It's ridiculous, I know, but I was nervous about meeting Irrfan Khan. So many of the characters he plays are intimidating – a strict father in The Namesake; an angry widower in season two of the HBO series In Treatment; the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire. Even when they're soft-spoken, such as the adult Pi in Life of Pi, they're skilled at sizing up their interlocutors, and do not suffer fools. What I did not expect, walking into that hotel suite, was to fall instantly in love.
I'm not sure why this happens, but in his English-language roles, Khan, 47, tends to be cast as someone stiff, disappointed and older than his years. (I don't know if that holds true in his 30-odd Bollywood films, or the Indian TV shows in which he appeared in the nineties.) In person, he looks 10 years younger than his age, tall, slim and GQ-ready in a sharp suit. His hair is tousled, his unlined skin glows. He's also shy and modest, and his diction is textbook-formal, but that just makes him dishier. If I were a casting director, I'd have him playing masterminds, swashbucklers and breakers of hearts.
"When I first thought of becoming an actor, love stories were what I wanted to do," Khan admits, in a voice as rich and smooth as melting butter. "I'm an easier and more fun-loving guy than the roles I get." A smile tweaks the corners of his mouth. "Maybe destiny is trying to nudge me toward a direction, I don't know."
In his latest feature, The Lunchbox, Khan is finally a romantic lead, albeit one who keeps his passions in check until the final reel. (It opened in select cities Friday.) He plays a repressed office worker whose hot lunch is brought daily by Mumbai's world-famous dabbawalas, couriers who feed the city via an intricate delivery system. (Real ones appear in the film, and watching them perform their daily miracle is worth the price of admission.) One day he gets another man's meal by mistake. He and the neglected wife (Nimrat Kaur) who made the meal begin to exchange notes tucked into the lunchpails. Gradually they reveal their inner selves, and fall delicately in love.
"It's a tribute to people whose lives have somehow become mechanical," Khan says. "Their spark, their spirit fades away, slowly, slowly. Something needs to be done. So this magic happens."
Khan's spark revealed itself slowly, too. Growing up in Jaipur, India, he was shy, thin, a daydreamer; fascinated by the jungle, he was always entreating his father, a tire salesman, to take him there for weekend excursions. He vividly recalls performing in a singing competition in which his mouth opened, but no sound came out. "That was the end of my singing career," he says with another smile. "I had an existence which was unobtrusive. I was not noticed in school. Not many of my schoolmates would remember I studied there. I remember feeling, 'I'm not what you are thinking, there's somebody else inside of me.' I had this dream of another life."
"Mesmerized" by films, he believed the actors on screen were "experiencing something more than mundane," Khan says. "I thought they must be going through some kind of mystical experience, experiencing some mystery when they are on screen."
In a market, he spied a used projector, and badgered his father for it for seven months. It came with a bit of film, in which a big Bollywood star, playing a bandleader, conducted music. Khan played it over and over. He began to see the world in rectangles, and every rectangle held its own mini-movie. Eventually he dropped out of an MBA program to attend the National School of Drama in New Delhi, and found his purpose (although he was still too shy to call his teachers by their first names). He married a fellow student, the writer Sutapa Sikdar, and they have two children.
"Studying drama, I started looking at myself as a subject," Khan says. "Before that, I had no idea that you can look at yourself and see that you're a construction of so many influences. That's something that's still continuing – I'm still trying to come to terms with myself, understand myself. You are a life-long subject for yourself, and it's a huge subject. To keep improving and understanding, this lifetime is not enough."
He quickly landed roles in television, which gave him experience. But he remained most fascinated by cinema: "A hall, darkness, mystery … A story begins, it ends, and you go with that story."
Now that he's inside that rectangle himself, his idea of mysticism has shifted – now it's about the stories. "The stories do something to your heart, to your intellect," Khan says. "I experience it, and then my experience becomes someone else's when they watch it. It may be in another corner of the world, where they don't understand my language, yet they connect to what I'm going through, and carry that emotion for a long time afterward. That's something fascinating. It's a kind of sharing. I am blessed to be able to be part of it."
Khan remembers the first time he felt that. It was with 2001's The Warrior, which played at festivals worldwide, and launched his film career. "I came out of the screening, and I could feel the audience had gone through some kind of experience where they'd been washed, they'd been purified; they were feeling moved in a spiritual way," he recalls. "Then later with The Namesake, parents who watched the film would come out of the theatre and immediately call their kids, and kids immediately called their parents."
Gradually, directors in North America and Europe took note, hiring Khan for smaller roles in Partition, A Mighty Heart, The Darjeeling Limited and New York, I Love You. But when he began appearing on In Treatment, sparring with the psychiatrist played by Gabriel Byrne, attention exploded. "The kind of response I got in America, it was unbelievable," he says, shaking his head. "I understood there was something happening, though I still don't understand quite what it is." (How's that for a succinct description of fame?)
"It changed the perception in India of me as an actor," he continues, "and it has given me a chance to have experiences with directors which are a dream for any actor to have."
For my last question, I ask Khan to sum up where he is now vis-à-vis his profession. It still feels mystical to him, he replies: "I think I'm seeking something through this profession. And maybe my work embodies that seeking. What am I seeking? I don't know. But I think that whatever you do, your job should play a role in your main purpose on this planet. … I'm trying to make sense of out this life through my work."