Bollywood Hero, American Everyman
“HOLLYWOOD isn’t ready for an Indian leading man,” Irrfan Khan declared one evening last month, dragging pensively on a hand-rolled cigarette in an overheated hotel room in Chelsea.
In India, Irrfan Khan, often portrays heroes and rebels, as in his latest Bollywood film, “Paan Singh Tomar.”
He was nursing a sore throat and fatigue after a marathon post-production session for Ang Lee’s film “Life of Pi.” And, if his eyes could be trusted, a pang of loneliness. Mr. Khan had welcomed in the new year on a flight from Mumbai; a few days later he would celebrate his birthday en route to Los Angeles. His acclaimed performance in the HBO series “In Treatment” last season was being followed by supporting roles in two major American movies, “Pi” and Marc Webb’s big-budget rebooting of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” both of which were demanding frequent jaunts from his home in India to studios in Taiwan, Canada and the United States.
“It will take time before Hollywood is free to write a story about an Indian guy, unless it’s about the dark side of India, like ‘Slumdog,’ ” Mr. Khan said, referring to Danny Boyle’s 2008 Oscar-sweeping movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” in which he played a detective who interrogates a young pauper he suspects of cheating on a game show.
“They don’t want to see a normal India,” he added, his voice barely above a whisper. “That’s not the shock value they have to have.”
The Great Khan, as his legions of fans call him, says he no longer seeks fame or fortune. (He already has both.) His current wish list might seem quixotic coming from a man less accomplished: A choice of roles, maybe even as an action hero. A career that transcends race, religion and country. A life with fewer of the material trappings he has come to expect and more room for self-examination.
“Actually,” he replied, when asked what he is searching for, “I am after God.”
In “Paan Singh Tomar,” his latest Hindi-language film, opening on Friday in the United States and in India, Mr. Khan portrays yet another of the epic rebels who have established him as a huge star in South Asia. Directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, a friend from his student days at the National School of Drama, the movie is based on the life of Paan Singh Tomar, a long-forgotten midcentury champion steeplechase runner who is stung by the government’s betrayal of his impoverished village and becomes a dacoit, or bandit.
“For his self-respect he picks up a gun,” Mr. Khan said of the role, for which he trained for three grueling months, learning to soar over obstacles. “The irony is that this is a person who is running for the country, and later it’s the country who is running after him.”
The eldest son in an aristocratic Muslim family from Jaipur, a city of pink palaces in the arid north, Mr. Khan was a middling student whose conservative parents frowned on his passion for cinema, insisting he pursue a professional degree.
He did for a time but eventually followed his heart to drama school, hoping “to make a difference in my life,” he said. “I was trying to connect to something that could make me feel more complete.”
Cast just after graduation in 1987 in Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay!,” he wept when his part was cut. Several television series later, on the verge of quitting, Mr. Khan was chosen as the lead in “The Warrior,” Asif Kapadia’s sweeping 2001 adventure about the enforcer of a feudal lord who is hunted through the desert of Rajasthan and the snowy Himalayas after repudiating his post. Two years later “Maqbool,” Vishal Bhardwaj’s gangland updating of “Macbeth,” transformed Mr. Khan into a heartthrob in the moment he traced the actress Tabu’s parted lips through a gauzy veil.
Did he long to be famous? “Yes,” he answered without hesitation. “It’s a complicated thing.” He considered for a moment. “Maybe to become famous is to reassure yourself that whatever you’re lacking inside, you’ve fulfilled that.
“Now I look to fame as a cage,” said Mr. Khan, who lives on Aksa Beach in Mumbai with his wife, the writer Sutapa Sikdar, and their two sons. “A crutch you hold on to.”
While he usually cuts a dashing figure in Indian films, Hollywood directors, impressed by his gift for nuance, have mostly cast Mr. Khan in Everyman roles. He first became familiar to audiences in the United States for “The Namesake,” Ms. Nair’s 2007 adaptation of the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri about a Bengali couple (Mr. Khan and Tabu) that moves from Kolkata to New York City.
It was Dan Futterman, an executive producer of “In Treatment,” who brought Mr. Khan to American television in the critically acclaimed role of Sunil, a grieving Bengali widower displaced in Brooklyn with his son and American daughter-in-law, for which the actor, now 45, was cosmetically aged more than a decade.
Both men had appeared in Michael Winterbottom’s 2007 film, “A Mighty Heart,” with Mr. Khan playing the head of a Pakistani anti-terrorism unit and Mr. Futterman the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and killed by terrorists.
“He has that ineffable thing that certain great actors have of doing very little but drawing the audience in,” Mr. Futterman said. “They make choices that both surprise you and are entirely relatable.”
Gabriel Byrne, the star of “In Treatment,” who plays Sunil’s therapist, Dr. Paul Weston, watched Mr. Khan nail 30-minute scenes in just a couple of takes.
“Irrfan is a brilliantly unpredictable actor, one of the best I’ve ever worked with,” Mr. Byrne wrote in an e-mail. “He makes major character revelations with the smallest of gestures.”
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Irrfan Khan as a patient in HBO’s “In Treatment.”
Even the act of rolling a cigarette, a tic Mr. Khan created for Sunil that became a vice in real life, captivated viewers.
“He makes such a meal out of that,” said the director Marc Webb, who cast him in “The Amazing Spider-Man” as Dr. Ratha, a high-level executive at Oscorp with what he called “villainistic overtones.” The film, which stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, is scheduled to come out in July.
“The first time I saw him was ‘The Namesake,’ and I remember being utterly transfixed,” Mr. Webb said. “There’s a scene when he sings to his wife after she has locked herself in the bathroom. I hadn’t seen anything like it.”
Mr. Lee, the director, said it was “an obvious no-brainer” to turn to Mr. Khan for “Life of Pi,” based on Yann Martel’s fantasy novel about a shipwrecked Indian boy adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. “I found that the book had a very mature voice, not like a teenager’s,” Mr. Lee said of his decision to have Mr. Khan play the adult Pi, who narrates the film, to be released in December. “So I figured I needed a pretty brilliant actor. I was like, ‘Who else?’ ”
“It’s not the kind of acting you can plan for,” he added, discussing Mr. Khan’s technique. “I gave my direction and thought, ‘O.K., there he goes.’ It’s like there’s something floating in the air, and sometimes he catches it and sometimes not.”
Could Mr. Khan become the first Indian to capture the lead in a mainstream American movie?
“Probably not as a romantic lead, because he’s not white,” Mr. Lee said. “I think Asia is still a minority, still too small a group to be commercially valuable. But maybe he can break through for us. He’s definitely rare and very special.”
(Mr. Webb disagreed. “Women find him intensely delectable, if that’s the criteria,” he said, citing swoons on the “Spider-Man” set.)
“People want to see great actors, they want to see an interesting face, and he’s both,” Mr. Lee added. “But usually it’s the actor bending toward the audience. With Irrfan, the audience might have to bend toward him a little bit.”