You might think that actor Irrfan Kahn — the co-star of the special effects-filled film Life of Pi — performed his scenes by himself, or with inanimate objects that would later be transformed via CGI. Not so: As the older Pi in Ang Lee’s new adaptation of the best-selling novel, Kahn went back to the basics.
He tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that he thinks of scenes as being like duets: “You strike a note and somebody responds and then you respond accordingly,” Khan says.
In America, Khan is most popularly known for his role as the police inspector in the Oscar-winning drama Slumdog Millionaire. He’s also appeared in the HBO series In Treatment, in Paul Greengrass’ A Mighty Heart and in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.
Khan would eventually study acting at India’s National School of Drama, but when he was little his family didn’t allow him watch films. They came from a feudal background, he tells Fresh Air, and “they had this attitude of looking down upon films,[that films] are not a good influence.”
At school, though, he was finally able to watch films at a cultural center that was patronized by the government, and it was there that he discovered Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, and Costa-Gavras.
“That suddenly opened my doors and windows,” he says, “and that’s where my real training started.”
Khan knew from an early age that he wanted to be an actor, but he wasn’t entirely sure how to make it happen. At 14, a cousin told him that if he wanted to act in television, he should climb up to a transmission tower located at the top of a nearby mountain — that that there would be an office there where Khan could get a job.
And that’s exactly what he and his cousin did —though when they got to the top of the mountain and found nothing, they quickly forgot about getting work in television and roamed the terrain.
“We had a great time on the mountain,” he remembers.
On his subdued character in ‘The Namesake’
“At that point of [my] career, I was doing films which had a lot more to do with my presence on the screen. And when this opportunity came to me, I never know that it was going to challenge me in that way — that I need to work on my presence, that it should become unobtrusive, [that] it shouldn’t just jump out from the screen. I have to work on being unnoticeable. That was something new for me … and that made a hell of a lot of difference in my career. Sometimes as actor, you get challenges which you think, ‘How am I going to do that?’ And that’s where the fun begins — when you can really fulfill the demand of the part.”
On working in Indian film musicals
“I did those films, but I was never ever comfortable with things like just breaking into a dance without any rhyme or reason. … I think it’s a kind of challenge for an actor to believe in these situations which are completely fantastic. … These elements are not really used in an innovative way; they are more used as a kind of formula, and that takes away the strength of these elements. But I think it’s a great way of entertaining people and trying to create a world to make-believe in. I like that, but I couldn’t do that.”
On learning acting in India
We don’t have a culture of realistic acting in India. Our films still are influenced by Parsi theater. Parsi theater was known for melodrama. So even in today’s time, it still carries that melodramatic aspect; it’s still there in our cinema. … It’s all about emotions, and you just have to project your emotions; you don’t have to behave in a realistic way, you don’t have to be believable, you just have to mesmerize the audience with histrionics. … We don’t have any ‘school’ like you have here. You have teachers like Stanislavsky who developed their own techniques and their own way of teaching people how to go about doing a role or performing a role realistically. We have no techniques, so it’s like trial and error, you find your own method. You try things, you learn things by doing it.”
On the international popularity of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’
“It didn’t have any direct effect as far as Indian viewership or Indian exposure is concerned. It didn’t do the slightest thing in my life, but definitely here in America, people have seen it, and it was a real opportunity for me to be in the [Oscar] ceremony. … It gave me a visibility in America, but there were films which I did which were close to me, [like] The Namesake— you know I’m still very fond of that film — which really made a difference in my life as far as the American market is concerned.”