Bafta Winning director Asif Kapadia hosted a Master Class with Irrfan Khan at the London Indian Film Festival 2013. The venue was held at the British Film Institute that sits right at the heart of the Southbank. Kapadia described the BFI as ‘the home of world cinema, of great cinema’. As the doors opened for the Master Class, the crowd rushed in, securing a seat for the prestigious opportunity to see both Kapadia and Irrfan Khan in conversation. What was unique about this event was that it was not only two colleagues who had worked together, but two friends who were in conversation. Kapadia and Irrfan had worked together on the award winning film, ‘The Warrior’ in 2001. Welcoming Irrfan onto stage, Kapadia described him as ‘an amazing actor, really, really one of the best actors working out there, he’s managed to cover different continents and work in different types of cinema, he’s also a mate and a very good guy’. As you can imagine, the theatre erupted in clapping as Irrfan Khan stepped onto the stage.
The conversation was hosted with some clips of Irrfan’s work, including: The Namesake, The Warrior and Life of Pi. For Life of Pi, the audience were shown a clip of one of the final scenes, where Pi is washed onto the banks of an island after being stranded on sea with a Tiger – Richard Parker. As he looks up, Richard Parker halts at the entrance of the jungle and then disappears without looking back at Pi. After this clip, Irrfan Khan was moved to tears. He wiped them away and took a seat to enlighten us all more on his life and career.
We are bringing you some of the moments from this very special conversation.
‘I’m here to change the definition of mainstream cinema. My whole desire is to extend the definition of mainstream’.
Irrfan on Jaipur
(I grew up in) Jaipur Rajasthan, India. It’s a state called Rajasthan, a city called Jaipur. It’s a historical city. It’s called pink city. It’s an interesting city. I still miss the evenings of Jaipur. There’s some special feel. So I grew up there.
Irrfan before films:
I did a few plays. I began my theatre journey with very filmi plays. I don’t know whether you understand filmi plays. It’s like trying to create film cinema on theatre- with songs and very filmi stories. I still remember one incident. I was supposed to come out on the stage- I have this shawl over me and I’m drinking. I was very young, like fourteen or thirteen and I’m playing a person who has white hair. I’m roaming around and at one point of time there’s a song going on. I’m supposed to enact that song. And after a point the director signalled me from the wings and I had to hit that glass on the transistor which is supposed to be playing the song. But a transistor that was a dummy. So he gave me the signal and I threw the glass at the transistor. The glass went through the transistor…and the song didn’t stop. So I still remember that incidence. From there I started- then I met someone who had passed out of National School of Drama. With him – Ravi Chatturvedi, with him I started doing interesting theatre.
Irrfan on Salaam Bombay (1988: Mira Nair)
Suddenly in my final year (of drama school), Mira (Nair) was there. She was looking for kids to cast in Salaam Bombay. And I was doing my diploma production. So she saw me and she offered me this part in Salaam Bombay. And I went with her and I did two months of work shop there. We stayed with slum kids. So I was literally living with them for two months and that was an excellent experience for me…They were fantastic kids and I had an excellent experience with them…One kid took me to a party and said, I’ll take you to a party. I said ‘okay, take me’. He said- no, we will go on Saturday… On Saturday what he did, he took me to the backyard of a hotel and he started looking out the window. So I said, ‘where’s the party?’ He said: wait- it will happen. So what used to happen on Saturdays was that there was a cake shop inside the hotel. And when the design is not good or something they used to throw the cake outside the garbage. So he used to wait for that. So as the cake used to come he used to take that and that’s the party you know.
Irrfan speaking on The Warrior (2001: Asif Kapadia)
I do believe that after this film (The Warrior) that my journey had really changed. My life really took a U-turn. And for me films sometimes play a bigger role than just playing a part you know- it changed my life. For example, I don’t know if it connects or not- the first time I went to Manigram I told Asif: I’ve never seen snow falling. And that day, the snow started falling and we were shooting. So something which, you know? I don’t know what to do with that. Why I am saying this is because I was dying to do a role which gives me a kind of experience. I was doing television twice a week or four days in a month. So there was a disjointed type of experience- suddenly came up with the story where I could live this story continuously for two months, three and a half months. So the story started growing on me- so that was the first experience on how the story works on you. How the story does everything to a relationship with you and the story. How it starts working on you…
Irrfan speaking on The Namesake (2006: Mira Nair)
Question asked by audience member: How hard or easy was it for you to act the role of a Bengali gentleman’s life story?
The accent was really difficult for me. That age was not a lot of fun. It reminded me of my old age and I just wanted to get away from there. And accent? I was terrified. I was petrified. I tried to convince Mira. I said you know, he’s a teacher and he’s been living there for thirty years. You think he’d have that same accent? So she was just trying to convince me, don’t fool me. You have to speak in Bengali- it’s very interesting. So she convinced me rather. She said: go and meet Jhumpa’s father. He’s a teacher. Go. So I went and I met him and he had an accent, a thick accent.
Irrfan speaking on Life of Pi (2012: Ang Lee)
It was a film that tested everybody and I think Ang-Lee, I can’t really comment on his behalf but whatever I observed, I think he is not afraid of suffering. I think he embraced suffering through cinema. When he goes on that journey, as an actor, you have no choice but to go as well. You also suffer. There are certain stories which need your blood and you feel a kind of achievement if you sail through. And particularly this scene, why I say testing I’ll tell you…To do this emotional scene was very, very difficult to repeat it again. After six months of shoot I suddenly got a call from Ang Lee and he said ‘we need to re shoot certain portions’. I said ‘re shoot’? ‘Which portions?’… I said, ‘So we are not going to touch that last scene’. He said, ‘No no- we aren’t going to touch that last scene’. I said, ‘but what scenes do we need to re shoot?’ He said, ‘All of it’. So I said, ‘Ang. This is like you know I’ve just made love and you’re saying come on go on again’. So he said: ‘just imagine it’s a new girl’!
Question asked by audience member: Would you want to live in L.A?
I thought about it but I don’t think I’d do that. Because then I’d have to do all kind of films, whatever comes in the way. If my survival becomes on Hollywood then I’ll have to do whatever comes my way. I want to keep it this way- it’s more of a love. I don’t want to marry…
So there you have it some highlights from a great conversation at LIFF!