Two weeks before Nikhil Advani’s D-Day releases in theatres, Irrfan Khan, one of its lead actors, undergoes the press-op rigmarole with deadpan, defensive humour. Some actors are too glib for their own good at these interactions, speaking about the movie in question with unusually infectious glee. At a JW Marriott smoking suite, Khan is at his reticent, unassuming best.
Topmost on his mind is a break from work. “I want to read scripts at leisure now,” he says. Within a week, he announces a film production company with his wife Sutapa Sikdar, a scriptwriter and his classmate since his days at Delhi’s National School of Drama. He also tells the media that he is likely to act in Vishal Bharadwaj’s next film.
Khan has been working in all kinds of movies, as long as the role requires some plumbing of a character. Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, Anurag Basu’s Life In A... Metro, Mira Nair’s The Namesake, potboilers like the Sanjay Gupta-produced and Suparn Verma-directed Acid Factory and Anees Bazmee’s Thank You, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil and Paan Singh Tomar, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and now, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, this year’s Indian favourite at the Cannes Film Festival—Khan has been crossing over genres and film cultures often, and with seeming ease. In this straddling and a lot of toil, Irrfan Khan emerges as the poster boy of 2000s’ Hindi cinema—under the equalizing power of the multiplex, and difficult to pin down to insular compartments.
Only 12 years ago, London-based director Asif Kapadia had resuscitated his movie career by casting him in The Warrior, Khan’s first major role. It introduced him to audiences beyond home. Long after Mira Nair cast him in Salaam Bombay! (1988), it ended a period of prolific work Khan did for television, and also freed him of some alienating labels that serious Indian actors working since the 1970s have had to fight: arthouse, Bollywood, parallel, crossover.
Until Dhulia’s biopic about an Indian Army athlete whose cirsumstances force him to be a dacoit, Khan never had substantial material for his roles. In ensemble casts, he always stood out. In Hollywood films, his obvious Indianness, in looks and phonetics, and acting intelligence did the job. In Paan Singh Tomar, Khan proved his adroit control over rich material. Under Dhulia’s direction, Khan performed a role of a lifetime with flamboyance and intensity, and he got the National Award for Best Actor.
“More than showing my acting or developing as an actor or making money, I am having fun. I can do an Ang Lee film and I can do an Anees Bazmee film. I choose to do an Anees Bazmee because sometimes I just want to have fun and do something easy,” he says.
“I can’t possibly stop talking to the mass audience. It is important for any actor with his feet in Bollywood.” That could be any big Indian film star speaking.
In D-Day, Khan is cast with Rishi Kapoor (in the role of Dawood Ibrahim), Arjun Rampal and Huma Qureshi. It is about a secret service team pursuing Dawood in Pakistan. Khan plays a spy who works as a barber and lives with his family in Pakistan. The mission goes horribly wrong and the lives of everybody involved are in jeopardy. “Ideas like nation against nation, religion against religion often pass off as patriotism. I was a bit worried about that before accepting this role. Those ideas obviously don’t appeal to me, but in the script narration which Nikhil (Advani) did, I was quite fascinated by the way he was trying to project the way RAW officers work. They are invisible and unsung when they do something and screwed when they fail,” Khan says. The role required him to go through rigorous physical training. “The physical training part was like preparing for Paan Singh Tomar.”
With such talent, and the short but notable trajectory of his career, Khan is difficult to pigeonhole, but easy to cast. He is not part of the pecking order of actors in Hindi movies, yet there is no dearth of roles for him. “I am happy to be not labelled. But I think all serious actors working in India have to thank the parallel films of the 1970s and 1980s. Naseeruddin Shah showed the way for an actor like me. He said it is possible to do such different roles and survive and succeed in Bombay.”
Ritesh Batra, director of The Lunchbox, which is scheduled to be released in India later in the year by UTV Motion Pictures, says: “I was introduced to Irrfan by Anurag Kashyap. We spent months talking, not just about the film. He told me about an uncle who he thought of while thinking of this role of a lonely man finding love. He is a collaborator in the true sense and most of what you finally see in the performance is his understanding and interpretation of the character.”
Khan is one of the many producers of The Lunchbox. A mistakenly delivered lunchbox connects Ila Singh (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife, to Saajan Thomas (Irrfan Khan), a lonely man about to retire from a clerical job. Ila lives in a conservative, middle-class Hindu enclave of Dadar and Saajan lives in an old Christian neighbourhood in Bandra. The characters never meet, but they nurture a dream about love that exposes the real Mumbai and the Mumbai of fantasy. “It was a tedious role to do,” says Khan. “I had to inhabit it for so long. There is a lot of feeling in it, and not much dialogue, so I could not have translated the character on screen if I didn’t fully immerse in it.”
Khan says he wants to act in a musical, a children’s film, and many action flicks. Like all hungry actors, he believes his best role is yet to come.
D-Day released in theatres on Friday.