Back in 2000, actor Irrfan Khan appeared in a nondescript cop drama called Ghaath. He was thrilled about landing the part of a menacing antagonist. But barely had he begun to display his acting chops when he heard murmurs of being replaced. “He’s just not working out,” is what the director had apparently said. The film’s lead protagonist and Irrfan’s National School of Drama (NSD) mate, Manoj Bajpayee, swooped in to save the day. It was on his insistence that Irrfan was granted a second chance. “When I went on set the next day, this was already playing on my mind,” recalls Irrfan. Then, breaking into laughter, he adds, “Finally, when the movie was being edited, they had to take out my scenes. But only because I was overpowering everyone else.”
The rejection ought to have pricked at the time. Yet, Irrfan speaks of his numerous misadventures with great amusement. “I hope I don’t sound like I hold any grudges. I feel it appears that way when I read my interviews,” he says, proceeding to narrate yet another humiliating experience, this time of his first-ever paid acting job at the age of 23. It was a blink-and-miss part in a TV show about freedom fighters. He was paid Rs 150—a princely sum for a man who was accustomed to surviving on a Rs 400 monthly stipend from NSD. “I never had more than a chavanni [25 paisa coin] in my pocket and that too, I never spent. My girlfriend bought me my cigarettes and beedi packets,” he says. The leading role of the freedom fighter was being essayed by a well established actor he would rather not name. “I’ll never forget his pink, rosy lips and shiny hair. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Yeh kahaan ka krantikari hai (He’s hardly a revolutionary)’,” he guffaws. Irrfan had a simple enough job—to point a gun at that handsome hero and say, ‘You’re under arrest’. “But when he came out, my hand started shaking a bit. Immediately there was rejection from everywhere. I heard the actor tell the director, ‘Yaar, kahaan kahaan se le aate ho (From where do you get such people?)’.”
Much has changed in the last decade-and-a-half. He’s now an international star who straddles multiples worlds—Bollywood, Hollywood, mainstream, indie. This year alone, he’s packed in five (Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, Piku, Talvar, Jurassic World, Jazbaa) releases, shot for a movie (Dan Brown’s Inferno) with Hollywood legend Tom Hanks, and mocked himself in a hilarious sketch by comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB). He’s just returned from a short break to his hometown Jaipur and is flying back there again to “spend some time with camels”, a requirement for his next film. “Now I have to go back and pack my suitcases. I absolutely hate that part,” he says, like a petulant child.
We are seated in the actor’s black Land Cruiser, slowly inching away from the tranquil environs of Madh Island, where he lives, towards the cacophony of Mumbai’s film district, Andheri (West). This is how most of Irrfan’s meetings are conducted. On his way home from the photo shoot with Forbes India the day before, he was accompanied by a director and writer who narrated a script to him during the journey.
Irrfan, who makes a return to the 2015 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List this year at No 78 (he ranked 75 in 2013), is disarmingly charming, surprising given the intensity of some of his most memorable on-screen characters. Rohan Joshi of AIB admits he was half-expecting to be intimidated by the 48-year-old actor during their first meeting. “It’s not every day that you walk into a room and go, ‘Oh my f***ing god, that’s Maqbool sitting there’. There aren’t too many characters in Bollywood we revere like that. But Irrfan was all kinds of chill,” says Joshi, who pointed out that in the short time AIB spent with the actor, he delivered the much-loved Piku and Jurassic World, which collected a monstrous billion dollars worldwide. “We were shooting a swimming pool sequence in a tiny bungalow in Madh Island because we didn’t have the best of facilities. At one point after lunch, Irrfan quietly lay down on the floor of a small room and passed out. I was sitting there, looking at him and thinking, ‘Do you know you are one of the biggest movie stars in the world right now? Because it seems like you didn’t get the memo’,” recalls Joshi.
His observations are reminiscent of acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair’s memory of an 18-year-old Irrfan who left NSD without a fuss to shift into a rented apartment in Mumbai with actor Raghubir Yadav to train for her film Salaam Bombay! (1988). “I’m not sure if it was his first time in Bombay, but it seemed that way,” says Nair. Struck by his “gangly intensity and hooded eyes”, Nair had offered him the part of one of the street kids in the film that went on to win an Oscar. But while Irrfan was making great progress at the workshop, in the end she felt he was too tall to fit in with the other child actors. “It was a tough decision and he was very kind to receive it. I was also determined to use him for something, anything, so he sweetly played the scribe in a beautiful scene that Sooni [Taraporevala] wrote. I promised him that I would make it up for him,” says Nair. Almost two decades on, Irrfan rendered one of his most soul-stirring performances in Nair’s The Namesake (2007).
