Neither is new to overseas assignments – in fact, they have even co-starred in the highly-appreciated “The Namesake.” Mid-morning at the J.W.Marriott, Irrfan Khan (yes, the Khan is back, though Irrfan won’t reveal why!) and Tabu talk about their new prestigious overseas assignment, “Life Of Pi.”
Q: You have said you are proud to be a part of the film.
A: Take the 3-D, for example: I have never seen it used this way – it’s almost poetic. The film is about faith, not organized religion, and I connect with that concept. It is a 100 million dollar film so it has to have a mass appeal, and that’s a feat as to convert this book into a film is tough. I am also happy that I manage to feature in the best films of so many filmmakers at home and overseas, whether it is this film, “Haasil” and “Paan Singh Tomar” from Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Maqbool” or Mira Nair’s “The Namesake.”
Q: You said that you were a zero for the first time on the first day on the sets. Explain.
A: Because there was no reference I could follow. My characters are usually clear. It took me a long time to understand such a complex book that is about Philosophy, Nature, Faith and God’s Creation all at the same time. Plus the language of the book as well as the film is almost like literature. Imbibing it was difficult. In a normal case, I do my homework and get a clear thought on what I have to do. The pattern is homework and if needed research leads to something emerging when on the sets. That did not happen. This time, on day one, I felt that I was not contributing anything at all. I went home and submitted myself completely to the character and prayed.
Q: For someone not into organized religion, do you do that often?
A: I never had to do it before. That is why I meant I was a zero. I was like a blank sheet, my preconceived notions have to be there that stick or have to go – and this time there was nothing! I also had little time to discuss with Ang – he was busy shooting in Thailand with Suraj. He only told me that he was trying to set up a journey for the audience and the tough part was that I had to make it my own! This was essentially Ang’s version of the story.
Q: What was his first brief?
A: He told me, “I see Pi as bull-s***ting!” It was so fascinating that there was doubt that all that actually happened with Pi. Ang was exploring, so I had to explore too.
Q: Having worked on both sides of the globe, what are the prime differences you see in the films?’
A: In Hollywood, even the blockbusters have a subtext or message hidden beneath. Their marketing strategies vary according to the needs of the films, whereas we have no such vision. Like, why should someone pay the same ticket rate for a big-ticket film as for a small but meaningful one?
Q: You do not make much noise about your many overseas films.
A: I do not wish to make any empty noise. If I have not played a major role, as in my “Spider-Man” film, why create hype and disappoint my fans? Films keep changing shape and there can be cases where roles are edited out in the interest of the final movie. You’d be surprised to know that I get so many offers from there that I can shift there, but I want to choose and do roles that give me that something extra to engage myself.
I want a longer life as an actor, I want to be recharged and to retain my interest in work. By the way, you will also be surprised to know that there is less money there for me. But no one pays me simply because I am a good actor, not there and not here! I have my own market and if I were not saleable no one would cast me! So though I do not work in the 100 crore films here I do the 500 crore films there (Laughs)
Q: What do you think of the way our films are going?
A: Films anywhere are about having an engaging plus emotional experience. They should be rooted to the culture concerned. Except in the U.K. and some countries where dark and depressing movies work, most cultures want to engage emotionally. A “Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster” is superficially about a zamindar but essentially a reflection on our culture and values. So Indian films are getting there, to a higher level of cinema, where such films are made more. But make no mistake, the mainstream blockbusters will always be there because cinema is also about escapism.
Q: How do you look back on your career, which started with that small but pivotal cameo in Dev Anand’s “Hum Naujawan?” in 1986?
A: I think a lot has been achieved. It is a success story when I could well have failed, so I have been fortunate. I never thought that I would be an actress and in that sense, I got more than I expected, especially when I have seen so many very good actors not making it.
Q: Any favorites among your Hindi films – we know you do a lot of Telugu movies too.
A: I do only masala films in Telugu and I really enjoy doing them! I love doing the songs and dances and even the action. Sadly, I am branded too much in Hindi films as a serious or intellectual actress. I would have loved to do more masala mainstream cinema! And yet there has been a good balance between different kinds of films.
Q: Which are your favorites in Hindi?
A: I have liked all my films but “Biwi No.1,” “Hera Pheri,” “Chandni Bar,” “Maqbool” and “Cheeni Kum” are favorites.
Q: What was special about working with Ang Lee and on this film?
A: The bigness of the film – its big crew and the multiple cameras. Ang Lee made us rehearse for seven days so that all of us – Suraj Sharma, Adil and I and the other boy – felt as if were a family and completely at home with each other. He was very particular about conveying what he wanted from us – for him, the most important thing was the character’s mental state at the time of any sequence. Other than that, I was myself.
Q: Do you notice any difference between him and Indian filmmakers or the studios in both countries?
A: I don’t think so. They have the same desires of making a film well and efficiently.
Q: Who are the young actresses you admire and also those of your generation?
A: I like all the young girls – they are so well-groomed and confident. From my generation, I really admired Manisha Koirala as an actress and as a person. Also Shilpa Shetty. I did a lot of films with Karisma Kapur and except for “Shikari,” all films – “Jeet,” “Saajan Chale Sasuaral,” “Hum Saath Saath Hain” and “Biwi No.1” – were all major hits. Her mother Babita-ji would tell me that we were a hit pair! And the best thing was that we all had our own space as actors.