Irrfan Khan and I are sitting together outside café in Dubai, and he grabs my Buffy the Vampire Slayer notebook off the table.
“I love this diary,” Khan says, holding it up to the camera. “Fantastic.”
He has the attention of everyone around him, but, whether he notices or not, he doesn’t let on. It’s hard to get a read on him—he’s soft-spoken and enigmatic, but still, he’s dressed to catch your eye, wearing a bright red blazer with blue and white stripes over a red turtleneck.
Irrfan Khan has been one the finest actors in Indian cinema since 1988, but it was 2001 that brought the biggest change to his career. In that year, he starred in the acclaimed film The Warrior, directed by now-Oscar-winning director Asif Kapadia, Khan’s first foray into Western film. Since then, he has had a career like no one else, going back and forth between acclaimed Hollywood and Bollywood films, starring in such blockbusters as Jurassic World, Inferno, the Amazing Spider-Man, the Life of Pi, and Slumdog Millionaire.
How has he managed such sustained success across the world?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t have a system. I don’t have planning. That’s one thing I learned when I did my first [Western] movie, which was produced by Channel 4. My first international project was The Warrior with Asif Kapadia. At that time, a voice told me—I got this realization—that we are in a field where the nature of our jobs is uncertain.
“You can sign a movie, you can shoot a movie, but still there is no guarantee that it will get released. To the end, you are uncertain about things. To be uneasy about your uncertainty is something that I’ve learned [to avoid]. I’ve survived in this industry. Being peaceful with uncertainty—I want to be like that.”
I can’t be certain he even wants to figure out how it happened.
“I don’t look back unless I’m going back to my city, Jaipur. That forces me to look back because I have a history with those places. It reminds me of my childhood and what mental state I used to be in in those days. Otherwise I don’t look back. The most important thing for me about getting honored at the Dubai International Film Festival was to be [honored] along with Cate Blanchett, and that’s very special to be as I love her as an actor and I respect her tremendously. Putting you with these great people really felt great.”
With such a diverse filmography, not every performance has left Khan with a feeling of satisfaction.
“It’s a struggling thing, acting. Sometimes it does. Some roles fulfill you a lot. You want to be in that space. But there are certain roles that you just want to end, and you want to get away from that mental space. But because you’re an actor, you have to be in a space you don’t like sometimes.
“I’ve turned down many films. Few were successful with other actors that I turned down, and I don’t regret it at all. Maybe, who knows, if it would have been successful with me or not. It’s a part of your job. You turn down so many things. You move on. You don’t look back,” he stresses.
Khan chooses projects based on the people working behind the camera.
“It’s the producer, the director, the story, and the role. Is it something which you would want to explore? Who’s the director? Who’s the producer behind it? How are they going to position a movie? Sometimes it’s very important for me to vibe with the director—what kind of a person he is, whether I will have a good time working with him or not,” says Khan.
Puzzle, featuring his latest starring role, debuted to rave reviews at Sundance 2018 last week. Khan took the role after years of doing Hollywood blockbusters, and craving something different.
“I was doing all these big franchise movies in Hollywood—secretly I was wanting to do a personal, intimate movie in Hollywood. A love story, maybe. Out of the blue, this story was offered to me. I read the script, and I fell in love with it—immediately. I just wanted to do that movie. The director was new, he’s a producer turned director, but it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to do that movie. There’s something in that I was pulled to. I can’t really define it.”
A similar scenario led to one of his most beloved films.
I ‘ll give you an [another] example—the Lunchbox. The script was sent to me, and I asked the producer and he said it was a new director. But there was something in that script of the Lunchbox. I just went by my instinct and I said I wanted to do it.”
He’s not done with Hollywood blockbusters, however.
“No, it’s not like that. I will not stop saying yes to them. I just want to explore all the aspects of this movie business. Big projects give you a different kind of experience, but you want to experiment with it. You need a different landscape to try. You keep changing. In today’s time, what I’m wanting to do, maybe I won’t want to do two years later. It depends on what that time I want to do.”
For Khan, filming Puzzle was a great joy.
“The whole experience [was fulfilling]. Exploring the love story. Exploring this character who’s a recluse, but he’s a scientist, and how he gets warmed up to somebody. It’s interesting. I still have to see it, and see how it’s shaped up.”