Irrfan recalls shedding copious tears on Taraporevala’s shoulder when he lost out on Salaam Bombay!. It didn’t help that he was already battling insecurities about his unconventional looks. He would often comfort himself by looking at actors like Naseeruddin Shah, who didn’t have the appearance of the traditional Bollywood leading man. “I felt my lips were protruding. I used to see my side profile in the mirror and think, ‘No, ya. This kind of face has never come’. Sometimes I used to pull my chin. I also had a problem with my nose, so I’d put a clip on it and sleep. I was so childish,” he says. This was also when he had just discovered the genius of Robert De Niro. “I was just obsessed with him. I used to read any book on him and find parallels. I’d think, ‘He’s also shy, I’m also shy’.”
“Irrfan used to be an introvert. He and Sutapa [now Irrfan’s wife] were batchmates and they used to hang around together and not mingle too much with the others,” says filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia, who was two batches junior to Irrfan at NSD and later directed him in Haasil (2003), Paan Singh Tomar (2012) and Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (2013). He gradually bonded with Dhulia over their shared love for De Niro and Martin Scorsese. “When the time came for Irrfan’s batch to leave, they had to stage their diploma production. That’s when I saw him in some plays. At the time Irrfan wasn’t considered to be the best actor in his class—it was someone else. But when I saw him on stage, I knew that there’s something very, very special about him. He was doing something else which the others were not able to do,” adds Dhulia.
Post-NSD, Dhulia and Irrfan stayed in touch as they both scrambled for work in the film industry. Irrfan was getting considerable work in television. He looks back at this phase as one of the most frustrating of his career. “I don’t really remember this, but Irrfan always mentions that apparently one day he had decided to go back to Jaipur and I had said, ‘Don’t worry. Stay back. I’ll get you the National Award some day’,” laughs Dhulia. (In 2012, both Dhulia and Irrfan won National Awards for Paan Singh Tomar, a biography of a little-known award-winning athlete who turns into a notorious dacoit in the Chambal Valley.)
His first taste of international success came in 2001 with the British film The Warrior where he played a warrior in feudal Rajasthan. British-Indian filmmaker Asif Kapadia, who made his debut with this award-winning film, said Irrfan was strongly recommended to him by his casting director Dhulia. While there may be a great interest in Indian talent today, Kapadia says when he set out to make The Warrior, no one was paying attention to the size and potential of the country. “They only knew Bollywood films, which they thought were funny, but there was no respect as such,” says Kapadia. Indian actors, too, he adds, weren’t particularly keen on working in the West. “But Irrfan, from really early on, had a real interest in world cinema. A lot of the actors I met at that point didn’t want to do films outside of India. They would say that their bread and butter was Bollywood and didn’t want the stress of leaving and going somewhere else. Irrfan had an open mind, and the kind of films I discussed, he had heard of and seen. No other actor had heard of the filmmakers I was talking about. We got along on an artistic level,” he adds.
This is particularly notable given that growing up in the small town of Tonk, a few hours away from Jaipur, Irrfan had probably seen less than five Hollywood movies. At NSD, he was formally introduced to auteurs like Charlie Chaplin, Costa-Gavras, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. “I was mesmerised,” he says, wide-eyed. “Such cinema takes you in and makes you numb, and you don’t want to come out of that zone. Sometimes my girlfriend would start talking about something completely different and I’d just go, ‘Please don’t. No, no… don’t break the spell!’” he exclaims.
Had he stayed back in Jaipur, he may have had to take over his father’s tyre business. The only other odd jobs he’s dabbled in are giving tuitions to kids and repairing air conditioners. His biggest fear was having to ask his father for money. “Once, a friend gave me this idea that we could start a business together. He said there is a village somewhere in Makrana [Rajasthan] where he had found hand-written books and we could convince people to let us sell those as antique pieces. So I asked my father for Rs 30. He kept smiling at me. Obviously, you know what happened [the idea failed]. After that, I couldn’t show my face to my father. From that day onwards to the day he died, I didn’t ask him for a penny. I was ashamed,” he says.
