It is always a pleasure to meet Irrfan. He's on the ball, articulate and is not the one to mince words. Our conversation with the man moves from relationships to existential crisis to rebirth. Excerpts:
Q. It's odd to see someone like you in a producer's role (he's the creative producer of his next, 'Madaari').
A. (Laughs) I am not a producer in the conventional sense. I am the creative producer. It is about a true incident and when this subject was brought to me, I couldn't shake it off; it just stayed with me. Ritesh (Shah) loved the idea and Nishikant (Kamat, director) was keen to do it. So, it happened. We are evolving as a film industry so we need to say all kinds of stories...
Q. Are we really evolving? Sometimes, it looks like we are going back in time.
A. Yes, a section of the industry still relies on the song and dance formula, but there is another section which is encouraging new kind of films. This section demands intelligent storytelling and we are falling short on supply. That's perhaps why more cinema chains are coming up. A year ago, we had 3,000 screens; now, we have 4,000. But we don't have the material to give to the young audience. That's why Hollywood cinema is being consumed more, eating into the market. Look at regional cinema, they are doing so well. Who could have imagined a film like Sairat to make Rs 100-plus crore?
I am not averse to the song and dance routine, if it is done brilliantly like Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan or K Asif did. It used to be our strength. But if we continue doing it unimaginatively, we will be misusing our strength. It is high time we change the perception of cinema even outside the country.
Q. Talking about outside the country, you were one of the few who managed to land 'respectable' roles in H'wood…
A. I did choose my parts. I was not insecure about money and that's what worked for me. I think this tendency has kept me safe from not being exploited. In this industry, I am an outsider and they generally don't know what to do with me. They don't know how to use me, that's my fault but it has served me well, because I am attempting to redefine things for myself and the audience. I am not willing to conform to regular norms. This is not just limited to my films, it is the way I live too. We are taught so many things like religion, how we portray a woman, etc. Society tries to colour your mind in every way. It is everyone's job to make your own decisions. Else, things can become a burden.
Q. Any conditioning that you are struggling to break out of?
A. I am still struggling all the time. I am fortunate to have found freedom from religious conditions. I found freedom from the set perception of love and romance. One thing that I am still struggling to get out of is financial insecurity. Sometimes, you get insecure because you are not sure if you will be taken care of. That's sad because we have created a system where everybody is forced to think that money is a big player in your life.
Q. If you are fighting against set norms, you have to also deal with a lot of guilt.
A. Exactly. Most of the time, you do things out of guilt and not because you are convinced about it or want to do it.
Q. Is this the reason why you are in the periphery of this industry?
A. I couldn't connect to regular filmmaking. As kids, we were not allowed to watch films, so it was a suppressed desire. When I could watch them, a certain kind of cinema started shaping my sensibilities. I needed to engage myself in a story that does something to me. So, while growing up, I was so eager to be part of films that I would have readily agreed to be a henchman to Shakti Kapoor. But life didn't give me that chance. I used to feel sad when I heard Subhash Ghai was discussing my serial, Safari, but I never got a call from him. I had a three-minute role in a children's film, and I had taken a picture of my scene and framed it. I was so naïve...
Q. Perhaps, that naivety and not taking yourself too seriously worked for you.
A. It makes you discover things for your own. I got the biggest break in a Mira Nair film. I worked really hard for two months, but by the time it was released, my role got eliminated from the film. My first break was my first heartbreak in the industry and I cried like a baby. But now when I look back, it gave me perspective and made me understand the uncertain nature of the industry I was going to be part of. Life, through experiences, nudges you to get out of the orbit, but if you are blind and insensitive, these challenges will keep coming to you. If you are aware, things change.
Q. Yes, but evolving also can be painful.
A. Oh yes, it is. But if you look at the bigger picture, it isn't.
Q. Someone as sensitive as you are as an actor and a person, how do you deal with the dichotomy of also having to be thick skinned to survive here?
A. You are the most vulnerable here. You bare your soul, you become naked and for someone like me, who was painfully shy, it was a challenge. I was so shy as a child that my teachers used to scold me for not even being able to say my name. I was not social; my brother was the fairer, smarter one and was appreciated more. I used to be with myself, with my dreams. I think it is this shyness that's made me an actor. People misunderstood me all the time and my desire to be better understood pushed me into a profession to show the world what I really am. I used to find myself so handicapped when I went to drama school because of my shyness. The biggest challenge is the realisation that we have to deal with this existence alone. Only once you can deal with yourself, you are ready to give. Till then, you only pretend to love and you are just playing a game of give and take. When people say I am there for you and they demand your closeness, they haven't really thought about it. Most are need-based relationships. And these are bound to crumble.
Q. But that realisation could also bring in a lot of disappointment.
A. That does bring in some kind of loneliness. You have to come to terms with these things. It is… just like death. I was a late bloomer. My life started only in my late 30s. Before that, I was in this cocoon with no point of view. Fortunately, now, I experience certain things and it pushes me in one direction.
Q. The recent 'Udta Punjab' censorship controversy showed us all that's wrong with the industry. How do you view it?
A. Our industry pays so much tax, the government should make us feel safe. The potential of storytelling should be reflecting and engaging. If you make it a PR machine, it's not going to work; it is going to create wrong notions of the country. News travels. When I was in Singapore, one of their main papers had the editorial page on this issue. It creates a bad perception of the cinema of our country. We should be careful. Our industry is scattered, they don't come together for these things; they should have, at least for once.