ABU DHABI // Irrfan Khan is one of the few actors to have successfully make the jump from Indian cinema to the international stage.
The star of Slumdog Millionaire, the Amazing Spiderman and The Life of Pi, is in the capital promoting his latest film, Qissa, which is being shown as part of this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF).
In it Irrfan takes on the role of Umber Singh, a Sikh who is forced to flee his village during the partition of India in 1947.
“The Hindus migrated to India and the Muslims came to Pakistan. Because the Sikhs were not Muslim they had to leave Pakistan, and that is what this film deals with,” says Irrfan.
“My own parents, who were Muslims, decided not to go to Pakistan. They chose to stay in India. I have never talked about it with them, so I don’t know why they made this decision. The conflict is always there in this region, so the film is very relevant today.”
Irrfan had to learn Punjabi for the role, which he admits he found a challenge. “The language was difficult for me. I never thought it would be so difficult. I had to do a lot of work to understand the music of the language.”
In the movie, which is being screened at ADFF on Saturday, Irrfan’s character has an obsessive desire for a male heir. When his wife gives birth to their fourth child, he grabs the newborn baby girl from the midwife and announces that he has a son.
Through the course of the film he teaches his daughter to hunt and to drive a lorry, and aspires for her to be married off to a tribal girl.
The actor says he hopes the film will strike a chord with audiences in an India he says was deeply conflicted in its ideas about gender roles and how women should be treated.
“The film, it’s about leaving your conditioning and finding your true self,” says Irrfan. “We are all conditioned by our gender. I believe that men and women are basically the same. The woman was created and the man was created from the same source, but somewhere along the way they became so they are not complete without each other.
“In every man there’s a female side, and in every female there’s a male side. So the film deals with partition in different ways – partition of the soul and partition of the land. People are made to act in a particular way. It has been a problem since the beginning of time.”
Irrfan worked with the acclaimed British director Danny Boyle on 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which was the actor’s major international break. It’s no surprise the star is still full of praise for the Englishman.
“He understands and is very at ease with the Indian condition,” says Irrfan. “I mean, it’s a kind of trauma for a new person to get used to the Indian ways – we have a chaotic way of living in society, but he was completely at ease with it, and he used those elements of chaos in his work.
“From the word go I could tell he was trying to make an entertaining and uplifting film,” says Irrfan. “He’s like a teenager, so he can address the teenage audience in his work.”
Irrfan’s most celebrated film to date, the Oscar-winning Life of Pi, allowed the actor to get up close and personal with a tiger, an animal he is passionate about.
“I still have a lock of its fur, which I keep with me. I have it in my bag right now,” says Irrfan. “I love that animal, I’m fascinated by how it reflects our times.”
This year marks Irrfan’s second visit to ADFF. He attended in 2011 with the biopic Paan Singh Tomar. He says the film started a wave of similar movies in India. For now though the star is concentrating on more international films and is currently reading scripts.