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'Fresh Air' Remembers Bollywood Icon Irrfan Khan

One of India's most beloved film stars, Khan, who died April 29, became internationally known for his work in films like Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi. Originally broadcast in 2012.


Other segments from the episode on May 1, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 1, 2020: Obituary for Irrfan Khan; Obituary for Michael Cogswell; Review of the television series Upload.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Irrfan Khan, the Indian actor who became a star in Bollywood and a success in Hollywood, died Wednesday in Mumbai after being admitted to a hospital for a colon infection. He was 54. Khan was raised in a middle-class family in northern India. He was admitted to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, began acting in Indian television in the '80s and went on to become one of the country's most beloved film stars. He was honored with four Filmfare awards - that's the Bollywood equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Khan's best-known American films include "The Namesake," "The Lunchbox," "Life Of Pi" and "Slumdog Millionaire," which won the Academy Award for best picture. He also appeared in HBO's "In Treatment" as Sunil, a man from India who'd lost his wife and was living with his son and daughter-in-law, Julia. In this scene, they've taken him to a therapist despite his protests because he's grown depressed and uncommunicative. Gabriel Byrne plays the therapist.


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

IRRFAN KHAN: (As Sunil) Dr. Weston, 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 process of grieving, this need to count the years and months. I was a math professor, but this is not math. This is the furthest thing from math. This is only a feeling, and sometimes it is only a blankness.

DAVIES: Irrfan Khan in a scene from the HBO show "In Treatment." Terry interviewed Khan in 2012.


TERRY GROSS: Irrfan Khan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KHAN: Thank you, Terry.

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's 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's from the slums of Mumbai could actually know the answers to the questions...

KHAN: Right.

GROSS: ...And have made that much money. So you're assuming that he's cheated. And he's - you have him hanging by his arms (laughter). 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 a 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.


SAURABH SHUKLA: (As Sergeant Srinivas) I'm done, sir.

KHAN: (As Police Inspector) Now, listen. Hello. He's unconscious, (non-English language spoken). What good is that? How many times have I told you, Srinivas?

SHUKLA: (As Srinivas) I'm sorry, sir.

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

SHUKLA: (As Srinivas) 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, with "Namesake," and, you know, I'm still very fond of that film, and that's my dear film (ph) - 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's, you know, moved to the U.S. with your wife. And your son is - 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. And toward the end of the movie, you tell him the story of how he was named that, 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. You're a very kind of subdued personality in it.

KHAN: 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 shouldn't - it should become, like, unobtrusive. It shouldn't just jump out from the screen. I had 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. You know, it just gave me - sometimes as an actor, you get challenges which you think that - 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? (Laughter).

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 their scenes of you with guns and scenes of you - you know, there's love scenes, and you're working with a warlord in the mountains, and so...


GROSS: 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 a 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. So I was not having a 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 the director, it's - you know, it's something - you know, it really, completely put my life into a different path. And that's some - that is 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...

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, 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.

DAVIES: Indian actor Irrfan Khan speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. Khan died Wednesday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 2012 with Indian actor Irrfan Khan who died Wednesday at the age of 54.


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. That's why...

GROSS: So does your mother take any solace in knowing that even though you're not living very close to her geographically, that you're 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 (laughter)?

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: We 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 (laughter). 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 to 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. Yeah.

KHAN: They were not commercial release.

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

KHAN: No, they were not commercial release. 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 - year back, year back. Yeah, '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 channel started coming in India around 2000. Before that, there was just two channels, you know? And it used to start around 6 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. There were two channels that - there were two channels which is owned by government. But then, you know, they opened up for private channels. And then, now, there are more than a hundred channels.

GROSS: You studied at the National School of Drama...

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In India. 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 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 today's time, it still carry that melodramatic, you know, aspect of - it's still there in our cinema. We don't have this...

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.

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 a 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...

KHAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Mountain or hill 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 realize it's just a tower.


KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: How old were you when you did that?

KHAN: I think I was 14. You know, it sounds strange. In today's time, 14-year-old boys is, you know, much more smart and, you know, they know. But I think that 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KHAN: There was nobody, not even a dog (laughter).

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

KHAN: So no tower. Then we started roaming around on the mountain. So we forgot about getting work on television. You know, we just having a great time on mountain.

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

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

GROSS: (Laughter).

KHAN: And, you know, it's - (laughter).

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

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

DAVIES: Indian actor Irrfan Khan speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. Khan died Wednesday. He was 54. After a break, we'll listen to Terry's interview with Michael Cogswell, whose life's work was preserving the legacy of Louis Armstrong. Cogswell died last week. And David Bianculli reviews "Upload," a new comedy series on Amazon from Greg Daniels.

I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.


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