New Delhi: "Paan Singh Tomar would have never thought, long after him, he'll become a symbol," said actor Irrfan, who is riding the wave of appreciation of his biopic on the athlete from Morena in Madhya Pradesh. The film opened to generally positive responses from critics all across the country and Irrfan's interpretation of Paan Singh, an award-winning runner who turned rebel in Chambal, praised.
Actor Amitabh Bachchan had high praise for the film as he tweeted: "Paan Singh Tomar": a stupendous film .. Tighmanshu Dhulia and Irrfan you are exceptional gentlemen ..many more laurels for you !"
Irrfan's tweets reflected his relief after he won over audiences with his performance: "So fortunate to be in a time when the audience is ready and asking for a change! Fortunate pst chose us to complete his race. Or we Chose him to Complete his race. Who knows!"
"I want to send the message to PST's family that PST has become a voice for unsung heroes," he said.
In an interview with the actor prior to the release of the film Irrfan spoke about his career, his international projects, his children and the hard work he put in for PST.
It's surprisingly easy to pin down Irrfan even on his busiest day before the release of his film Paan Singh Tomar for a telephone chat. He will talk to you for as long as you want if you do not mind the chomping sounds over the phone as he grabs a quick bite to eat in between interviews.
The actor, with his unconventional look and solid stage and television training, is perhaps the most unassuming Khan in the Indian film industry where stars are often famous for being famous and superstardom is a family legacy. He is also the most underrated, though he vehemently disagrees.
"I am Irrfan, just Irrfan. I have taken out Khan from my name quite some time ago," the actor said from Mumbai. "I do not want to be known by my religion, surname or lineage. I don't want to be recognised for what my forefathers did." The actor, whose name is Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan, says likes the sound of the two 'R's as they roll on the tongue. "I always thought ' Sahabzade Irrfan Ali Khan' was too pompous."
I play the common man, but I'm a very special common man
In one of the more popular songs from his film Paan Singh Tomar are the lyrics "duniya mane bura toh goli maro" and Irrfan has lived by this rustic philosophy all his life. He broke into the big scene with a bit role in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! But it was not until Maqbool in 2003 that the audiences sat up and took notice of the lanky man whose total lack of inhibition in front of the camera was only comparable to veteran actor Pankaj Kapoor.
However not all his roles were chosen well. He has hammed it in Thank You, and his performance in Mallika Sherawat's Hisss was completely bizarre.
It is sensibility shown in films such as Life in a Metro, Namesake, Road to Ladakh, A Mighty Heart and now Paan Singh Tomar that establishes him as one of India's finest method actors.
Irrfan has played the common man countless times. "I refuse to be an object of people's fascination. I'm not here to do a fashion parade. When I play the common man, I play a very special common man. I am his strength. If you decide who plays a hero by how he looks, you need to redefine heroism."
He thinks great actors are never remembered for larger-than-life roles. "Look at Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, their best roles were not where they played larger-than-life heroes."
"I have never understood the PR system"
Most of all he hates to market himself. For someone who has worked with Angelina Jolie, Danny Boyle, Ang Lee and Mark Webb, he is surprisingly reluctant to talk about his international ventures. Even before Anil Kapoor or Aishwarya Rai, Irrfan had quietly bagged roles in Hollywood projects and established a name that foreign directors came coming back to.
"I haven't understood the system where you get work through PR. I know you have to market yourself, but it irritates me. I don't want to deceive my audiences in any way. No matter what you have to be honest with the audience. Honesty always works, even in these times. A film is a collaborative effort. I like to see how the final product shapes up before I send it out to my audience," he says. "I get work for my work. I don't get work because I have great marketing. If I spend energy learning how to market myself now, I will be diverting it from work. You call me underrated. If I was underrated, Mark Webb (Director of Amazing Spiderman, in which Irrfan plays a role), would not have come to me."
He gets terse when I remind him about how Shah Rukh Khan worked the promotion for RA.One. "He knows it, I don't. I won't ever be in that situation."
"Don't put social responsibility on a film's shoulder"
He has learnt how to run the steeple chase when he started shooting for Paan Singh Tomar. "There was no document about Paan Singh. It took me a long time to get the idea registered. This is one role I want to keep with me forever, the way he felt, his passion, the story of a simple man and what he did for his country," he says. He has worked hard for the film. "Shooting in May-June in Rajasthan and Bihar was not easy. By lunch break everyone's tongue would hang out in the heat. I had a great buzz going."
Will PST ever change the way India treats its struggling sportsmen? "A film does what it does, society changes with political action. It can affect people, make them more aware but it can't affect policies."
Is there a market in urban metros for rustic biopics?
"Never underestimate our audience. They want to hear good stories. I have become an actor to connect with people. And Paan Singh Tomar is my love letter to the country."