The last time I met Rajasthani-born superstar Irrfan Khan was in Abu Dhabi, and as we spoke, sitting in a busy hallway inside the grandiose Emirates Palace, waiters and chefs from India and Pakistan working for the hotel would approach him constantly, to ask for an autograph and get their picture taken alongside their idol. The actor indulged them every time, with grace and class.
It was otherworldly to remember that moment in time, quite a few moons ago, when Khan was representing Anup Singh’s ‘Qissa’ at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Otherworldly because even though the crossover star has since been in quite a few Indian, Hollywood and yes, even one Bangladeshi production, I meet him again, the first time since then, while he is at the Locarno Film Festival where Singh’s next oeuvre, ‘The Song of Scorpions’ world-premiered on the Piazza Grande.
There is a reason why filmmaker Singh places Khan at the center of his films, and I’m convinced his answer involves the word “magic”. It is impossible to find yourself in the company of Irrfan Khan and not hear that word, silently repeating like a mantra deep within the recesses of your soul. All he does, from the careful way in which he chooses his words, to the abstract notions he manages to pull his conversation companion — in this case lucky me — into, everything about him is enchanting. His eyes are magnetic and kind, his voice soft and genuine and his presence quickly turned me into the same giddy kind of fan I had observed swarm around him in the Middle East. I asked to have my photo taken with him, not exactly the most professional way to begin an interview, but he obliged and even that, yes you guessed it, turned out to be a magical shot.
In Singh’s ‘The Song of the Scorpions’, Khan plays once again a character whose human imperfections bring him to make the wrong choices. Dual, complex and understandably flawed, his camel merchant Aadam uses the worst kind of tactics to convince the woman he’s enchanted with, Nooran (played by the beautiful Golshifteh Farahani) to be his bride. And yet, by the end of the film, we are all left to wonder — even Nooran I believe — if what Aadam did was truly wrong, or just the justifiable act of a weak man in love.
As an aside, halfway through this interview, Khan turned to me and said “I never read my interviews but yours,” remembering our talk in Abu Dhabi, “your language — it had such magic.” There is that word again, like a leitmotif representing Irrfan Khan’s charisma. “I shall try to replicate that magic,” I say, almost immediately realizing the silliness of my words. “No, don’t do it,” Khan smiles and continues, “replication never has magic in it.”
Following are the highlights of our talk in Locarno, a talk that could have only and ever happened in Locarno. Because, well you know, it’s that “M” word again, which applies perfectly to this festival with a deep love of cinema through and through.
Do you think movies help us to understand each other?
Irrfan Khan: Not just each other, we need to understand everything in totality. We need to not just understand but to relate to things and it’s not just other human beings. You are part of everything, and that is the folly that we think, as a human being that we are a separate entity from everything. But we are not. Nature has created things out of things and we don’t see ourselves as part of it. That’s where cinema comes in and can make you understand or makes you feel that you are part of it.
Maybe that’s the great power of cinema, that it makes you realize that you are part of…
Khan: A bigger picture. And that you are just a part, not even a grain of sand… And that is the point of doing stories otherwise, why do it, why make up stories?
How have you managed to make all of these films and created this type of acting that never existed before? I don’t want to say just in Indian cinema, but you are someone who can go from ‘Life of Pi’ to ‘The Namesake’ to ‘The Lunchbox’ — seamlessly transcending type and age.
Khan: There was a kind of shift in me as an actor at some point, and one day I was doing a publicity shoot with Shah Rukh Khan in London. I was drinking that night, and suddenly a thought hit me like a bolt, like a jolt, you know, and at that time I realized that I don’t have any religion — that my only religion is stories, telling stories.
That’s a beautiful religion to have, I mean, I wish we all believed in that faith these days!
Khan: And that idea hit me and I called Naseeruddin Shah, the actor who inspired me as an actor, and until two o’clock I sat there talking to him. At that point, the stories became much more important to me than what I’m playing in it. And this was about ten years back.
But I think the shift happened much earlier, when I did ‘The Warrior’ [directed by Asif Kapadia]. I was doing television most of the time and TV was not giving me the experience — the kind of experience I thought an actor could have. Television acting was very boring and I was wondering if this is what I wanted to do all my life. And suddenly out of the blue, this director comes from London and looks for actors for months, not finding the face. I reluctantly entered into the audition room, because I thought, here is this guy making a film called ‘The Warrior’ and he must be needing bodybuilders, why does he need me? But the casting director was my friend and said just go. And I entered the room and later, in an interview, Asif revealed, that as he saw me he thought, “I got my face!” Because he wanted to open the film with eyes.
Khan: And I don’t know why but I felt that some magic was going to happen in this film. And there were magical things happening. It was the first time I was experiencing the story in a continuation. There were no breaks, so I was living that story for three months and I experienced how the story grows on you as an actor, when you are doing it consecutively, the character and story start interacting with you, and grows on you.
But that’s unusual, because films aren’t shot in a consecutive pattern usually.
Khan: Yes, but even then it grows. Because as an actor your mind plays to put one or two scenes together. And that does things to you.
When you go to the movies, what do you look for?
Khan: I’m not a film person, I never studied cinema, I studied theater. I never had exposure to great cinema, but when I landed in Bombay for becoming an actor, the most challenging thing for me was that my inspiration was going, it was fading. Because that’s a market, Bombay is a market — a “mundi”. So the first thing I did I bought a VCR and started watching cinema, and I started watching Luis Buñuel’s films, one was about a housewife sleeping with other people, ‘Belle de jour’… As a choice, she goes and does prostitution, sleeps with other people, and they do strange things to her. That film, after I watched it, it started talking to me for several days. And I’d never experienced this, you know books do that, but cinema doesn’t do it, it doesn’t talk to you! Commercial cinema anyway. I still remember as a child when we went to the movies, the first thing I’d do as I would come out of the theater, I would yawn. And I used to hate it, it felt like my energy had been sapped out.
I want to watch cinema that stays with me, I want to make stories which stay with people for a long time, and once the film ends, that’s not the end, rather the beginning.
How do you feel about your latest film premiering in Locarno?
Khan: It’s my first time here. I think Carlo [Chatrian, the festival’s Artistic Director] he’s a fantastic human being. And as an actor, I love his face, I’m going to recreate it in some character. There is a real warmth in his face and I want to recreate that.