|Irrfan with Tabu and director Ang Lee
You have said that Life of Pi has been one of your toughest roles. Why?
To begin with, the subject of the film is not simple and I had to narrate the subject as if I had experienced it. I had to understand the pain and pleasure, the adventure and the philosophy of Pi’s journey. It took me a lot of time to imbibe the book. It’s open to so many interpretations. I had to have a mental, emotional and spiritual connection with the subject. The dialogues in the film have a literary quality; so to make it more accessible to everyone was a challenge. At the end of the first day of shoot, I was at sea. I still didn’t think that I was ready for the film. I felt like a complete zero. I had to remove all preconceived notions I had about the subject and myself and start afresh. I just committed myself to the subject and to Ang’s (Lee) vision of Pi.
Suraj Sharma, the young Pi, had to go through a lot of training to get into character. What kind of homework did you do?
I just kept reading and re-reading the book. It’s not a foreign subject. The subjects of faith, nature and one’s existence on the planet are things that all of us can relate to. The challenge of the film and my performance is to keep it open to different interpretations. If you limit it to one interpretation, you miss the point completely.
Do you believe in god?
Oh yes! But I believe that god is a misunderstood word. I believe in a creator, a higher power. I don’t believe in organised religion but my faith in the higher consciousness comes from organised religion. In Life of Pi I have a dialogue: ‘Nobody knows god until someone introduces you to him.’ You have to be introduced to god. We are not born with the knowledge that there is a god. Parents introduce children to the concept of a god. So, my introduction to god has come via an organised religion. But when you live your life, you have doubts and questions and you come to an understanding of your own of what, or who, is god. So, I had to find my god.
You have always maintained that you learn different life lessons from all your directors. What did Ang teach you?
It was an experience to work with him. I can’t put it in words. Being with him and dealing with the subject was amazing. The kind of performance he wanted from me just boggled my mind. There are so many layers to my performance. It’s difficult to keep an audience from six to 60 engaged in a similar way. He just pushed me to dig deeper until my performance could resonate with everybody.
What did you discover about yourself through this film?
I discover things about myself every day. Like I said earlier, the subjects that this film tackles are not new to me. But I did rediscover my love for tigers. My screensaver is a picture of the tiger that we shot with for this film. He is so mesmerising. Looking at that picture makes me want to cry. You look into his eyes; there is so much depth in them... almost like he is contemplating his existence on earth. Tigers are very shy. And he is also a sign of a virgin jungle. In the film, although the tiger is a threat to Pi’s life, I think Pi survives the journey because of the tiger. If Pi were left alone on the raft, he would have died.
Your son Ayan has acted in the film. How did that come about?
I had taken my children to meet Ang just because I thought it would be an experience they would remember. And somehow Ayan landed up shooting for the film. I don’t want my sons to have anything to do with cinema for now. They are much too young.
The Warrior was the first film that Hollywood saw you in...
Oh yes! Most people tend to think it was The Namesake. I am very grateful for The Warrior because not only did it open doors for me in Hollywood, it rekindled my interest in acting. I was very bored by the time The Warrior happened in my career. Asif Kapadia brought me back.
How do you strike a balance between Hollywood and Bollywood?
I am just very fortunate. Let me give you an example. If I were a cricketer and kept playing Tests or restricted myself to T20, I would not grow and would obviously be bored. I am not looking for easy, formula films. I have tried those and they bore me. I need to find different formats and pitches to play my game on... to evolve as an actor.
At this stage of your career, what gets you interested in a project?
It should have some kind of relevance. It should connect with me. I don’t know what makes me feel connected to a project but it needs to be there. Also, it should be something new that the audience will enjoy watching. Then there is the director, who is the one telling the story.
How much importance do you give to the length of your role? In both The Amazing Spiderman and Life of Pi your characters don’t have much screen time.
The length of my role becomes a consideration when it’s a purely commercial film. I have to know how important the character is in the larger scheme of the film.