From humble beginnings in Bombay, taking on small parts in television serials, to acting in the 3rd highest grossing film of all time (Jurassic World), Irrfan Khan has risen to become one of India’s most valuable exports.
We meet at a club in Toronto, the morning after his delayed flight from India. He’s jet-lagged and tired but his smile lights up the dark room we are in (in the midst of frenetic planning for a party that night to celebrate his latest film).
Guilty (Talvar for its Indian release) is his latest feature, a re-telling of the infamous “Noida Double Murder” case that rocked Asia in 2008. Khan plays a CBI detective investigating the murder of a 14 year-old girl (Aarushi) and a 45-year old household servant (Hemraj). Various people were initially implicated in the deaths Eventually the parents were jailed for ‘honour killing’ despite contradictory evidence.
Congratulations on another incredible performance. Tell us a little about your detective character in Guilty.
Irrfan: The CBI are called in after the police are finished their investigation so there are challenges they face depending on how good a job the police have done. When I play a real character I want it to be factually correct. I didn’t know how investigators go about their work, so I had to learn these things. Sometimes research isn’t important at all for your character, it’s just the contemplation of the core of the person that you have to find. But when a story is based on real facts you don’t want people to misinterpret things
You are one of the few people in the world to successfully straddle the worlds of art-house Indian, Bollywood and mainstream Hollywood films.
Irrfan: I’m really happy to have been associated with fantastic directors and productions. I never knew that Jurassic World would be so successful. You just go by your instincts. I was just excited to be part of a franchise that Spielberg had started and I felt I just had to be a part of it.
Is there one of the 3 types of work you prefer?
Irrfan: Oh yes! There is a kind of informality in Indian cinema. A sense of fun. Even within our society there is this sense of celebration, which I truly enjoy. But in the West there is a system that works very well. Their storytelling can connect with a universal audience. And that is the reason why they have captured the market all over the world.
Was Slumdog Millionaire the watershed moment that transformed your career?
Irrfan: Actually I think before that The Namesake really helped introduce me as well as my work to the Western audience. Slumdog was a continuation of that….
You have a skill that is surprisingly rare, in the profession of acting- the ability to make the audience forget it is YOU playing a role. The one word that springs to mind whenever I think of any of your many performances is Believability. You have a way of bringing a humanity and realism to each of the characters you play. How do you manage to achieve this?
Irrfan: I think the tendency is to forget oneself. Why do I act? To experience things I normally wouldn’t experience in my life. So I attempt to go away or beyond myself, to not bring any of my personality into the role. My acting allows me get away from myself, my own thinking process my own biases and perceptions. And that keeps me sane!
Are there any types of roles or characters you would still love to play?
Irrfan: There are so many genres I would love to try and explore. Whether that is action or a musical, or films for kids. There is no end to the types of roles I could play.
I understand you are working with Tom Hanks for the 2016 Dan Brown novel adaptation of Inferno- can you talk about that project at all?
Irrfan: It is in post-production right now. I loved Ron! (Ron Howard to you and me) I loved his energy.
For those of you not so familiar with Irrfan’s work I implore you to go and see The Namesake, The Lunchbox and of course Slumdog Millionaire. If his work doesn’t move you to tears and bring about an emotional response, then you may be more lost than the naach and gaana numbers of Bollywood.
Look for Guilty at a cinema near you very soon.