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[+uc('Today Maqbool. Tomorrow Telgi. Perhaps Hollywood Thereafter. At 38, Mumbai's Most Happening Star Has Just Arrived. Satish Nandgaonkar Reports')+]   |   Published 22.02.04, 12:00 AM

When they hit the bumpy edge of middle-age, actors tend to do a disappearing act. For, in the big, bad and beautiful world of Bollywood, a receding hairline, a wrinkle or two under the eyes and a few extra kilos are the first signs of a boot that’s about to follow. A few, of course, manage to stick on, but for most it’s time for a final bow.

At an age when others retire, Irrfan has arrived. His lean frame, unconventional looks, intense eyes — and 38 years of age — are his calling card for success. With Maqbool, Irrfan has become just the most happening thing in Mumbai today.

After spending nearly 15 years in the Hindi film world, Irrfan suddenly finds himself basking in the glory of a welcoming, Bollywood spotlight. Eager calls from some of the top Indian film banners, an unending series of media interviews, and he seems set for his big leap in cinema. He has accepted a Mahesh Bhatt-scripted film on Telgi, to be directed by daughter Pooja, “It would be interesting to play Telgi,” says Irrfan.

Hollywood is beckoning as well. Talks are on for a role opposite a popular American actress. “Who knows, I might just get to work with my idols,” says Irrfan with a laugh, as he strolls in the evening light in the tiled lobby of his apartment complex —a 20-storey skyscraper in Mumbai’s suburb, Goregaon.

A laminated poster of Irrfan’s idols, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, welcomes you into his three-bedroom flat on the 17th floor. A cool spring breeze filters in with the sunlight into his mellow study, complete with a Compaq laptop, a personal computer, a music system with Bose speakers and a DVD player. Irrfan is an avid viewer of the Hollywood classics starring De Niro, Pacino and Brando. Not surprisingly, his heroes are men past their prime. For age, he argues, gives a role a perspective that youth may not.

“Of course, age does put limitations on the kind of roles that come to you, but I feel that I would have played the role of the young singer in Drishti much better at my age now,” says Irrfan of his first major role in Govind Nihalani’s 1991 film. “I must have been 26 then and was too naive as an actor,” he says. Irrfan played a young and intense singer with whom Dimple Kapadia has a brief affair.

Drishti was his third film. He made his debut with Nihalani’s teleplays based on Strindberg’s The Father (Pitah) and Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (Jazeere). In a way, the debut was an apt transition for Irrfan from a theatre graduate of the National School of Drama (NSD) to cinema.

A passion for acting, Irrfan stresses, dogged him as he grew up in a landed family in Jaipur. His father was in the tyre business, but his mother wanted her son to go for a white-collar job. “So, things like kite-flying or cricket, which I was passionate about, were seen as a waste of time,” he says. “I was a good patangbaaz and a cricketer. Sometimes, I still feel the same sensation in my hands when I see a kite,” he says.

But Irrfan knew that acting was his calling. He watched Dilip Kumar and Manoj Kumar and did theatre. “I remember there used to be a TV tower on a hill in Jaipur. I was so naive that I thought I could go there and get some work. One afternoon, I began climbing the hill. On reaching the top I realised that there was no TV station there, just a TV tower! I had no idea how to deal with my passion for acting.”

So Irrfan did what many before him have done — joined NSD in New Delhi. He remembers watching the play, Sandhyachhaya, with Manohar Singh and Surekha Sikhri playing a lonely couple in the autumn of their lives. “Their performances were so powerful and overwhelming that I rushed backstage and cried like a child on the shoulders of Manohar Singh,” he says.

Post-NSD, Irrfan did some experimental theatre. Nihalani spotted him when one of his plays was televised, and offered him his first role.

But, before that extra ‘r’ was added to his name (for phonetic and not numerological reasons, says Irrfan, who has also dropped his second name, Khan, for the screen), there was little to look forward to. He did some small roles and turned to television with his script-writer wife and NSD batchmate, Sutapa Sikdar.

His luck turned after the couple made a film for BBC. It was during the making of Alvida that a casting director mentioned Irrfan to UK-based filmmaker Asif Kapadia who was on the look-out for an Indian actor to play the lead in The Warrior. Irrfan won critical acclaim and prestigious awards like the BAFTA for his role in the film. “Irrfan Khan, a little-known Indian theatre actor, has the screen presence that could carry the leanest of stories,” wrote a BBC film reviewer. Kapadia flatteringly compared him to Sean Penn.

“Asif told me later that in our first meeting, he knew he had found his actor. He felt that my eyes reflected what I have gone through in my life in an indefinable manner,” says Irrfan, looking fondly at a framed poster of the film in his study.

Bollywood’s doors opened wider for him in 2003 with his role in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil. He played a scheming student leader in the film about violent student politics.

“Irrfan is a different actor. He has observed life closely and has the ability to perform with his attitude, body and face,” says Tigmanshu Dhulia. “He is also effortless.”

Irrfan’s role in Haasil prompted Vishal Bharadwaj to consider him for Maqbool. He won acclaim for subtly portraying the various shades of gangster Maqbool — his loyalty to aging don Abbaji, his passion for Abbaji’s mistress, his burning ambition to capture the underworld turf and his vulnerability as a grief-stricken lover.

After the success of Maqbool, Bollywood has spread the grand red carpet out for Irrfan. Now his cellphone rings through the day with offers from mainstream Bollywood filmmakers. Directors such as Aparna Sen, Anil Sharma and Mani Ratnam have approached him.

Irrfan promises to dominate 2004 with off-beat roles in Aditya Bhattacharya’s Dubai Returned, Dhulia’s Charas and Killing of a Blue Filmmaker and Saurabh Shukla’s Chehra. He will star with Juhi Chawla in her comeback film, Sapna. Dhulia believes that Irrfan has the quality to become Bollywood’s newest star. “He looks attractive when he performs. Great talent and an attractive screen presence can make you a star,” says Dhulia.

But Irrfan has his own ideas. “Bollywood still believes in that difference between stars and actors. I would rather be the actor,” he says. And 38, Irrfan promises, isn’t too late in life. “I have just begun to peak,” he says.

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