He would be The Martian’s Vincent Kapoor, but…
Headlined by Matt Damon and based on the novel by
Andy Weir, Ridley Scott’s The Martian was one of 2015’s
most successful Hollywood releases.
In it, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a NASA director for the Mars
mission called Vincent Kapoor. The name appears curious
for a British actor of Nigerian descent, and for good reason.
It was written with Khan in mind, the actor having liked
the script and principally agreed on the film.
Scheduling issues got in the way as Khan
was, at the time of The Martian’s first
schedule, shooting a diametrically different
kind of movie.
“I loved the Piku script. I loved the writ-
ing,” says Khan of the Shoojit Sircar film
that sets him up as leading man opposite
current Bollywood empress Deepika
Padukone. “I didn’t realize how refined it
would be. I assumed it would be a kind of
broad comedy, but no. That is the first
script where I felt I needed to have a nar-
ration. I read the script, liked the script,
but I called Juhi (Chaturvedi, the film’s
screenwriter) and asked for a narration
because the rhythm and the sur of the dia-
logue is so peculiar I had to hear it from
the source. And I was sure the film is going
to give something special to the audience.”
In the terrific film about a peevish
Bengali girl and her cantankerous, consti-
pated father, Khan plays the cooler, more
distanced character, a pragmatic, level-
headed man who has his own baggage and tries not to let it
show. It is a charming performance Khan pulls off with a
marvelously light touch.
“There were so many obvious things in the film that
Shoojit (finally) eliminated. Like there was a clear underlining where Deepika’s friend comes to the house and they
sleep together — it was a statement — but he edited it so
intelligently. So, the audience starts imagining it for you.
That is a technique we don’t have as storytellers in India.
The audience becomes lazy; it just starts waiting to be fed.”
The idea of a lackadaisical audience frustrates him — he
conjures up a disturbing visual of them sitting passively in
recliner seats saying, in Hindi, “come, come and f*** us,
we’re waiting” — but he’s immensely optimistic.
“The way the audience has matured is fantastic. The
proof is a Talvar where there is only fact, where there isn’t
a filmi thing at all, facts and information, facts and infor-
mation again and again. Even if you miss 10 minutes, you
won’t be able to catch up. It’s so intricately woven in facts
and information... Success for a film like that is a great sign
for Indian cinema.”
Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar is an admittedly tough watch, a
film about a real-life murder case that captivated India.
Written by Vishal Bhardwaj, the film takes a stand in
favor of the accused who have been wrongfully imprisoned,
and Irrfan plays the investigative officer — tightly wound,
hard-to-read, a man who would rather play arcade games
on his cellphone than look a suspect in the eye.
It is a calm, realistic performance of stunning nuance — in
my review I wrote of ‘the way he grimaces for a split-second
while trying to remember the name of his wife’s pills, as if he
were flexing a memory muscle’ — and Khan is right: it’s
impressive that a film like that is a commercial success.
It’s hardly surprising that an actor working with some of
the finest directors in world cinema — Michael Winterbo-ttom, Mira Nair, Wes Anderson, Ang Lee, Ron Howard,
Danny Boyle — is stimulated by leaving things unsaid and
to the imagination.
It is only now, Khan feels, that Indian audiences are
opening up to not wanting things spelt out.
“Like in The Lunchbox, some people ask why don’t you tell
us if they meet or not? I tell them it’s all there, it’s all subtly
shown, but the truth is that they want to wonder. People
want to imagine it for themselves. They want to get engaged
intellectually with cinema, and that is a fantastic thing.”
Khan himself has only just begun to believe.
Both he and producer Anurag Kashyap pleaded to The
Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra to make that meeting clear.
“We told him that yaar don’t make this an arty film, let’s
show them meeting.”
But Ritesh stuck to his guns.
Similarly Piku featured an emotional beat that made
Khan cry, but Sircar — in a bid to avoid overt sentimentality — sliced it off during the edit.
“It’s where I leave the Calcutta house and Deepika goes
and looks at the Tullu pump (the water pump he had mended), and I was overwhelmed by that moment in the script.
When I saw the edit, that moment was not there! I said
‘Shoojit, yaar, what are you doing? I know you’re trying to
leave the emotion out of it, but this is such a saaf moment,
a pure moment.’ He said ‘trust me, trust me, trust me.’ And
that’s what. He knows the music of the story. He doesn’t
want to destroy the baarikh sur (the precisely poised pitch)
of the film.”
‘How to make myself unnoticeable?’
Back in the television days, when Khan, exasperated with
creatively stifling roles, was praying for the big screen, he
used to hope that he — with his unruly look — would at
least get to play a third-string villain.
It took a while for this to materialize, but finally Khan
was cast in a Mahesh Bhatt film he refuses to name.
“Bhattsaab first cast me as a lawyer, and then a villain,” he
says, speaking fondly of the volatile director. “Except while
doing the villain role I told him that I’m not going to get
beaten up, main maar toh nahin khaoonga,” he laughs,
before breaking into an outraged Bhatt impression: “Are you
crazy? If the villain doesn’t get beaten up, the film will!”
So, then did he get beaten up, for the film’s sake?
Irrfan smiles a sly smile. “Not a lot. Even he understood
that here is a tedha (crooked) kind of actor.”
The roles were crooked too, and it wasn’t until his big
break in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, a fine British film,
that Khan began to believe in himself even though the film
was hardly seen in India and didn’t affect his stature there.
That changed with Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil, where he
was a memorable villain and won a Filmfare Award for the
best performance in a negative role.
“I was not aware of my screen presence at all,” says Khan.
“And then I got Warrior. And when I saw the film, for the
first time, I realized my presence, what presence even means.
So you discover it at some point, but you can’t play off it.”
“I began to fall into the trap of that pres-
ence. I started to speak a certain way, give
more room to that aspect of the personali-
ty. And I was feeling good about it until
(Mira Nair’s) The Namesake. I started
reading the script and realized that every-
thing I have done to bring out my presence
is going to become a hurdle for this role.”
Khan used the challenging international
projects to precisely hone his skills. “When
I was doing television, I hated saying so
many things. Why can’t you see it on my
face? And exactly the opposite happened
with Warrior. Even if I’m talking and my
hand moved to my face casually, Asif
would stop to ask me why I took my hand there. I said I
didn’t think, it just happened. So, he would say ‘no, it’ll dis-
tract. It’ll distract from the nucleus. Less is more.’”
“And that was exactly what I was looking for, that I don’t
need to do anything, I just have to place myself in the situ-
ation. No manipulation, no indication, no demonstration.
THE CRAFT & STARDOM OF IRRFAN KHAN
Irrfan Khan indulges fans at the Toronto International Film Festival during the screening of Talvar, one of 2015’s finest Indian films.
Scheduling issues got in the way of Irrfan Khan working on The Martian. He was shooting a diametrically different kind of movie then, Piku.
Maqbool had established Khan as one of Indian cinema’s most distinctive talents.
ERNES TO DIS TEFANO/GE TT Y IMAGES