Away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Mumbai rests a quiet stretch of land dotted with leafy palm trees that sway in the winter breeze and monstrous old buildings that are being renovated into hotels, resorts or residential complexes. Called Madh Island, the area is not only far but also far removed from B-town’s usual cacophony. Its famous resident, Irrfan Khan, is looking for just that.
Cut off from what he calls the corrupting influence of “a movie-city like Bombay” on an artist, Irrfan, 46, inhabits—and defines—a world of his own, just like in his movies. Dressed impeccably in a white blazer and slim-fit grey trousers, beard trimmed to perfection, hands gently rolling a cigarette—something he “got hooked on” at the National School of Drama (NSD)—he settles down for a chat with Forbes India.
The tranquility of the place is unmistakable and Irrfan’s husky-voiced intensity rips through it as he dwells on his craft, the soul-wrenching efforts that go into his effortless performances, and his never-ending quest for contentment as an actor. “What I am looking for still eludes me,” he says. Even after a host of unforgettable films, wide recognition and multiple accolades, he is looking for “stories that can really engage me” and “take me forward”.
The cause of this lack of fulfillment, he says, “is a continuous struggle to find my kind of story… such a story where I have a great experience and give the audience a great experience. And for that you need a storyteller.” Is there a dearth of storytellers who can fascinate an artist of his calibre? “There are many promising new directors but it is time they were more ambitious and started telling stories that have resonance all over the world,” he says.
It is this need for a “universal” brand of cinema that he has stressed upon in his visits to a gamut of film festivals this year, including the prestigious event at Cannes where he was hailed for his compelling performance in The Lunchbox. He reckons Indian audiences are evolving and “they need different kinds of films and experiences”.
He wears the acclaim of The Lunchbox on his sleeve. “It is the first Indian film that was released like an English film [in terms of scale] across the world,” says Irrfan, who was a co-producer. But as an actor, not playing his age was “a tedious process”.
“To look like that, to think about it, how to age myself, I don’t sleep, I booze, I do this, I do that… you don’t want to do that thing [and] be in that zone,” he says. This isn’t the first time he has played an old man—and felt unpleasant about it.
In 2011, for the HBO series In Treatment, he played a widower paralysed by the grief of losing his wife and at the same time battling pangs of cultural displacement when his family brings him to the US for treatment. Irrfan says, “It was very difficult. I haven’t faced that kind of complexity in my life. I didn’t know from where I would bring that experience of pain.”
In 2006, in Mira Nair’s sublime celluloid adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Namesake—a film that established him as an actor of repute in the Western world—he played a professor who ages from a reticent young fellow to an unobtrusive old man. “I never enjoyed that phase… playing that age and feeling that age in your body when your agility is challenged. I hated it,” he says.
The actor has often felt “stifled” by the intense process of acting. “Earlier I used to look for a method. At NSD, they asked you to find a posture which would lead you to the emotion of a scene. It was among the various techniques they taught. But I could never connect to that,” he says.
He kept looking for triggers that allowed him to slide into a character and experience all its emotions to the fullest. He cites the example of Maqbool (2003), Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth and one of Irrfan’s most memorable films. “During that scene where Tabu is lying dead, something happens to me when I suddenly realise that this woman has brought me till here and she has left… she is gone!” he says. “I was going through grief as an actor. And because you are creating that grief, you start enjoying being in that state.”
In another Bhardwaj film, 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), Irrfan plays an effeminate poet by day who turns into a wife-assaulting beast by night. He struggled to determine the “emotional core” of the character. “I kept asking Vishal ki isme kya hai? [what is in it?]” he says. Right before a shot one night, he heard an Abida Parveen ghazal that helped him “find the contradictions, complexities and compulsions” of the man. “There was no connection between the ghazal and the character. It was just a trigger,” he says.