Life of Pi’s Irrfan Khan: “We don’t have a culture of realistic acting in India”

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Irrfan Khan has finally found roles that have helped him break away from Bollywood—with his newest turn in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.

“I did those films, but I was never, ever comfortable with things like just breaking into a dance without any rhyme or reason,” he said in an interview with NPR.  “I think it’s a kind of a 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 it.”

Khan knew from a young age that he wanted to be an actor, and he ended up studying at India’s National School of Drama.  However, Khan notes that learning acting is very different in India than in America.  “We don’t have a culture of realistic acting in India.  Our films are still influenced by Parsi theater,” he said.  “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.”

Through his training and subsequent roles, Khan came to think of acting as duets. “You strike a note, and somebody responds, and then you respond accordingly,” he noted.

Khan’s most well-known role, in the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, has helped him earn other roles and increased his popularity.  “It didn’t have any direct effect as far as Indian viewership or Indian exposure is concerned,” he said.  “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.”

Life of Pi is now playing in theaters.

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