n the early 1990s, working on a Sunday morning Doordarshan show was a significant
living for any performer — particularly one as comfortably budgeted and as popular as
a gigantic fantasy hit called Chandrakanta.
But mouthing melodramatic lines with wizardy overtones was bound to tire an actor
longing to reveal his chops. Weary of catchphrases and repeating mannerisms, Irrfan
Khan appealed to the show’s makers to kill his character, Badrinath.
“I said ‘yaar, maar do mujhko’ aur unhone maar diya’,” he guffaws. “Then I went off
somewhere, but 15, 20 episodes later I got a phone call.”
They wanted him back.
“‘You killed me, what can I do now?’ I asked.
They said ‘Nahin nahin, now you can play your twin brother. Somnath’.”
Two decades after being compelled to play his own twin — who behaved
exactly the same way as his brother, since that was popular “except this time
he was dressed in golden clothes” — Khan speaks of his television excur-
sions with significant amusement, yet it isn’t hard to see what showrun-
ners saw in the man.
Some of the finest actors in the history of motion pictures have not
been leading men. They are character artists, shouldering the film dis-
creetly, lending believability to key moments and energy to flagging
narratives. Yet of these infallible, nuanced and brilliant actors, only a
select few have that ineffable quality summed too-conveniently up by
the words ‘screen presence.’
It is a quality that allows a performer to take charge of a film, to hold
it by the reins and tug it forward, seemingly single-handedly. It is a qual-
ity that virtually comes with its own cape, for it lets an actor be a hero.
No wonder TV producers handed him catchphrases and let him be the
magnet pulling viewers in.
No wonder even that Vishal Bhardwaj — who largely eschewed
overstylized touches in his Haider — gave Irrfan Khan one helluva entry just before the intermission: The screen blurs, we hear
crunching snow, and a bassline so saucy you could dip a
cheeseburger in it.
The blur remains while the inscrutable figure in the dis-
tance comes closer, closer and the bass gets louder,
“It’s the kind of entry for which you want to become
an actor,” agrees the actor, smiling.
Another thing that made Khan want to become an
actor was Naseeruddin Shah’s back.
One of Irrfan’s first epiphanies about his vocation
took place when, while watching Shyam Benegal’s
“I remember watching it the first time. He had a
minor character in the film. Woh aate hain thodi
der ke liye. There was a scene where I felt
like unke back se kuchh emotions bahar aa rahe
hain! I could feel what is going on inside him
through his back! And that fascinated me.”
It is an odd thing to say, and Khan is aware.
“His back, yeah. Maybe because that was the
extent to which he had pulled me in. And I saw
Dilip Kumar in a film and felt he’s in some other
zone. Mujhe laga ki they have broken this dhar-
ra (mould) of mundane life and gone into a realm
which is a mystery. That mysticism captured me.”
“I wanted to experience it. Like kids who see ice-cream and just have to have it, like that, I wanted
to... I wanted to own this. Whatever it is. Whatever
they are going through.”
Steadfast in the back with an insect in his eye
Cast as a lathail — literally, a man who wields a
stick — he took his place in the background during
a play in Jaipur, holding said stick as firmly as he
could. He had one job, as they say.
Then an insect flew into his eye and it began to
water. Steadfast, he didn’t wipe the tears and
kept standing, lath in hand.
“People forgot the play and started staring at
me,” he laughs.
This was a time when Khan, having identified that he wanted to go to the National
School of Drama in Delhi, was trying to make sure he had been in the specified number of
performances under his belt to qualify for the admission test.
“We did (Preston Sturges’) Guinea Pig, some things by Badal Sarkar and (G P Deshpa-
nde’s) Uddhwast Dharamsala. I didn’t enjoy myself. People used to like me in them, I don’t
know what they used to like.”
Shy, thin and “not conventionally good looking,” Khan struggled with insecurities I’m cer-
tain are familiar to most struggling actors.
“Yes, there are some patterns. Actors get fascinated by acting, or the fame and whatever,
and they emulate somebody. And a few actors then discover themselves and stop emulat-
ing, and move on and become their own actors. And this is something one doubts
about oneself — about their ‘look,’ this doubt of ‘is my face good enough’ — and
would have haunted everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Dilip Kumar to
Overthinking came easy to the actor, to the extent that he considered
doing a Master’s degree in psychology “to understand human beings bet-
ter” before going to drama school.
“Then someone told me ki abe yaar reading psychology doesn’t help
you understand man,” he laughs. “I had a very naive approach. I used to
think that I’ll act the f*** out of a role, grow old to look old for a role,
show everyone what an actor I am. Fully passionate. But at NSD, I realized I was very shy. I should have done street theatre for six months and
dealt with the shyness. I should have been more open, and that’s why it
was a little difficult for me to become an actor. I was very odd as an actor.”
The drama school atmosphere helped more than the curriculum.
“NSD doesn’t have a system. As in, there is no school of acting. We don’t
have one. We had the (ancient Sanskrit treatise) Natyashastra uss zamaane
mein, and today in the West, because of (Russian theatre director Konstantin)
Stanislavsky, there is a school where they teach you technique,” he explains.
“Here we take a little from here, a little from there. They introduce all kinds
of systems to you, and you mix and match and see what works.”
“What does miming have to do with acting?” Khan wondered, as a
theatre student surprised by seemingly irrelevant exercises.
“Now I realize it all makes sense after you have learnt the
craft. It helps you after your foundation is strong.
“That’s why sometimes when I go to drama schools
and talk to students, I tell them don’t try to analyze it,
just trust in it and do it. Let it be. Don’t try to be
insecure, or try to secure yourself by deciding ‘this
is what will help me in this way,’ and ‘this won’t
be useful to me.’ Don’t come to a conclusion,
and how ( what you learn will) incorporate
certain things in you, you’ll never know.”
Ever an introspective youth, Khan
began to discover himself as he
“It helped me as a person. I
started looking at myself as a
product of different influenc-
es. That is the biggest educa-
tion. If I’d have been in
Jaipur, or if I wouldn’t have
come to drama school, I
wouldn’t have seen myself
objectively. I am a product of
my genetics, my social influ-
ences, my cultural influences...
That was the biggest education.”
The other big takeaway from
drama school was watching and
obsessing about foreign films. Khan
had only watched a handful of interna-
tional films before NSD — “like Enter
The Dragon and Towering Inferno” — but
now he found himself hungrily opening up
to world cinema and, perhaps more impor-
tantly, discussing it all night with equally pas-
As an actor, his inspirations began to evolve then and,
he insists, are still evolving.
“Earlier in drama school, when you see some craft in an actor, it
fascinates you. And then, slowly, you get to a point that when you
see craft in an actor, you don’t like that performance. You learn not
to see the craft at all, then you like non-acting. When you don’t see
any kind of manipulation, or anything being done for effect.”
THE CRAFT & STARDOM OF IRRFAN KHAN
The gulf between the Hindi
cinema’s finest current actor
and his contemporaries
widens with each film. But
even Irrfan Khan, in Mick
Jagger’s words, can’t always
get what he wants.
Raja Sen tells us why that’s
not a bad thing.