On a dirt track under the midday sun, Irrfan Khan waits at the starting line. The 42-year-old actor is playing a poor army recruit from a village in central India who runs just to get the extra ration of food allotted to athletes. At his first race, his character doesn't know what to do when the pistol sounds, so he prays. "You idiot! Run!" the starter screams. That spurs the soldier into action, and the naive confusion on his face turns into determination. Extras from the Bengal Sappers actual young army recruits who live on the base in Roorkee in northern Uttarakhand state, where the movie is being filmed crowd around the sidelines as he lowers his head and takes off.
This kind of character the village boy who succeeds against all odds is a staple of Bollywood, India's film industry, the largest in the world. But Khan turns it into something more. In his hands, the true story of Paan Singh Tomar, a track-and-field champion turned mountain bandit, becomes a parable about the frustrated poor. Khan says the film, written and directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, an old friend from drama school, appealed to him because it follows the hero once he has been forgotten. "It talks about our system," he says. "It's a sign for any nation, any society how much they are prepared to care for a talent."
That's a question that applied to Khan too, but no longer. He has blurred the once sharp line dividing India's truly gifted actors from its movie stars. He is the one who can do it all: big-budget Bollywood films as well as small independent films in the U.S., Europe and India. Khan's specialty is adding a layer of unexpected depth and tenderness to an otherwise opaque character the interrogator in Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, a Pakistani police captain in A Mighty Heart, the remote immigrant father in The Namesake. Danny Boyle, the British director of Slumdog Millionaire, believes that as other Western studios try to replicate the film's success with movies set in India, Khan will be even more in demand quintessentially Indian, and yet something else besides. "He is a touchstone connecting two worlds," Boyle says. More than Shah Rukh or Aamir or Salman, it's Irrfan who is the Great Khan India's finest actor, perhaps even Asia's.
Bridging East and West
The cliché about actors with great screen presence is that they always seem so much smaller in real life. Khan is the opposite. When he's in a scene on film, it's almost impossible not to watch him but in person the effect is magnified, not diminished. He is taller and better looking than you expect from his common-man roles, and he has a way of subtly yet firmly controlling the environment around him. He doesn't need a big, pushy entourage to do it. When I meet him on the roof of a bland, concrete hotel in Roorkee, he has already charmed and cajoled the manager into opening up the roof terrace, lighting it with movie equipment and fetching a badminton set so he and his crew can amuse themselves in the evenings.
Khan talks easily about movies he loves them with the ardor of a lifelong fan and almost as freely about his struggle to become an actor. He grew up in Jaipur, a city of crumbling palaces in the north Indian desert, as the eldest son of a conservative, aristocratic Muslim family. The popular movies he watched in the 1960s, such as Mughal-E-Azam and Guide, were pure escape gorgeous fantasies of epic love and tragedy. By the time he was a teenager in the 1970s, the socially conscious new wave of the 1960s so-called parallel cinema began to enter the mainstream, bringing Indians' everyday experiences to the big screen. Khan was transfixed. He had been an indifferent student at college in Jaipur, but now pursued a spot in the National School of Drama in New Delhi with single-minded devotion. "My father died the same year, and I was the eldest," he recalls. "Morally and socially, it was difficult to leave." Withstanding family pressure, Khan reasoned with himself that he would end up demoralized, bitter and unable to support them if he stayed. "So I left."
Drama school was a new world, but not what he expected. "I thought somebody, somehow, would give me the secret to acting," he recalls. Indian theater then had nothing like the studios of method-acting guru Lee Strasberg or Stanislavski disciple Stella Adler to give actors tools and techniques. It had its roots in drawing-room melodramas and classical literature, including an ancient text, the Natyashastra, devoted to the theory of drama. "It even tells you where in the audience a critic should sit," Khan says. "But you cannot learn acting from that." So he immersed himself in the films of Scorsese, Costa-Gavras and Bergman, and watched Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando over and over, trying to work out for himself how they do what they do.
In his final year, a young director casting her first feature a cinema verité take on slum life in Bombay came to the school scouting for talent. "One of the things I'm slightly proud of is kind of discovering Irrfan," says Mira Nair, who cast Khan as a letter writer in Salaam Bombay! His role was edited down to a fleeting appearance, but Nair says that even then, Khan was different. "I was very, very struck by his being in the part rather than acting," she recalls. "He wasn't striving. His striving was invisible. He was in it."
Eighteen years later, Nair cast him in The Namesake, and he rendered a quietly commanding performance. Khan plays Ashoke Ganguli, an Indian immigrant to the U.S. struggling to connect with his Westernized son. Khan had never been to the U.S. before then, so to play Ashoke he called on an earlier trip to Canada, where he had noticed the many middle-aged immigrants working in shops. "Something stayed in my mind," he says. "A strange sadness set in them. A rhythm that middle-aged people have." Nair says he was true to the quietness of the character, but used a light touch. In one scene, he gives his son's blonde, American girlfriend an appreciative once-over when he meets her. Nair says it wasn't in the script, but Khan understood what a little humor can do for a serious role. It was only a brief moment, but it cracked Ashoke's dignified veneer just slightly, letting the audience feel his vulnerability.
Khan's ability to generate such empathy led to critical praise and also won the attention of Fox Searchlight Pictures, which co-distributed Slumdog Millionaire. Director Boyle says that Khan's part was crucial. Khan plays the inspector who interrogates Jamal, a young man from the slums of Mumbai, suspecting him of cheating to win a televised quiz show. Everything else in the movie is a flashback, so the suspense hinges on whether the interrogator will release Jamal or keep him in custody. Khan's way of inhabiting the character is consummate and ineffable as economical and meticulous as the way he rolls his own cigarettes or asks for a precisely brewed cup of tea. "You can't put your finger on what exactly," Boyle says. But he has an instinctive way of finding the "moral center" of any character, so that in Slumdog, we believe the policeman might actually conclude that Jamal is innocent. Boyle compares him to an athlete who can execute the same move perfectly over and over. "It's beautiful to watch."