'Life Of Pi' Star On The 'Duet' Of Acting

Nov 19, 2012
Originally published on November 19, 2012 1:54 pm

You might think that actor Irrfan Khan — 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, Khan 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, the film 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 to 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 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.

Interview Highlights

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 [an] 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."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the films opening for the Thanksgiving holiday is "Life of Pi," which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name. The film is already getting a lot of attention for its 3-D cinematography and its CGI Bengal tiger.

My guest is one of the film's stars, Irrfan Khan - but he's not in any of the scenes with the special effects that are getting all the attention. So you may be thinking, why is he the actor we're having on? Because we've been keeping an eye on him since his 2007 film "The Namesake" when we realized what a good actor he is. Irrfan, as he's known now in his country, India, has been in over 30 Bollywood films. In America, he's best known for his roles in "Slumdog Millionaire" as the police inspector who interrogates the contestant; "A Mighty Heart," as the inspector general; and "The Darjeeling Limited," as the father of a drowned boy. In the third season of HBO's "In Treatment," he played Sunil, a man from India who lost his wife several months ago and is now living with his son and daughter-in-law Julia, in Brooklyn.

In this scene, they've taken him to a therapist - in spite of his protests - because he's grown depressed and uncommunicative. Gabriel Byrne is the therapist.


GABRIEL BYRNE: (as Dr. Paul Weston) Julia implied that your, your grieving for your wife hadn't eased in the past six months. Would you - would you agree with that?

IRRFAN KHAN: (as Sunil Sanyal) Look, my wife and I were married for 30 years - from the age of 23 until the day she died, I spent practically every day of my life with her. I do not understand the need to quantify the forces of grieving, this need to count the heal in months. I was a math professor, but this is not math, this is the furthest thing from math. It is only a feeling. And sometimes, it is only a blankness.

GROSS: In Irrfan Khan's new film "Life of Pi," he plays Pi as an adult, telling the story of his youth to a novelist who was sent to him by a friend who promised that Pi would tell an inspiring story and make him believe in God. The story Pi tells is about how he got his name and how his family left India by ship when he was a teenager to make their way to Canada. His father owned a zoo and took the animals on board, hoping to sell them. But the ship sunk in a storm. The final survivors were Pi and a Bengal tiger who were together in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a raft for over 200 days. Here's an early scene with Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi, and Rafe Spall as the novelist.


KHAN: (as Pi) Yeah, have I forgotten anything?

RAFE SPALL: (as The Writer) I think you set the stage. So far we have an Indian boy named after a French swimming pool, on a Japanese ship full of animals, heading to Canada.

KHAN: (as Pi) Yes. Now we have to send our boy into the middle of the Pacific and...

SPALL: (as The Writer) And make me believe in God.

KHAN: (as Pi) Yeah. We'll get there.

GROSS: Irrfan Khan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KHAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: I'm a big fan of your work. So how does it feel to be the star of a 3-D film with spectacular CGI and special effects on a stormy sea? But your character is in his home the whole time and just talking to a writer.


KHAN: Yeah. Even the whole unit, they started shooting the sea portion first, and once they finish that, and that was kind of a quite an adventure for whole unit, and once they finished it, they thought the film is over. And then they came to this apartment, which is colorless, and where two people are sitting there and talking and the whole unit was wondering what's going on, you know? So it's a kind of different film, completely, for the whole unit. And for me, you know, in the shoot sometimes what happens, you know, you start discovering things while you're doing. But we had not so much of time, like four or five days I have to finish everything, including the voiceovers. So that's how it started with me.

GROSS: So, I read that the director, Ang Lee, originally shot your sequences with a different actor playing the writer who you're speaking with. Initially it was shot with Tobey Maguire?

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And, but in the actual finished film, that part is played by Rafe Spall. What happened to change it?

