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Wanting fame is a disease… If you only want it for the sake of being famous, says Irrfan. And yet, all he wanted was to be famous. Now, he prefers being ‘acknowledged’ & ‘connected’
How do you define a star?
Those who fascinate us, inspire us – jinko dekh ke hamein lagta hai, kaash main bhi aisa hota, kaash meri zindagi aisi hoti… those are stars. Bhagwaan ka chhota roop hai jo, for the common man, woh hai star.
This extravagant lifestyle definition of a star – which, incidentally, isn’t quite yours – is this something current, or is it part of the Bollywood DNA? Wasn’t the earlier era a less theatrical one?
No, not really. They were living quite flamboyantly. Not Sunil Dutt maybe, but Shammi Kapoor, Dev sahab, Rajesh Khanna - they were very flamboyant. And Raj Kumar! Kisse toh aate thay paper mein, even then. Danny went to meet Rajesh Khanna and when Rajesh Khanna took his car and left after the meeting to go for a shooting, the driver found it difficult to navigate the car since the windscreen was all red from the girls who’d kissed it endlessly!
On an emotional plane, even if you didn’t have the mass media following their every step, they were quite up there, you know. In fact in a sense they were higher on that plane than today’s stars. Aaj toh aap phir bhi star ko insaan samajhte hain, woh toh bahut door ke log thay, they were a mystery. Today, SRK and others have broken the mould and become more visible, more accessible – at that point, it was ki aap jitne door rahoge, utne bade star kehlaay jaoge.
You wanted to be an actor, or a star?
Star. Star banna hi chahta hai aadmi. Usi ko dekh kar toh inspire hua hai, ki yeh kya plane hai, I also want to be there. You want to be followed. You want people to follow you, to be inspired. How you want them to inspire you can be different – at one stage, you may want to inspire them to idealism, at another, just say, boss, paisa kamao! But the core idea remains of being followed, of inspiring others.
How many people do you manage to inspire, connect to? After all, the larger proportion of cinema you do is described as niche…
Some of it is, some is not
Statistically, you’ll agree, if we draw up an Excel sheet, the proportion of that ‘some’ described as niche is higher?
Haan, woh kuch aisa ho gaya hai. Maine woh aisa plan nahi kiya thaa, kudrat ne mujh se aisa karwaya hai. If I had some other choices, some other opportunities, it may have been different. Jo mila mujhe, maine usme behtar se behtar kaam karne ki koshish ki; baaki, you know, uparwaale pe hai, kahan le jaaye. Wherever this path leads to…
This typecasting is not of your choice, then?
This mainstream vs niche thing, you can see it as a conflict, but I am trying to bridge it. I am also trying to do entertaining stories. I want to entertain people, but with some substance.
In 2004, you were interviewed by TIME, after Maqbool. The questioner said, ‘I can’t picture you in song-and-dance routines’. Your reply was, ‘When I first started in films, I did that fluffy stuff, but I never really enjoyed it’. So this is a choice in many ways, I’d say…
I agree, it never came to me naturally…
Then you consciously have looked to keep away from the naach-gaana and do serious stuff?
Arre, why, naach-gaana na karo toh aap ki koi limitation hai kya? Kahani sunana hai mujhe. Kahani entertain karti hai logon ko, usme naach-gaana aakhir itni badi shart kyun ho? That is what I am trying to bridge. And I’m doing something right, I think.
We are the largest filmmaking nation but our movies and even our superstars don’t come within sniffing distance of critical appreciation such as the Oscars most of the time. Does our song-and-dance cinema not have the potential to cross international boundaries, like so few of our actors have?
Hamare kai actors hain jin ko agar us type ke directors milein… The director creates the story, he fits you there. There are so many actors who can do wonders if put into the right hands. Correct casting is critical.
But it’s not their – the director’s – need. It’s my need. If I’m doing a film in two months, and it is giving me a lot of money – and then there’s a film where I am getting one-fourth of the money, and it takes 5 months of my time, but it’s a role like “The Namesake”, I’ll take that. That’s a choice I have to make.
But why that work came to me in the first place – whether “The Namesake” or others – I cannot decipher that. I am incapable and too limited to be able to really understand that.
