Meeting the actor in flesh is a rare privilege these days: he hardly ever does interviews and is known for his aversion to the Indian press, sometimes. That's what we hear from those who've been waiting for their turn since more than two hours at the J.W. Marriott. They say there are no second takes, but maybe when you're born in India, you can bend the rules. Hell, maybe when you're Irrfan Khan, the rules don't even exist. So when we met Khan, there were bound to be plenty of journalists left scratching their heads, but Irrfan is staunchly against explanations; he'll go just far enough to tell you he is late but he is there, so get started!
9/11: Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota and New York
"I won't claim that I know more about the 9/11 incident just because I am the only actor who has been a part of two of its franchise. New York isn't about 9/11. It's about America's attitude before that black day and their attitude post 9/11. I play a Muslim FBI Officer who is a part of the American system which gets things more complicated."
Demeaning America and the Americans
"Kabir Khan can say that New York is not about demeaning America because he has to sell his film, he has to also bring in the audience which is American and may be he is in a process of pleasing them as well. But when you make a film on certain issues, you have to take a stand. If you don't take a stand, it's a failure."
"The film is based on how America propagated and accelerated the psyche of hate because when the centre of the society is money and the system is based on selling things, then there is no morality and concern, whether it's fear or threat. And in doing that, you create your threat and enemies. Americans still haven't understood that consumerism will eat up democracy and I hope Obama throws some light on it."
"If the story and your role does not give you any scope, you don't need to do research on it. I'm not saying that New York wasn't worth for a research. Kabir Khan had already got things into place. But a film like Pan Singh Tomar gives me a lot of scope for research as it is a true life story. New York is based on a true life incident. There is a lot of difference when it comes to both the films in terms of research."
"Making so many documentaries has given him a lot of experience. He is a person who wanted to make a film like New York for Yash Raj and that's pretty strange, if you see the track record of YRF. Kabir has handled so many subjects as a documentary filmmaker that he is now technically sound. To make a documentary is a challenge because you have to shoot in all sorts of conditions and thus the shoot of New York for Kabir was like making yet another documentary as a feature film."
"I play an FBI officer who is trying to deal with the problem post 9/11 and not try and solve it. He is also giving a sense of hope for future. He doesn't want to dwell into what America has done. He thinks that Americans should be sorry for what they've done but at the same time questions - 'What is the American future? Do you want to keep killing each other?' Another interesting thing about the role I play is that he can objectively see the system he is working for and the Muslim community from where he comes from. He can view both these aspects objectively and may be that gives him that little more edge in trying to deal with a much bigger problem."
"Yes, Slumdog Millionaire is a hit around the world. But if you say that New York will work because I was a part of the Oscar winning film and it will attract the West, I don't think so. Actors cannot make it a hit, and if they did, then Benjamin Button would've been a bigger hit than Slumdog Millionaire. Benjamin Button is seen because there is Brad Pitt in it. Milk is seen because it has Sean Penn. I wouldn't have seen it if it was for any other actor. Slumdog Millionaire was seen because it was directed by Danny Boyle who was already a big name in the West. The tough part for the actors is to be a part of people's psyche and once they become a part of it, the audience buys the ticket. South Indian films don't work in Mumbai but Hollywood does. Now you know why."
Irrfan Khan - the detainee
"I didn't face any problem being a Muslim actor for New York but I was detained when I went for my Independent Spirit Award for Namesake. It demoralises you. You are not told anything. They ask you to come into the room, you are not allowed to talk on the phone and they don't even tell you how much time the interrogation procedure would take. Back then, I told the officer not to waste my time and his, just because I am a Muslim actor. He even went on to say, 'Are you threatening me?' Mira Nair, the director of Namesake told me not to get into that but I was angry and reacted to it. It is a truth that the Western officers get paranoid by seeing a Muslim name."
Pan Singh Tomar
"My intention is not to look like Pan Singh Tomar because it's a real life story. That doesn't interest me. The idea was that he was a talented person and how the system misused that talent grips me more to do a film like Pan Singh Tomar. So when you know that this is the person who lived on this planet and he went through these circumstances, it really does something to you. When we did research on Pan Singh Tomar, we got hundreds of stories. We could've made a good commercial film out of it if we used all of them, but we cannot do that because then we are not doing justice to him as a person. I remember we were shooting in some house which the director chose as Pan Singh Tomar's house. But then we were told that Pan Singh did stay in the same house that we were shooting in. That struck us like lightning and you get even more inspired by this personality."
"Such stories have been dealt in the past but the way Jennifer Lynch has given the treatment to Hissss is worth watching. I never told my PR to let Jennifer know that I've worked in The Mighty Heart or Namesake. It's my work which is doing the talking more than my personal PR. I am here in this field to please my ego. Jennifer was touched by Namesake and I am thrilled and happy that she did. Hissss is mysterious, dangerous, and sensuous and the young American audiences looking for blood, gore and violence will love Hisss. Luckily, Jennifer did not allow Mallika to bite me. For Sherawat, it's her lifetime role because she has to look sexy, dangerous and still not speak anything in the film."
Irrfan has a mellow, soft-spoken presence and, true to past interrogations, not prone to self-examination about this whole acting lark. "I keep it simple. Just learn the lines and show up," is his modest assessment of his talent. His audience, well wishers and the media often refers him as a junkie. Why? We don't know. But he is one when it comes to his work. His performances pack in charm, determination, eccentricity and humour. His drooping eyes tell you that he isn't in deep slumber, but a submersive chameleon whose own subtle, taciturn personality allows him to vanish under the skin of the person he's playing.