KHAN: I'm not sure. I have a certain idea about it. But see what happened, I finished the film, I went back to India and I was busy working doing other things and suddenly I got a call from Ang, and he said that we might re-shoot certain sequences. And I said what sequences you want to re-shoot. And he indicated that we have to re-shoot everything. And for me it was a difficult proposition because there are certain emotional scenes in the film which, you know, once you are done, you don't want to get there, you know, you just want to delete that file from your hard disk. You just want to, you know, you know that you have done it; now you don't want to go there. And then I didn't ask him on the phone why we are re-shooting it. I came back to LA and then I discussed with him what we are going to re-shoot. And then I - I wanted to, I was curious to know what happening, why there is another actor, why there's, you know, why he's not there. But somehow I could understand that they wanted a person who was, who doesn't have such a strong image, because he's playing a writer who's a struggling writer who is trying to make a name for himself, and I think that's the reason I could understand why they needed another actor.

GROSS: Was it really different for you, doing your part opposite Tobey Maguire versus opposite Rafe Spall?

KHAN: Oh, definitely. It always will be different because it's a kind of - a scene is a kind of duet between two singers, you know; you strike a note and somebody responds, gives a response, and then you respond accordingly. So it will always be different with different actor. It can never be the same.

GROSS: So let me play a scene from the film that I think you're best known for in the United States, and that's "Slumdog Millionaire." And you're a detective, a police detective. And in this scene you're interrogating the main character who has just won lots of money on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire." And no one believes that this young man who was from the slums of Mumbai could actually know the answers to the questions. And...

KHAN: Right.

GROSS: ...and have made that much money. So you're assuming that he's cheated.

KHAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he is, you have him hanging by his arms.


KHAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And with electrodes attached to his feet. You're actually administering shocks to him.

KHAN: Right.

GROSS: So here you are with Dev Patel as the "Slumdog Millionaire."


KHAN: (as Police Inspector) It's hot and my wife is giving me hell. And I've got a desk full of murderers, rapists, extortionists, bomb bandits and you. So why don't you save us both a lot of time and tell me how you cheated. Hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm done, sir.

KHAN: (as Police Inspector) Now listen. Hello. He's unconscious, chutiya. What good is that? How many times have I told you, you should once...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm sorry, sir.

KHAN: (as Police Inspector) What? What? Now we'll have Amnesty International in here next, peeing in their pants about human rights.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Sir, I was thinking...

KHAN: (as Police Inspector) Get him down. Tidy him up. Please, for God's sake.

GROSS: That's my guest Irrfan Khan as the police detective in "Slumdog Millionaire." How did the popularity of "Slumdog Millionaire" - international popularity of it, Academy Award popularity of it change your life?

KHAN: It didn't have any direct effect as far as Indian viewership or Indian exposure is concerned. But definitely here in America, you know, people have seen it, and it was a real opportunity for me to be in the ceremony of, you know, Oscar awards. That was something, you know, which was I experienced for the first time. And it gave me a visibility in America, but there were films which I did which were close to me, was "The Namesake" and, you know, I'm still very fond of that film and it's my dear film - which really made a difference in my life as far as American market is concerned.

GROSS: And this was a film in which you played an Indian-American who is, you know, moved to the U.S. with your wife and your son has become very, you know, Americanized and is trying to kind of make sense of his Indian-American identity. And his name is Gogol, which he's always hated...

KHAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And toward the end of the movie you tell him the story of how he was named and it's a very moving story. You play a college professor in it. But you're a very smart, very quiet, subdued man who obviously has a lot of very powerful feelings inside but you don't express it with a lot of drama.

KHAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: What I mean is you're a very kind of subdued personality in it.

KHAN: Mm-hmm. That was something new. At that point of 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 knew that it's going to challenge me in that way - that I need to work on my presence, that it should become like unobtrusive, it shouldn't just jump out from the screen. I have to work on being unnoticeable. That was something, you know, something new for me to exercise in this part and that made, you know, a hell of a lot of difference in my career. It just gave me - sometimes as an actor you get challenges which you think, you know, how am I going to do that? And that's where the fun begins, you know - when you really, you know, fulfill the demand of the part and you can, you know, achieve what you were supposed to achieve. And that's what "Namesake" did to me.

GROSS: It's interesting that it was such a challenge for you to be unobtrusive, you know?

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: I've seen posters for some of your Indian films and seen a couple of scenes, you know, on websites from them. And there's scenes of you with guns and scenes of you, you know, and there's love scenes and you're working with a warlord in the mountains and, so those are roles that we haven't seen you in in American films.

