Filmmaker Mira Nair first attempted to feature Irrfan Khan in one of his films while he was a theater student in Delhi. And while the substantial part it offered him “Salaam Bombay!” “ (1988) ended up being reduced, she promised him a leading role in a feature film – one day. Almost 20 years later, she kept her word, posing as Ashoke Ganguli, the patriarch of a family of Bengali immigrants. “The namesake” based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. She gave him, she says, her “first gateway to the world”.
On a phone call, Nair in New York spoke about his work and his friendship with Khan, who died Wednesday at age 53. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In my first film, “Salaam Bombay! “, I went to work with street children but I also wanted to watch young actors to see if it would be possible or even desirable to mix them. And that led me to the fountain of serious drama in India, the National School of Drama. It was 1986, I think, and I was taken by a teacher to the basement, where they were doing a Beckett workshop. And I noticed Irrfan.
He’s so tall, gangly and angular – like a praying mantis. And of course, he had this extraordinary face. He was only 18, but still had a steep face and hooded eyes. The interesting thing was that he was very focused. He was very attentive and very open, without any kind of great attitude.
I asked him to leave school and be with me for five, six months on this kind of adventure. And he said yes. I rented an empty apartment in Bombay, where we lived for two or three months – he, I, another director of photography and many street children, those who could not find accommodation for the night.
And he was totally determined to be Salim, that leader of the street gang. But as [the workshop] progressed and we worked with real children, I discovered – and he discovered, poor man – that at 6 foot 3 or so, he was double the length of a malnourished street child. The children approached his size. It was not possible for him to be physically part of this group.
It was awfully hard to tell this wonderful actor that I couldn’t cast him, but he understood it. The only thing he could do was this one-day scene of the scribe snatching the child from the street and not sending the letter home to his mother. It was his first movie role, but we remained close friends.
He had several years of abject struggles after that. But somehow with Irrfan, I always felt that he never gave it easily, that he never took the easiest money. I think he knew, without ego, that he had something very special in him and that he was not going to waste it.
[After that] whatever I could invoke for him, I would do. But it’s just that I made other types of films. It took years before my heart landed in Jhumpa’s “The Namesake”. [Lahiri, too, had a role in the film.] I didn’t know when we brought him here to play Ashoke Ganguli that it was the first time for Irrfan in America. And he looked at it with the eyes of not only an excited young man seeing this other world, but also with the eyes of the character who was to play it.
The first afternoon, when he and Indian star Tabu landed in New York, I took them to Jhumpa’s apartment in Brooklyn and introduced them to Jhumpa’s parents, who were from Rhode Island. I told him to model Ashoke on Jhumpa’s father, a librarian. And it was really beautiful because Irrfan is not Bengali, but he looks Bengali and he is such an extraordinary actor that he can internalize all those things that make someone as special as them.
He started to shape his accent on a mix of Jhumpa’s father and Bengali caterer in our production – to the point where his accent became so thick that I could barely understand it. We did not have dialect coaches. He did it himself. It was this wonderful fine-tuning between the caterer and the librarian, and I said to him, “A little less for the librarian and a little more for the caterer.”
But it was like that with him. There was the beautiful scene in “The Namesake” in the car, where he tells his son for the first time how he almost died in this train accident. And the son said, “So, this is what you think of when you think of me? And his answer is, “When I see you, I think every day is a gift.” “And on the second take, he said to me:” Tujhe kuch aur chahiye, na? ” – ” You want something. And I said, “Yeah, I want a tear to put you in the eyes. I don’t want him to fall. In fact, I would say something funny like, “If the bloody tear falls on your cheek, I’m going to slap you. That’s what we were talking about, nothing precious – a joke, as if we were mechanics and I told him to shift into third gear.
[For Americans] it is in the domain of Jean-Paul Belmondo or Marcello Mastroianni or Omar Sharif, even – clearly from another culture but having a great attraction to be considered anything from an Everyman type to a kind of sex appeal very calm and intelligent.
He was remarkably philosophical when I last saw him more than a year ago in London. He was being treated and I thought I would hold his hand at his bedside. But forget it. We ate very well in a cafe. He flirted with the waitress. My friend came on a bike and he got on the bike and he said, “I just have to. I have to make a block. Just one. “
We had our last photos together on this bike, and it was in full-fledged processing and yet it was in elegant linen. We have a beautiful word in Urdu – “shaukeen” – which means someone with a lot of love and indulgences and delights. He liked a lot of things, be it clothes, food or beauty. Or his family and how much they meant to him. He just had a clear idea of what was worth it. He had wandered and returned to find out what was really precious.