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Khan is not the first indian actor to win acclaim in the West. Before Khan, there was Naseeruddin Shah, a star of Indian parallel cinema's realism; Om Puri, co-star of City of Joy with Patrick Swayze; and Roshan Seth, who played Jawaharlal Nehru, the foil to Ben Kingsley's Oscar-winning portrayal of the Mahatma in Gandhi. All had healthy careers as character actors, but their potential as dramatic leading men was never really fulfilled, in Hollywood or Bollywood. "I feel very sad about it," Khan says. But he seems to have escaped that fate. "Everybody here calls me about him," Nair says from New York. Khan had a small part in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and appears as Natalie Portman's love interest in New York, I Love You in a segment directed by Nair. And he may star opposite Cate Blanchett in a planned film about the relationship between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of India's last viceroy. Khan says coyly that he is "very eager" to be on the set but the project is on hold indefinitely until the producers can get past the unease that India's Central Board of Film Certification has with the idea of the great statesman romancing a memsahib.
Khan's burgeoning international reputation is perhaps more remarkable because he has established it without leaving Bollywood. During the late 1980s and 1990s, when Indian film went through a particularly low moment, many of Khan's friends left the industry in disgust. "I was absolutely disillusioned," recalls one of them, Vipin Sharma, who emigrated to Toronto to work in documentaries. Bollywood had become dominated by "masala movies" spicy escapades guaranteed to titillate rural masses with increasingly outlandish plots, tawdry lovemaking scenes and bombshell heroines. Distributors would literally call the shots, sitting in on previews with directors and saying, "Let's add a song sequence here, let's have a rape scene here," explains Shubhra Gupta, a film critic in New Delhi. But Khan chose his Bollywood work carefully, waiting for the occasional good story or compelling role. "Irrfan stayed and fought and created his own path," Sharma says.
Television serials were the best refuge for serious actors at the time, and Khan appeared in a good number, including Banegi Apni Baat a drama that served as an incubator for several big names and Kahkashan, in which he played the Marxist Urdu poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin. He also married his girlfriend from drama school, a scriptwriter. They had two children, now 6 and 11, and he focused on his craft. Not that such craft was especially valued in a business where there was no freedom for actors to interpret the roles, and where directors dictated every phrase and gesture. "That used to suffocate me," Khan says. "I used to watch myself and feel embarrassed." A funny thing happened, though, in those years that Khan toiled in television. The film industry caught up with him, and in the nick of time. Khan was ready to leave the profession when he was offered a part in The Warrior, a 2001 period piece filmed in India by a British-Indian director. It was the first time a director asked him to "do nothing," and he finally felt free. "That changed my life," he says. "I couldn't work in television after that."
He didn't have to. Other roles soon followed as the economics of the Indian film industry radically changed. Studios in Bollywood, as in Hollywood, discovered alternatives to the high-risk, high-reward blockbuster. India's new malls featured smaller, luxurious multiplexes to appeal to the urban middle classes, a far cry from the bare-bones cinema halls and marquees of small towns and villages. "You went from 1,000 seats to 100 seats, where it was easier to show films that did not require 1,000 people to break even," says Gupta. Studios could make healthy profits with smaller budgets, giving directors the freedom to do more inventive stories, without huge stars or musical numbers. Khan starred in one of the early "multiplex movies" Maqbool, a 2003 retelling of Macbeth and the genre has thrived.
Actors, too, have found a new model. There was a time when any young hero longed to be Shah Rukh Khan, the shimmying, flexing, weeping pretty boy who is still the industry's most bankable star, or Aamir Khan, the slick lead of the recent megahit 3 Idiots. Instead, Irrfan Khan has become the inspiration for all those talented actors who don't dance and aren't leading-man handsome. "It's very deep," Nair says of his impact. After watching Khan's performance in Maqbool, Sharma moved back to Mumbai and restarted his career as an actor. He recalls thinking, "This was something different in Indian cinema."
Khan's influence is also apparent in younger actors like Abhay Deol. From a family of Bollywood heartthrobs, Deol could have easily followed that path. Instead, he starred in one of last year's biggest multiplex hits, Dev.D, playing a brooding, drug-addled rich kid in a film with no singing, no dancing and a not-so-happy ending. And in last year's hit Billu, the shifting balance of artistic power wrought by Khan is on full display. Khan plays the eponymous barber whose world is upended when his childhood friend, a Bollywood superstar, comes to town. That star is played by none other than Shah Rukh Khan, who, in essence, is gently caricaturing his own persona. Irrfan is all praise for his co-star, who he says was "very sincere" in his acceptance and handling of the supporting role. "He wanted the film to be Billu's story."
On the set in Roorkee, everything Khan has worked for seems to come together around him. Sharma, the disillusioned actor, plays a sympathetic army officer. Dhulia, a director who once struggled to get his films made, has the backing of UTV, a thriving studio that specializes in multiplex movies. The young soldiers, some with wives and children in tow, follow Khan around the set, taking his picture with their mobile phones. After a few takes at the starting line, Khan has to run against several of the Sappers, who are extras in the film. His pale gangly legs don't quite match their tanned, toned ones, even after weeks of training. But as Khan runs, arms and legs pumping, his body seems to rejuvenate with the effort. He can't manage more than one take, but it's enough, and the camera captures the moment the lean lines of a born runner, angling into the bend.
with reporting by Madhur Singh / New Delhi