Is the pace fast enough? Your friends have said that you may do at 50 what others do at 40, and that sort of thing.
I have made peace with it, because I have no control over it. I want to have peace. I want to enjoy. Life is too short, the period for which we are here.
Danny Boyle said you have “an instinctive way of finding the moral centre of any character”. Kya kehna chah rahe thay?
Woh bhai sahab mujhko villain banana chah rahe thay apni picture mein. Aur maine usme kuch dhoond liya ki why that character is doing that. There was a moral justification for the character’s actions, which was not there in the script, he was just a haraami… And Danny could see what I was doing. I think that’s why he said that. They are very sharp people. And Danny is perhaps the sharpest person I have met. Very healthy, psychologically, very powerful.
How’s it to get something like a Padma Shri?
It’s not a thing, please, it’s an honour. Hamein toh is se pehle aisa kuch mila nahi. It is something I cherish and I really felt good about it. My mother-in-law cried when she heard the news; I don’t think she’ll cry if I win an Oscar. Middle class values hain; desh aapko honour kar raha hai, achcha lagta hai. You are used to being talked about only in terms of box office returns and lead role vs character artiste and all that, and in the middle of it all, when this comes, unexpectedly, you feel that your work is being acknowledged, that what you are doing is reaching somewhere.
This acknowledgment of work – what’s the turning point of your life when this became your chosen track?
My deciding to go to NSD, and then my father’s passing away, it all suddenly being thrust on to me – the social expectation, your father is dead, you are 21, you should stay and take care of the family… That was a very complex point of time.
My father’s business was almost zero, I had to choose whether I stayed back and revived it and took care of the family, or I continued with my NSD track. There was a lot of pressure…
And you told your mother that you were studying to become a professor?
I said to her ki main acting seekhne isliye jaa raha hoon ki main lecturer banoonga Rajasthan University mein us ke baad. That’s the language she understood at that time. Otherwise she may not have agreed.
Does your family see your movies?
Bolna padta hai… (laughs) Acchha hi hai. Picturon ka bohot mahaul raha nahi hamare ghar mein.
You say your Western projects get you one-fourth the money you could make in masala cinema here. You’re not very young. Doesn’t it tempt you to change your choices, to use time while it’s there to park that Ferrari in your garage?
Ferrari se bhi toh ek jagah se doosri jagah hi jaoge aap. That’s just an additional thing in your life. What’s really important? Aapne koi kahani sunai, woh paanch saal baad bhi kisi ke zehen me reh gayi, aur woh aaj bhi us ko soch raha hai, uska kya arth nikal raha hai mujhe nahi pata – lekin uske dil me woh aaj bhi zinda hai, aur us se aap zinda ho!
Shayar ki soch hai yeh!
(Laughs) At first you look for recognition. Once you achieve it, there’s the wish to have more than to just be recognized – to share. That’s the basic need then, to share with others. If I am in a desert, and I am dying of thirst, and if I am told, you can’t have water, is there anything else you’d like to do? I would say, achcha, phir main sab ko yeh bata sakoon ki main kin halaat mein mara! This becomes a basic need, to communicate, to tell, to share.
You’re quite philosophical; how religious are you?
I am very religious, but not in a conventional sense. I think about God and about creation all the time. I have a cynical approach, I have a loving approach, I have no one way to follow – I have to find my own way to connect to Him. You don’t have to follow some set rules. I think it’s the biggest mystery for every human being to understand how come he’s here, how will he go; it’s a phenomena we all keep trying to understand.
Any pir, fakir ever told you about this track of life?
Yes, he did. When we wanted to be actors, hum kundli dikhane jaate thay. There was this man in Jaipur who was always high on bhaang, he ate coals, they said. He would sometimes be in that ‘state’ when he would say things about people. I remember asking him about acting, about being known as an actor. And I still remember, he told me, “2000 ke baad… tab tak bas chalte raho!”
When was this?
In 1983, he told you to wait till 2000 – about 17 years – for acclaim. And you had “Warrior” in 2001, “Maqbool” in 2003, “Haasil” in 2003. Not too far off the mark, you’d say.
