Bollywood star Irrfan Khan interview: 'Indian fans feel proud when they see me working with Tom Hanks or in Jurassic World'

Best known in the UK for playing the police inspector in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, he now plays a sort of Bond villain in Inferno, the third movie adaptation in Dan Brown's series

James Mottram
Monday 17 October 2016 15:10
Tom Hanks (left) and Irrfan Khan (right) in the film adaptation of Dan Brown's Inferno
Tom Hanks (left) and Irrfan Khan (right) in the film adaptation of Dan Brown's Inferno

In Bollywood, Irrfan Khan is one of the biggest stars there is. In Hollywood? Not so much. He's found himself playing second fiddle to tigers (Life of Pi), superheroes (The Amazing Spider-Man), dinosaurs (Jurassic World) and now Tom Hanks (Inferno). Does he mind? “As an actor, you always want to be the main man, to be the lead,” he admits. “But in Hollywood cinema [what is enriching] is the vision of the director and the scale of the stories. Living in India, I wouldn't have been able to work with, say, Ang Lee.”

While Lee directed Khan in the groundbreaking Life of Pi, the 49-year-old’s relationship with international audiences began back with British director Asif Kapadia's 2001 movie The Warrior. Since then, he's worked with the likes of Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited), Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart), Mira Nair (The Namesake) and, most famously, Danny Boyle, playing the police inspector in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. The studios inevitably came calling. “I didn't decide I was going to work in Hollywood,” he shrugs. “I never planned for it.”

Actor Irrfan Khan in a still from film 'Inferno'

Is it strange for Indian fans reared on his Bollywood work to see him on the international stage? “The audiences feel proud when they see me working with Tom Hanks or in Jurassic World,” he answers. “They have a sense of identity in the international market. I still remember when we did Slumdog Millionaire. I went to L.A. for the Oscar ceremony and I met this guy who was living there for 30 years and he said, 'After this film somehow, people are recognising me and giving me value' and he was crying. So that's what it does. It makes them feel, 'We exist'.”

Dressed in a tight-fitting coffee-coloured sweater and pin-stripe trousers, an expensive-looking stud earring nestled in his lobe, Khan is sitting in an upstairs room at the Forte di Belvedere, the 16th-century Italian fortress overlooking Florence that today is playing host to the press launch for Inferno. The third movie adaptation in Dan Brown's series of Robert Langdon books, following The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, it yet again sees director Ron Howard reunite with Hanks, who reprises his role as the smart-cookie symbiologist.

With a bonkers billionaire (Ben Foster) putting in motion a plot to release a virus to cure over-population, Khan plays his amoral facilitator, Harry Sims. A private contractor with an ocean liner for an office, there's something of a Bond villain about him. “It's just his attitude, the way he deals with a crisis,” dismisses Khan, with a wave of his hand. “ That might give you the impression he's a Bond villain. But he's doing a strange job which is very difficult to define.”

Irrfan Khan (right) plays Harry Sims who has the air of a Bond villain

For all of Inferno's outlandish elements – it's the movie equivalent of an airport read – it does pick up on the very serious topic of over-population. “It's affecting the whole world, affecting the environment…it is a huge, huge problem,” says Khan. “It will be difficult to contain and that's why I think we'll see wars very soon and those wars will not be fought in Europe or America...those wars will be fought, maybe, in countries like China and India, and those continents.”

Khan, who lives in Bombay and has seen the problem first-hand in India, admits the root cause is quite simply human beings. “Oh, we are a virus. We are an incurable virus. And we don't realise it,” he argues. “Nature has given has advanced us...we are more intelligent, we can deflect things, we can hold things, we can destroy things. We are more intelligent beings and that's what is destroying us. Our intelligence is what is destroying us.”

Married to screenwriter Sutapa Sikdar, Khan has sons, Babil and Ayan, and like any parent, the environmental problems his children's generation faces are a huge concern. “These worries are always there in you, but you have to live your life. These are the worries that are there in your blood.” He pauses, unwilling to sound too dramatic. “But you are not the only one who is going to do [deal with this]. Maybe it's the passage of time which is bringing this, and something is going to happen and things will turn.”

The film director Ron Howard behind the scenes of his movie Inferno

Born in Jaipur, Rajasthan, where his father ran a tyre business, Khan started acting after he won a scholarship to study at Delhi’s National School of Drama – where he met his wife to be – in the mid-Eighties. After graduating, it was anything but easy, with small television and theatre roles keeping him afloat. His first movie was a bit-part (later cut out) in Mira Nair's 1988 film Salaam Bombay! But gradually the roles kept coming, in films like 1998's acclaimed Such a Long Journey, albeit with Khan often going unnoticed.

After 2005's hit Rog, Khan's first Bollywood lead in which he played an insomniac detective, his position in the Indian film industry was secured. And yet even now his early years scratching for work have scarred him. “An actor's life is very insecure,” he says. “You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know when you're going to be out of a job. It's a very intrinsic part. But that insecurity...insecurity always keeps you very anxious. I hate anxiety. My mother used to be very anxious and I have an aversion to it.”

On average, he makes three to four Indian movies a year – and already has a trio in the can for next year, including Hindi Medium, a comedy set in the Indian education system. “If an opportunity comes to me, I put everything into it, but I don't plan,” he says. “I can't even plan for tomorrow.” He has one other golden rule that he lives by. “If the story doesn't give me enough experience as a human being...if I'm doing [it] just for money or fame, I feel like I've wasted my time. This story has to give me something more to hold onto.”

Inferno opens on 14 October

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