After playing a white-kaftan clad ghost in Haider, Irrfan Khan returns to the big screen in the internationally-acclaimed Punjabi tale of a lonely ghost, titled Qissa. In an exclusive chat the National Award winning actor reveals the process he underwent to become Umber Singh, a father who brings up his youngest daughter as a son.

Irrfan Khan in Qissa

Irrfan Khan in Qissa

What drew you towards Qissa’s Umber Singh?

Anup Singh, the person. We have worked together in television; shot a pilot but it didn’t get shown. So we knew each other and I was familiar with his work, the way he thinks and feels about films and story-telling. That was the main thing for me to get involved in the project.

Umber Singh’s character doesn’t invite you enough to come and explore him. For a long time I was hesitant to go into that space. Anup and I would discuss about it. One day, he gave me an example that once Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang a particular raga which is about pathos; he turns the pathos into music. It’s not that he is suffering. One is accumulating all the sufferings and turning it into music. I could understand the concept but I didn’t know how I could manifest it in acting.

But you have done challenging and intense roles in the past so…

Sometimes you don’t want to be in that space.

What was Anup Singh’s brief about the role?

The only brief was a painting, he sent me, of a storm.

What kind of physical and mental preparation did you undergo to get into the skin of the character in Qissa?

I think it was there in the script, the way Anup was shooting it. Since the film is in Punjabi, learning the language seemed daunting. I remember the first time I sat with the guy who was guiding me with the language, I thought to myself that I have invited trouble as the language seemed very difficult to me. But once I started doing the film I fell in love with Punjabi and started speaking in Punjabi even off camera. I got the rhythm of the language. It took me two months to learn it.

Being a father yourself how challenging was it to play a tyrant who is obsessed with a male child.

It’s not a question of being a tyrant. It’s the concern of every human being who thinks once you come to this planet you must continue. So you keep on finding different ideas to have a continuity: it could be through religious concepts or heaven and hell ideology or re-birth. You keep on inventing concepts to find continuity, and that’s what Umber Singh is doing, to find his continuity.

Don’t you feel the need to have a legacy that will be carried forward?

I haven’t experienced that… Yes we do have that concern, but the good thing is that I am comfortable even if I don’t find that continuity. We are trying to console ourselves by talking about rebirth and religion; scientifically one understands energies and when one dies it changes, but what about the way one feels or senses or reflects right now. We won’t be able to feel the same way we do right now. So the continuity doesn’t give you any consolation.

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As an actor do you follow any methodology to prepare for any role?

I go by basic instinct. And I don’t have a formula. Every story dictates the preparation it needs and drives you to do things that are required for the role. It could be an experimental film or a studio film or an independent film. The approach doesn’t change. It’s the nature and feel of the story. That’s how it is for me. For this film the language Punjabi was my driving force.

Would you say that learning the language was the biggest challenge of Qissa?

Yes, but I am happy that I did it. I am much more comfortable with Punjabi now and would love to do it again.

Do you get emotionally involved with your onscreen portrayals?

Yes. One gets emotionally involved and objectively also you are analysing and understanding where you need to feel compassion towards the character. Like Umber Singh might be the tormentor for the family but he has his own reasons and, as an actor, you must understand that. We do get emotionally aligned with the character.

Do such intense roles affect your day-to-day life?

Sometimes it does. Sometimes it stays with you even though it’s not a very pleasant feeling. You live with it.

Does the commercial viability of a film affect your choice of role?

I have no understanding of commercial viability in the sense that I can only understand and feel that this story is engaging. And because I am working in both the markets (Indian and international) I could feel this kind of story-telling (of Qissa) would be appreciated more in the international market. A film may be very engaging for me but I see whether or not this story will resonate with the audience; so you do think about it. It’s not like kitna paisa kama legi (how much money it was make at the box-office). But I need to see whether or not the film is engaging.

Qissa got you a Best Actor award and has been highly appreciated internationally. Did you anticipate the applause and accolades?

The kind of filmmaking and story-telling Anup was doing is a new experience for the audience. They haven’t seen this kind of an experience of a film, it does something to you. Generally films don’t do that kind of thing to you. Qissa will take you into areas where you don’t want to go, sometimes. The film will leave you with a sense of wonder. It’s not about band baaja ho gaya, entertain ho gaye, it’s not that kind of cinema. It opens and makes you wonder.

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The Lunchbox, Qissa and many other independent Indian films have done very well in the international market. How do you see the trend evolving and what influence will it have on Indian cinema?

I think these films are changing the perception of Indian cinema and it gives a lot of possibilities to Indian films to engage international audience, The Lunchbox and Qissa have proved it. We have talent, we have characters and we have the stories, so why is it not happening? We need an enterprising producer who has the vision to build a team made of people from different countries, who come together and find a universal language which can resonate with everyone. I see a trend in our industry. I can see many producers now going that way and trying to find that market. Thankfully the international market for Indian films is open and there’s no competition.

Can you give us a peek into you chemistry with Tillotama Shome, who plays your son in the film?

I think Tillotama’s performance will be remembered for a long time. It’s not an easy thing to play a different gender. You have all the chances of hamming in trying to be, you can sense when someone has put on a character, but the way Tillotama played it very delicately and beautifully. I think it’s one of the best performances I have seen.

You do mainstream as well as experimental / independent films. You have Indian and international projects in your kitty. Did you set out for such a versatile acting career?

I am trying to find and create my own space and whatever film creates that path for me is fine. I am free, I don’t like images for myself, I don’t like labels, good or bad. I don’t identify with them. I would like to think of myself as free to go anywhere.

So what’s next as an actor?

More and more stories which can engage the audience and grow my own audience, in India and internationally. And I have enjoyed while making it.

Will you ever sit on the director’s high stool?

No, because I can’t write. If I had the talent of writing I would rather be behind the camera than in front of it. Simply ‘coz sometimes being an actor is very taxing as all the time one is concerned about how we look. We don’t grow old in a dignified manner. We keep on pushing our age and try to give an impression that we are younger. And that’s not very pleasant, not to be able to live your own age. Particularly in India, everybody is trying to hide their age and look younger, which is something you don’t want to do. But as an actor you might have to do. I don’t like that aspect about being an actor, but I like the other aspects like experiencing different people, exploring different stories and going to different places. Like the places I went to in Punjab for this film, as a tourist I would have never gone there.

Is there a wish list of roles you’d like to do?

I want to explore music and am looking for a story which is about music. Anup is already writing a script, so let’s see how it turns out. Sometimes some things fascinate you. I am also really looking forward to a script which lets me entertain kids.

Any Hollywood projects in the offing?

I am doing Ron Howard’s Inferno, opposite Tom Hanks. That film will take me to Budapest, Florence and Berlin!