KHAN: Yes. What you're talking about, warlord - yeah, that's the film which take me out of my slumber, you know, that was the film which really gave me birth. I was losing my interest in acting and I was doing a lot of television and television was making me bored of this profession, of this job of being an actor. Television was more of a verbal medium. It was more of a radio play, you know, at that time when I was doing television, you know, and so I was not having good time as an actor. And there was nothing to discover. And so I was losing interest as an actor and I was contemplating to leave this job. At that time I got this film called "The Warrior" by, it was produced by Channel 4 and directed by Asif Kapadia. And that film really changed my life. The experience of doing that film and being with that director it's, you know, it's something, you know, it really completely put my life into a different path. And that's a film which is again, very dear to me and that's the first time I went out of India, when they had the premiere of "Warrior" in London, and that's the first time I saw foreign land. I was never out of India before that. So...

GROSS: And what year is this?

KHAN: It was 2000, I think. 2000, yeah.

GROSS: You've done a lot of films in India. We associate Bollywood movies with a lot of like singing and dancing and, you know...

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...big production numbers. Have you been in that type of Indian film?

KHAN: Oh yes. I did try those films, and there were a few. I did those films and, but I was never ever comfortable with things like just breaking into a dance without any rhyme and reason. I think my training in theater stopped me from doing these unbelievable situations. And I think it's a kind of challenge for an actor to believe in these situations which are completely fantastic. Like, you know, suddenly you are sitting here and you just break into a dance and, you know, you start singing. But I think, you know, it's a great way of entertaining people and, you know, just trying to create a world to make believe in, you know, I like that. But I couldn't do that.

GROSS: My guest is Irrfan Khan. He plays the adult Pi in the new film "Life of Pi." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: So how did your parents feel about you becoming an actor?

KHAN: My mother still feels that I could be - she would be much more happier if I come back to my hometown and I take up some job, decent job, and so that I don't have to be away from her. She still feels that. Sometimes when my film comes and I forces her to go with everybody, that's the only time she says, OK, this was good. This was - you know, she's pleased with that.

But within her heart, she is still, you know, she still yearns for me to be there with her. So that's a kind of, you know, a pain I carry with me. You know, I don't know what to do with it.

GROSS: So does your mother take any solace in knowing that even though you're not living very close to her geographically, that you are so successful and so well-known and popular in India?

KHAN: It does do something to her, but not enough for her to really feel - you know, she still wants to see me.

GROSS: She still wants to see you anyways, huh?


KHAN: All the time. Yeah. Yeah. She has this feeling that all we brothers should be together. We should be living in the same house and we should be, you know, sharing everything. You know, she's like a - she just wants to put all of us under her wings and, you know, she wants to feel good about it.

GROSS: So I assume you grew up seeing some American movies, as well as Indian movies.

KHAN: Right.

GROSS: Were there American movies and American actors that influenced you and made you interested in performing?

KHAN: Oh, yes. They played a major role in my education as an actor. I was in drama school. There's not many drama schools in India. There's one which is authentic. It's the National School of Drama in Delhi. It was a three-year degree course. So I was doing that, and I had so many questions about how to learn acting and what acting is all about and things like that. And I started watching films at that time, because earlier we were not permitted to watch films.

GROSS: We, meaning your family?

KHAN: Meaning, like, my family didn't allow us to watch films.

GROSS: Why not?

KHAN: Because they were coming from this feudal background and, you know, they had this attitude of looking down upon films. Like, these are not a good influence. They used to think like that. So we were not allowed to watch films, and when I went to drama school there was a theater where all these interesting films used to play on a very discount rate.

And that's where I watched Scorsese or Costa-Gavras or Fellini, and that was something eye-opener to me. And I had never seen Brando before that. I never knew who Robert De Niro was. I never knew Al Pacino. I never knew anybody. And that suddenly opened my doors and windows, and that's where my real training started. And that's what gave me a kind of drive, perpetual drive as an actor.

GROSS: Were those movies dubbed or subtitled?

KHAN: No, no, no. They were subtitled. Like Costa-Gavras, subtitled. Like Fellini's films were subtitled.

GROSS: So you got hear Brando's voice. You got to hear Pacino's voice.

KHAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

GROSS: Because that's something you lose when they're dubbed.

KHAN: They were not commercial release.

GROSS: Yeah. Oh, I see.

KHAN: They were not commercial release.

