He confesses that language is not his strength; but Irrfan, the actor has tremendous power and control over his craft. He sets his stardom and vanity aside, and becomes the character you want to see, like putty in the director’s hands. He’s the reluctant superstar, who believes that such titles are a “suffering” and a heavy ransom to pay for a man who wants to keep it real. On celluloid, too. That explains the polish and ease with which he makes heroes out of average Joe-like characters in his films. In a chat with BT, he talks to us about his upcoming film ‘Hindi Medium’ directed by Saket Chaudhary, and apart from the language barrier, he reveals how he has fought with emotions that could have destroyed him. Read on…
In our country, we often find people being judgemental about those who can’t converse fluently in English or bear an accent that is different from their own. Did you ever feel conscious about the way you spoke while interacting with celebrities in Hollywood?
Yes, we are conditioned such that when someone speaks English in an accent different from ours or mispronounces words, we look at them strangely and judge them. When I am giving movie interviews in New York and Los Angeles, I interact with journalists from around the world. Fortunately, I have never faced any problem there and no one has made me feel conscious, as we all speak with different accents and that’s what makes it so exciting. I am generally not a very expressive person as far as language is concerned. My mother sent us to a convent school and we would boast about it. There was this concept that by the time you are in the third grade, you’ll be fluent in English. It was obviously a naive idea, because you don’t have to reach a certain grade to be fluent in a language, it’s about how you practise it. In our society, knowing English is like a status symbol. I would say that the film ‘Hindi Medium’ is like a dangal between Hindi and English. We are also trying to tell people that Hindi is the new cool. I am still not very good with English because I think in Hindi. Also, I am not a vocal person, so it takes me time to put my thoughts into words. If I were a writer or had good command over language, I would have been a director rather than an actor.
Your co-star Saba Qamar, the well-known Pakistani actress, is also a big fan of your work. Were you a part of the casting process?
The producers take the credit of casting her (laughs!), but I was the one who suggested her name. We were looking for somebody who was a little chatpati, who could act well and also had a good comic timing. At first, the producers didn’t agree to my suggestion, but when I showed them her videos, they loved it. Saba is so open-minded and she comes with a lot of experience. Actors from there (Pakistan) come prepared and the interesting thing is that they don’t have any hang-ups about their image. For them, it’s not about how they are looking in the movie. Hamare yahan kaee baar aisa ho jaata hai ki heroine dikhne mein kaisi lag rahi hai, woh zyada important hota hai. Yahan bahut saare actresses ka yeh problem hota hai ki… 6-saal ki bacchi ki maa kaise banegi?
When you spend time with your friends and colleagues in the West, do they discuss our cinema?
They don’t talk about Indian films. I don’t think our films travel everywhere, though we do have fans in various pockets of the world. Their films travel to our country. I have got huge amount of respect in Hollywood, even though I did a minuscule role in Jurassic World (2015). I was surprised to see that some publications had entire write-ups about me.
Well, that is also because when you are doing a role in a Hollywood film, the length of your part is not such a big point of discussion. The biggest of Hollywood actors are often seen in brief roles, yet leaving an impact…
Yes, you don’t get typecast there. In that aspect, it is very frustrating in India. Here I am often asked why I did a small role in a Hollywood movie. If I have a good role, in a good movie with a good director, why should I think twice before doing the film? I really want to do interesting roles with good directors, but that scope gets limited here.
Your range of work today is interesting and enviable — from films like ‘The Lunchbox’, ‘Life Of Pi’ and ‘Inferno’ to ‘Piku’, ‘Madaari’ and ‘Hindi Medium’. Did you have to break some barriers before you could do the kind of work you are doing today?
It took time to make people believe that I can tell a story and get audiences to the theatres. Earlier, I felt helpless, but I didn’t give into it. If you give attention to that emotion, it has the power to destroy or deform you. I did ‘Haasil’ (2003) and everyone was talking about it. But post that, I was offered only single-layered villainous roles. Such things don’t happen only here, it happens in the West as well. If you see Mark Ruffalo, his performance 17 years back was incredible, but he never became a Johnny Depp. Sometimes, when you are walking on a path that is being created by you and not by other people, it takes time. It’s also because you don’t know where you are going, so how can you expect people to rely on you? For me, it has always been like…Aage kya hai kya pata, abhi toh khod rahan hun aur raasta bana rahan hun, yaar. So this path and process has its own danger and excitement. But there is no deadline, so what’s the hurry?
I guess, often actors like to be in the comfort zone of a certain image or type because they feel secure. Like you had once said, “An actor’s life is insecure.” After so much success, do you still worry if you will be able to clinch a good role?
The job of being an actor is very insecure by nature. And uncertainty is ingrained in the nature of the film industry. Both these things — insecurity and uncertainty go hand in hand. Initially, I struggled with insecurity and I hated that emotion. Insecurity also brings with it jealousy, which is an emotion that I hate the most. It is an achievement for me that I don’t feel insecure anymore. I am much more at ease and I like the phase that I am in. I think that every profession has its trappings. It is about your priority and what you prefer to do. While I was shooting for ‘The Lunchbox’ (2013), our cameraman, who was from New York, curiously asked me, “Why do your heroines look so similar on screen?” Then he showed me a picture of a girl (he had randomly shot), and there was something about her face, which was more than plain beautiful. There was a character which expressed so much. He asked me, “Why don’t I see all these faces in the movies?” I explained to him that there are particular kinds of movies where we look like this, but we also make other films where he can see the kind of faces he was referring to. So, it all depends on what kind of movies and stories attract actors and filmmakers.
When you sit for a story narration with an American filmmaker versus an Indian filmmaker, does your thought process quickly switch? In Bollywood, we focus a lot more on emotions, love, tears, et al. I am guessing that there are other driving points for choosing a script there…
When you have two different types of directors narrating a story in Bollywood, you are already in a different zone. Like, when a Vishal Bhardwaj is telling a story versus an Anees Bazmee, we are already in different zones. So, I am subconsciously wired to look at those stories differently. The interesting thing about Hollywood is that the story which you have chosen becomes the nucleus and everybody serves that story and not the actor’s image. Hamare yahan joh commercial cinema hai…usmein the entire service of storytelling is put into the image of an actor. Then, the supporting actors also become a tool to serve his image and that is a big problem. I don’t enjoy doing that; I would rather serve the story.
Is that why you turned a producer, so that you can make the kind of films you are talking about?
Yes, and I don’t have to necessarily act in every film which I will produce. I believe that it is a great time for our film industry. We are evolving and our audience is becoming more mature. Having said that, I do think that our storytelling is lagging behind and that’s why Hollywood movies are capturing our market. We have to improve in that aspect quickly or it might paralyse us.
Your journey has been fascinating — from theatre actor to a film actor and now, prominent roles in Hollywood films. Do these badges like ‘star’ and ‘superstar’ matter?