Irrfan Khan (1967-2020): 'Irrfan was always going to play Ashoke Ganguli'
An excerpt from Aseem Chhabra's book on the actor, who died in Mumbai, looks at the making of Mira Nair's 'The Namesake'
When Mira Nair was in the midst of completing her adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004), her mother-in-law died of negligence at a New York hospital. Nair’s in-laws were from Uganda, but she and her husband buried her mother-in-law on a snowy day in New Jersey. On the way back to India, to shoot the closing scenes of Vanity Fair, Nair started to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. ‘I felt Jhumpa understood my grief,’ Mira says. ‘It completely captured me—a thirty-year cornucopia of the 70s Calcutta that I had grown up in, all the way to today’s Manhattan.’
She acquired the rights to the novel and asked her friend and regular collaborator Sooni Taraporevala to transform the novel into a script. When it came to casting, Mira first thought of Bengali actors. Eventually Mira had to think beyond Bengali actors, and she was lucky to find Tabu to play Ashima. However, from the beginning of the casting process, Mira was sure about one thing. ‘Irrfan was always going to play Ashoke Ganguli,’ she says. Tabu and Irrfan are not Bengali, so Mira immersed them into Bengali culture. And everything about her two leads, their hand gestures, the way they tilt their heads, etc., convinced even discerning viewers that the two actors were Bengali.
To get his Bengali accent right, Irrfan spent a lot of time with Jhumpa Lahiri’s father, a retired university librarian who lived in Rhode Island, while a Queens-based Bengali restaurateur and caterer, Shankar, became Irrfan’s Bengali coach. ‘At one point Irrfan went so deep into the accent that we had to pull it back,’ Mira says. ‘It was challenging to do a speech with an authentic Indian-Bengali accent, but also understandable for the West without it being subtitled.’
Even though Irrfan’s wife is Bengali, he had to learn specific Bengali sentences to play his character. ‘But he is proficient,’ Mira adds. ‘Unlike most Indian actors, Irrfan really works hard. If he needs any help, any crutches he can see, he grabs it, then he distils it and takes it to another level.’
Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel was essentially the story about Gogol (played by the Indian-American actor Kal Penn)—a second-generation Bengali-American, son of Ashima and Ashoke, burdened by the name his father gave him since he believed that a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat had once saved his life in a train accident. In Sooni and Mira’s able hands, the film also became the love story between Ashoke and Ashima, a young couple from Calcutta, growing into their marriage and life in America, their adopted country. Mira modelled the couple’s marriage, a quiet romance between two kindred souls, based on her observations of her in-laws.
Directing Irrfan was like working with a friend, as Mira recalls. ‘He could tell by looking at my face if I was happy or not with a shot,’ she says. She remembers shooting one of the most beautiful scenes when Ashoke and Gogol are in a car and the father explains the significance of Nikolai Gogol to his son. ‘He did that scene very nicely, but I was looking at him like a puppy after that,’ she says. ‘And he asked, “Kuch chahiye naa, tujhe (You need something else, right)?" And I said, “Haan, halka sa ankh mein ansoon, magar neeche nahi ana chaiye (Yes, a slight tear in your eye, but it should not roll down your cheek)." And he said, “Theek hai, Mira (All right, Mira)." I usually don’t talk to actors like this to programme their tears, especially tears that don’t fall. And that’s the scene we have from the second take. That scene required fine-tuning. It looks effortless, but I am sure it wasn’t.’
At times Irrfan would also surprise Mira, like in the scene when Gogol brings his girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) to meet his parents for the first time. In one brief moment, the otherwise reserved and fairly conservative Ashoke Ganguly gives an appreciative once-over look to Gogol’s American girlfriend. Sooni had not written that in the script, and neither had Mira discussed anything of this sort with Irrfan. So that was all Irrfan, improvising a little humour into his otherwise serious role. ‘That brief touch cracked Ashoke’s dignified veneer,’ Mira says. ‘It gave the audience a sense of his vulnerability.’
Mira also has this observation about how Irrfan takes direction. ‘You talk to him and you notice a quiet moment, when he just reflects on what he has to become. It was not like fatak sey (instantaneously). There is always contemplation. He’s not winning a popularity contest on the set. Tabu does it more effortlessly on the surface. She doesn’t have any acting training and it’s amazing. Irrfan does it more quietly, but he never gets it wrong.’
The Namesake shoot was the first time Irrfan visited the US. And Mira invited him to New York City during the prep time for the film and put him up in a hotel in Times Square. ‘He was completely like Ashoke Ganguli. He was like a beautiful child. ‘Main to study kar raha hoon yaar (I am studying everything).’
Mira also felt leaving Irrfan in the midst of Manhattan was helpful for him to get into the Ashoke Ganguli character. ‘We didn’t mollycoddle him, inviting him over every day,’ she says. ‘We let him be there. Shankar the caterer was his main friend. And we wanted him to understand that alienation.’
The film was a big success internationally, earning $20 million worldwide, including $13.6 million in the US alone. Western critics praised the film. Irrfan even received a significant nomination—Best Supporting Male Actor for the Independent Spirit Award. While Irrfan did not win the award, he attended the ceremony held under a tent on the beach in Santa Monica, California. He saw a number of famous actors, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. He would soon work with Angelina in A Mighty Heart (2007). He also saw Dustin Hoffman, Forest Whitaker and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the audience.
Later, speaking to a publication in India, Irrfan said, ‘Dustin Hoffman sat in the row right in front of me. But I couldn’t bring myself to tap him on the shoulder and introduce myself. How do you approach actors whom you’ve admired half your life? Maybe I need to learn that now.’
However, since Irrfan was still a new face in the West, most critics barely mentioned his name in the reviews of The Namesake. In India, Irrfan Khan got a lovely message from Sharmila Tagore after she watched the film. ‘You should thank your parents for giving birth to you,’ she wrote.
One person, however, who was not thrilled with the film, was Irrfan’s own mother. After the premiere of The Namesake in Bombay, where Irrfan brought his mother as a guest, he asked her what she thought of the film. His mother asked where the film’s director was. When Irrfan pointed towards Mira Nair who was standing somewhat close, his mother said, ‘Bula, usko, bula. Usko mera baccha hee mila tha maarne ke liye (Call her, call her. Could she only find my son to kill in the film)?’ Irrfan eventually went and told Mira what his mother had said, and the director had a hearty laugh.
Excerpted from 'Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star' (Rupa Publications India). Aseem Chhabra is an entertainment writer and the festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival.
FIRST PUBLISHED29.04.2020 | 12:15 PM IST