GROSS: I see. I see.

KHAN: Yeah. They were, like, patronized by government, and these theaters were not commercial theaters. They were there - there was a kind of cultural center in Delhi, and they used to run these films just for, you know, just to popularize art.

GROSS: Did your parents let you watch television when you were growing up, even though you couldn't see movies?

KHAN: So television came a little late, I think. In our house, television came in '84. Yeah. Yeah. Just a year back, a year back. In '83 it came in our house, and at that time, it was just two channels used to come, which were government channels. They were not private. Private channels started coming in India around 2000.

Before that, there was just two channels, you know, and it used to start around six in the evening and used to end around 10:30 or 11 at night. Just those two, three hours.

GROSS: When you were doing a lot of television, were they government-controlled programs too?

KHAN: Yeah, they were. They were two channels that - they were two channels which is owned by government. But then, you know, they opened up for private channels, and then, there are now more than a hundred channels.

GROSS: My guest is Irrfan Khan. He plays the adult Pi in the new film "Life of Pi." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Irrfan Khan. Irrfan Khan plays Pi in the new film "The Life of Pi." He plays the adult Pi, who narrates the movie. And he's also known in America for the films "The Namesake," "Slumdog Millionaire," in which he played the detective, "In Treatment," the TV series in which he was the patient Sunil, and he was also in "A Mighty Heart," which starred Angelina Jolie.

You studied at the National School of Drama in India.

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And I don't know if there's a specific approach to acting, a specific school of acting that's taught there, but I'm wondering if there's any comparisons you could make between acting as you learned it and acting as you think you may have learned it if you went to, you know, one of the theater schools in England or if you'd studied, you know, the Method in the United States.

KHAN: Yeah, it's a very interesting question. See, 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 it still carried - even in today's time, they still carry that melodramatic, you know, aspect of - it's still there in our cinema. I mean, there were actors...

GROSS: And when you say melodramatic, you mean everything's, like, a little overstated, a little big.

KHAN: Overstated, and it's all about emotions and, you know, 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, you know, mesmerize the audience with your histrionics. So that was a kind of - you know, cinema was inspired or, you know, it adapted that element.

And we don't have any school like, you know, you have here, where you have teachers who have studied Stanislavski and developed their own techniques and they have their own way of teaching people how to go about doing a role or performing a role realistically. So we have no techniques. So it's like trial-and-error. You know, you find your own method. Although we had a kind of drama training in maybe in early ages, but it's really ancient, when our theater used to play a very important role in society. But that's not practiced in today's time. That's, like, 2,000 years old.

GROSS: In an interview on Al-Jazeera, you told a story that I thought was really funny. And the story is that, you know, when you wanted to, like, act on television you went to - you must've been pretty young when you did this. You climbed up, like, this little mountain or hill...


GROSS: ...where the TV transmission tower was, and you figured when you got there, that's where the offices would be and the people and you could see if you could do something there. And then you got there, and you realized it's just a tower.


GROSS: How old were you when you did that?

KHAN: I think I was 14. It, you know, it sounds strange in today's time. Fourteen-year-old boys is, you know, much more smart and, you know, they know. But I think we were very naive. We were very naive, and this was somebody - my cousin told me that, you know, if you want to work in television, you see that, you know, tower on the mountain? You know, there they have office and we can go there and we can ask them, you know, if we can work in television. And that's what we did. We climbed the whole mountain, you know.


KHAN: There was nobody. Not even a dog.

GROSS: So what was your reaction when you realized there's nothing there but a tower?

KHAN: So, you know, tower. Then we started roaming around on the mountain. So we forgot about getting work on television. You know, we were just having a great time on the mountain.

GROSS: Did you go to a real TV studio after that, eventually?

KHAN: No. No. I thought, you know, this is not going to work out. And, you know, just...


GROSS: Irrfan Khan, thank you so much for talking with us.

KHAN: Thank you, Terry. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Irrfan Khan plays the adult Pi in the new film "Life of Pi." I want to end by thanking Yowei Shaw for filling in on our show as an associate producer. We'd initially asked her to work for a couple of months, and we kept asking for more and more time until it turned into about half a year. It looks like our time is up. We hope she's willing to come back and work with us again. In the meantime, we'll be listening for her feature stories on the radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.