't enjoy freedom of speech. The film has been banned in the country. Could it be because it's reportedly based on Bangladeshi writer-filmmaker Humayun Ahmed, who divorced his wife of 27 years to marry an actress and his daughter's friend who's 33 years younger? “It's not based on anybody's life. It simply explores the complexity of a relationship without showing even a kiss. Yes, there is an age difference between the couple but they get married, even if they hadn't, that is no reason for a ban. I have faith in the system and I hope better sense prevails eventually,“ he sighs. Won't our Censor Board, which plays moral guardian at times, object to the content too? Irrfan doesn't think so. “Our CBFC behaves in strange ways at times and it's time we adopted a certification model but I don't see any objections in our country,“ he asserts.

For the actor every relationship is complex and few couples live happily ever after. “We're born with a longing to submerge in God and all our lives we look to complete ourselves. The closest way to do so is to be with another person. But man and woman are made of different chemicals so their chemistry can pull each other down subconsciously. That's why relationships get complicated,“ he intellectualizes.

How does a nomad like him stay married? “For me a relationship is helping each other evolve. If that stops, the relationship, neither romance nor nostalgia can sustain it,“ he avers, saying he's never dishonest in a relationship because that creates negativity. “If you have an affair, have the courage to acknowledge it. My only morality is that I cannot ever think of a friend's wife as another woman.“

Strong words but then Irrfan is emphatic in his views on most subjects including English and Hindi creating a class divide which is the subject of the upcoming Hindi Medium. While he himself went to a convent school because his mother wanted him to speak angrezi, Irrfan's been careful to give his two sons, Babil and Ayan, a taste of our culture even as they devoured American entertainment and borrowed from their lifestyle. “Babil's discovered his culture now, the way I have even though I've often been told by industry know-alls that unless you appear to come from an English-speaking background, you won't be taken seriously. That's the burden of colonisation we carry,“ he rues.

He's okay with people from different states bringing their mother tongue to a metro like Mumbai, but acquiring the language of another country and its psyche bothers him. “Majid Majidi can direct an entire film in India working with an interpreter but if a Hindustani does not know English, usey dekhne ka nazariya alag ho jata hai,“ he reflects. It's ironic that Irrfan, who's as desi as you can get, is a big name internationally while many of our anglicised actors remain confined to Bollywood. “That's because in Hollywood it's not about language, it's the variety and diversity you bring to a role,“ he reasons. “And while the West is alert by talent, Bollywood is threatened by it. Naseer saab (Naseeruddin Shah) is the one of those rare actors who celebrates talent, for others, they've to fit into the existing machinery. Anything new is frowned upon.“

Having a Pakistani co-star today is also frowned upon and Irrfan's Hindi Medium heroine Saba Qamar is from across the border. For someone who's moved seamlessly from Bollywood to indie films, big studio Hollywood to South-Asian cinema, how does it feel to be confined creatively by political diktats? “I wouldn't want to discuss politics but it baffles me how after your film is cleared by a government body, certain groups are allowed to disrespect law and order. Inn logon ko mudda banane ki chhut kyun di jaati hai?“ he questions, arguing that if a film runs in Pakistan or if their talent enrich the Indian film industry, it would only benefit us.

His apartment in Oshiwara has been mired in controversy following discrepancies by the builder. Is he in danger of losing it? “Such discrepancies exist in half the buildings in the city. The court has ordered that owners should not be harassed and the BMC should deal with the problem,“ he shrugs, pointing out that it took him two years to find an apartment which was spacious with high ceilings. “Given a choice I would never live in the city because our cities are not planned and the quality of life sucks. I miss my home in Madh Island which is now our weekend retreat. I had to move to the city because commuting was a problem. Traffic is a nightmare. I wish we at least had cycling tracks.“