Irrfan Khan

Irrfan Khan says he does not have a system or formula to choose a film. He chooses anything that fires him. (photo provided)

MUMBAI—The name needs no introduction in world cinema. In Hindi cinema, Irrfan Khan (now presumably with the word ‘Khan’ added for good instead of the previous Irrfan or the original Irfan Khan!) has long been recognized as a powerhouse performer with a global reach, status and appeal, but never had a commercial standing the way a star has.

2017 seems to have changed that for Hindi cinema’s Khan with a difference, the man who came in from television serials and largely did offbeat or non-mainstream cinema, barring occasional misadventures like “The Killer,” “Sunday,” “7 Khoon Maaf” and “Thank You.” Also a part of some good films that did not do well, like “Billu” and “D-Day,” he did star in the hit “Piku” in 2015, but was dominated by Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone in author-backed roles.

But Khan tasted solo hero success with the small and rather quirky “Hindi Medium” earlier this year. A romantic and family film with a strong social message and a light undertone, it is now followed by “Qarib Qarib Singlle,” a romantic comedy. If this film clicks, whether he likes it or not, Khan will be a saleable entity with the audience, even if not a superstar.

But “Hindi Medium” seems to have done Irrfan good – its success has made him perceptibly more relaxed, not at all defensive about his work in Hindi films, quite balanced about things like hits and stardom, and finally, in great humor when we catch up at Mumbai’s Hotel Novotel. Mass acceptance, like it or not, is a major stimulant for any actor.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Was it just chance that “Qarib..” is your next release after “Hindi Medium?” You are normally known for intense roles, even if some have satirical or humorous undertones. And “Piku” too was a light film.

A: I am no star to plan or choose my genres! It’s a coincidence that these films have come together, or maybe they think now that ‘yeh aadmi romance bhi kar sakta hai (this man can be romantic too)!’ Nor do I have a system or formula to choose a film – I just choose anything that fires me. I select the best of what I am offered, but yes, I have chosen lighter films of late. One reason is that I want to be relaxed before this really intense film that will take off soon.

Q: Which roles do you find tougher? Most actors say that comedy is tougher than serious roles.

A: For me, a comedy needs a playful mode even on sets, so it is not demanding. Intense roles are tougher as they consume more of me. I need an unwinding, a kind of detox to come out and refresh myself. When I had called my family for a few days to be with me during the shoot of the show “In Treatment,” I lost my ‘sur’ (key) and I had to reshoot.

Q: And what about the dubbing for intense films that may need to be done weeks or months later?

A: Oh, yes, that can be disturbing as the intensity has to be re-created. I prefer Sync Sound.

Q: So what fires you about “Qarib…” as a film?

A: It's old-world charm of romance and my relatable urban character. It’s about how it is not easy at all to say the simple words ‘I love you, ’ but it takes time for the relationship to grow. Remember Raaj Kumar in “Pakeezah” asking the heroine Meena Kumari not to soil her bare feet by placing them on the floor? He barely knows her then, but his soul is attracted to her.

On paper, my role was quite surprisingly different from what I had done, and I had a little hesitation about whether I would be able to pull it off without making it a caricature. And though the characters we play are middle-aged, our relationship is more along contemporary lines where there is a thin line between commitment and just attachment.

Q: Especially after “Hindi Medium,” do you have expectations from this film?

A: Expectations are always there, it’s natural to have them. But thinking about box-office outcome only leads to anxiety and does not change anything at all. Ideally, all actors must vanish for a week after a release and only then come back and find what happened. Leave it all to God and the audience! (Grins)

Q: You do every kind of film, in India and overseas. You have done all kinds of roles even on television. How do you look at such films vis-à-vis big ones like “Inferno” and “Life Of Pi” that must have earned in multiples of 100 crores, which is a kind of benchmark over here?

A: I have just completed an international film, but I am also doing a biopic of a don called “Sapna Didi” with Honey Trehan and another with Homi Adajania. I am excited about “The Ministry,” which is an Indian political satire made with great maturity and will be streamed on Amazon.

All work is equally important for me. A story is never small – budgets might be big or otherwise. And it is not as if the international film or the 100 crore film will have a greater impact than smaller movies.

Q: You have never been short of work.

A: Yes, and I am really blessed. I kept praying that I get work that I like, and that’s begun to happen now. My only fear is whether I am able to reach out to the people with the kind of stories I want to narrate, for I have never been someone who looks at a formula, or at what business a film will make. So when journalists ask me where I have reached, I just say that I don’t think I have reached anywhere, but that my journey is actually beginning now.

Q: Have you regretted rejecting films that did well?

A: No, though there have been so many examples of that as well as the reverse – that is, some have been disasters too! I have never been under this delusion that I could have done something better than the actor who did it. Everyone has his style. Neither did I ever have this grand misconception that I would have made the films hits instead of flops, or bigger hits than they were. Never!

Q: What are your views on stars? Do you think you are one now in India?

A: An actor comes, and if he entertains you, he becomes a star while he is telling stories. But today, you cannot sell garbage under the name of a star. Look at how people are accepting widely different films like “Golmaal Again,” “Bahubali” and “Hindi Medium.”

Q: A personal observation: in this and our earlier interviews, you have surprised me with the use of uncommon but rich Hindi words like “achambit” (surprised), “manastithi” (state of mind) and “parichit” (familiar with). Is there any foundation for that?

A: I think every language has its beauty and I am familiar with Hindi, Urdu as well as English literature – of course, I do not THINK in English! But that is the beauty of Indian culture – its diversity in all aspects and the freedom to mix languages. I pity those who have limitations in expression!

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