Writer Juhi Chaturvedi, who penned Piku, believes unique life experiences such as these help Irrfan bring tremendous heft and nuance to his characters. For the part of Rana Chaudhry, which was so simple, and yet so layered, she knew there was only one man who had the skill. “He’s the only one who would understand the depths of the character and make it seem so simple. That comes when you have lived a very real and normal life, not a star-studded one. He’s extremely well read and has interacted with normal people,” says Chaturvedi. Before coming to set, he quizzed her on every last detail of Rana’s life. “He wanted to know everything about the back story. Which part of Delhi did he grow up in? Where did he study? What happened to his father? All those things are not even mentioned in the film, but he wants to know what’s going on inside the mind of the character,” she adds.
While preparing for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012), too, Irrfan was so deeply entrenched in his character that he couldn’t take on any other work for six months. “The great thing about him is that you can never tell how much work has gone in. He makes it all seem so effortless,” says Meghna Gulzar, who directed him in this year’s acclaimed film Talvar (based on the investigation into the 2008 double murder case of teenager Aarushi Talwar and domestic help Hemraj Bajade in Noida). “His mind will start churning during rehearsals. He’ll bring in small mannerisms, and maybe ask for a prop,” she adds.
In Qissa (2013), Irrfan is Umber Singh, a man so embittered by Partition that in his fierce desire to bear a son who can take forward his legacy, he secretly raises his daughter as a boy. Filmmaker Anup Singh reveals Irrfan nearly turned down the role because he felt it was too dark. “I was convinced that Irrfan had understood the role quite incorrectly. So, after a few days, I went back to him again. I said to him to think of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. When he sings and you watch his face, it is amazing how twisted and contorted his face gets. But, then, listen to the wondrously sublime sound that comes from him! Irrfan immediately understood the layers with which he could play the character and, this time, said yes immediately,” says Singh. The film released in February in India after a long delay, but has won Irrfan prestigious awards and acclaim at foreign film festivals across the globe.
In fact, having Irrfan in a film is slowly being considered as an assurance that the product will come with a certain standard of quality. The success of films like Qissa and The Lunchbox (2013) has built him a strong presence in the European market. In Hollywood, he has proved his mettle with Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Life of Pi, Jurassic World, and will next be seen in Ron Howard’s Inferno (2016). Gulzar, who premiered Talvar at the Toronto Film Festival, says it was evident that a large part of the audience had come to see an Irrfan Khan film. “But the thing is that as his stardom grows, it grows on the basis of his performance, not glamour or trickery. It is, I believe, his uprightness and sense of devotion to his art that enchants people about him,” says Singh.
In June, an excited Irrfan tweeted about a personal note he received from Tom Hanks welcoming him to the sets of their movie Inferno in Venice. “This will be the most pleasant movie to make, I think, provided you and I have a few more scenes together!” it read. “I haven’t seen this kind of a person who is the richest man in the world, but he’s very generous and big-hearted. Tom’s persona is very unique,” says Irrfan, who has never felt intimidated working in Hollywood, even when he was the only Indian on set. “That’s because they give you so much of importance and respect. They’ve seen something in you which they want. That’s their business,” says Irrfan. Recently, he revealed that he had to turn down a significant part in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster film The Martian, because he was committed to Piku. In the 2010 HBO television series In Treatment, Irrfan’s character was originally written as a Jew, but was changed to Sunil so that Irrfan could be incorporated. “There have been a lot of phases in Hollywood. First they were picking up a lot of actors from China, then Spain—but now it is India, and I know this trend will only grow. I’ve seen this change happen in front of my eyes,” he adds.
But while it has opened new avenues for him as an actor, on a practical level, Irrfan reveals that he’s only been losing money ever since he ventured out. He then goes into the intricacies of America’s complex tax structure. “But the experience I’ve got cannot be measured in money,” he says. He isn’t financially savvy either. “I can’t invest money. I’m bad at business. It just doesn’t suit me. Trust me, I’ve tried,” he says, nodding his head furiously.
It appears he’d much rather keep away from the baggage of celebrity-hood too. From Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan, he’s condensed his name to just Irrfan and up until a few months ago, he didn’t even have a PR agency, which seems almost bizarre in today’s age. He also shows indifference to the hype over delivering back-to-back hits this year. “I see life as a seamless journey. I don’t want to see it demarcated by years. My body has to tell me that I don’t feel the same way I used to 10 years back,” he says. If anything, the excitement of the journey only seems to have begun for Irrfan.
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(This story appears in the 25 December, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)