Yes, it was a long wait… Lekin ab main kisi se kuch poochta nahi.
And why is that?
Jab jaisa aaye, jhel pao, wohi mazaa hai. God should give you the strength to handle the things that come your way. Of course, these things are easier to say, and tough times are not easy to handle, no matter for whom.
Any role in any movie that you saw and said, I wish I’d done this?
Err, which one? SRK’s role?
(Laughs) No, the original “Devdas”. And perhaps De Niro’s role in “The King Of Comedy”. “Raging Bull“. I am otherwise very detached about roles, even my own. At this stage of my life, I don’t desire for any roles. But I thought Pan Singh’s role was a very rare one… I have never connected with my heart to any role – with the exception of Pan Singh’s (in “Paan Singh Tomar”, his latest film).
Doesn’t an excessive involvement with the character drain you out as an actor, being overly involved, rather than clinical, doing the movie and being done with it?
I am also very clinical. If someone comes and begins to talk about the initial and the collections and box office figures of the movie, if they start talking in a materialistic way – I’ll cut. I’ll immediately be very clinical. It matters, but what I felt while portraying the character – I won’t mix it with all that. Usko maila nahi karoonga.
Bhansali made a point recently that our taste is diminishing, collectively, in the art we consume, which is why audiences don’t appreciate a lot of fine work. Your take?
So, in a way, he’s calling his work classy…? Ho sakta hai. But the world moves along a track, and everything also has contrasts. If the USA is highly materialistic, spiritualism will also be more intense because it is a major need. In India, where it is taken for granted that we will all be spiritual, it is dead.
Yes, there is a lot of trash being thrown at you, there is vulgarization, trying to get attention at whatever cost. People have to make money. That’s what the media is also doing – but somewhere in those pages also you find a small article which makes you stop and read and think. That’s also a reality.
Some months back, in an interview to DT, you spoke of fame being a disease, that to long for fame is a complex, and that to seek fame means something is lacking in your personality. And you concluded it with, “I was mesmerised by fame. Once or twice in my childhood, I went to see a shooting, and I got disturbed, because you are like nobody there. I never wanted to be a nobody” …
That’s true. I still remember it. “Ganga Ki Saugandh” ki shooting ho rahi thi, Naila mein shooting thi. Amitabh Bachcan aaye hue thay. Aur ek film thi, “Jalmahal”, jiski shooting Amer mein hui thi. Jitendra aur Rekha aaye thay wahan…
I was 10 or 12 years old at max. Mujhe aaj bhi yaad hai Rekha ki ek jhalak – white sari pehni hui thi, aur unka woh hansta hua chehra. Aur jab Naila mein shooting hui, mujhe abhi tak yaad hai, long shot mein Amitabh Bachchan…
If you were 12, then this is at least a 38-year-old episode, right? (“Jal Mahal” released in 1980)
Haan, something like that… Us bheed me mujhe jo ehsaas hua tha – log khush hote hain shooting dekh kar, mai bilkul depressed ho gaya tha. Keede jaisa ehsaas hua tha mujhe us din. Mujhe kuch aur nahi feel hua – I did not feel like getting an autograph, getting a photo, aisa kuch nahi. Bas ek keede jaisa ehsaas hua. Inconsequential.
Fame is more of a cage. Maybe I’m cynical about it. I prefer to use the word acknowledgment. To want to be famous for the sake of it, for being popular, being known – that’s a disease.
I like being acknowledged. I like being connected. But to see myself seeking fame for the sake of it at the end of my life, doesn’t give me a nice feeling. I don’t want to see myself like that.
I want to be in a situation where I have no fame, and I am perfectly fine with myself. What will I do about the sharing then, I don’t know. I am still to fully decipher acknowledgement. I have seen people breaking glasses and windows for me…
It’s odd, or does it give you a kick?
At that time, it feels good. I was also a little shocked – oh, am I that popular? But now I can see why somebody wanted a photograph, why somebody ran a kilometer and a half with my car just so he could shake hands with me. Is it my celebrity status, or is it something I have done to him? You can make out. You can see in the smile, in the way somebody comes to you. That is something I like – connection.