Interview: Irrfan Khan talks ‘Life of Pi’

Raj Baddhan

Senior Editor


‘Life of Pi’ stars first-time actor Suraj Sharma as a teenager who grows up in Pondicherry,India, with his zoo-keeping family. Enthusiastic and inquisitive, Pi learns about animal behavior and explores the diverse traditions and cultures of his country. His life changes when his parents decide to emigrate and start a new life in Canada, taking many of their animals with them. The family sets sail in a freighter, but the ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific. Pi�۪s family perishes. Pi is the only human survivor along with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger called Richard Parker. Eventually just the boy and the tiger are left on the lifeboat.

Ang Lee�۪s life-affirming and compelling new film charts Pi�۪s incredible journey across the Pacific Ocean and explores his fascinating relationship with Richard Parker, his only companion for 227 days.

Khan in 'Life of Pi'
Khan in 'Life of Pi'

Irrfan Khan plays Pi as an older man, now settled in India with a family of his own, leading a ��normal�۪ life. We meet Pi as he recounts the details of the life-changing voyage he made as a younger man to a writer, played by British actor Rafe Spall. The film is based on Yann Martel�۪s Man Booker prize-winning novel.

One of India�۪s leading actors, Irrfan Khan graduated from the National School of Drama in New Delhi,India. He made his acting debut in ‘Salaam Bombay’ (1988) and became a household name in the popular Hindi TV show ‘Banegi Apni Baat’. His films include ‘Maqbool’ (2003), a Hindi interpretation of Macbeth, which led to major Indian acting awards.�� There were further awards for his performance in ‘Haasil’ (2003). Khan starred in the BAFTA winning film ‘The Warrior’ in 2003, from British director Asif Kapadia. His other credits include ‘Partition’ (2007), ‘A Mighty Heart’ (2007), ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012) and the highly praised US TV drama series ‘In Treatment’. The actor was recently honored by the Indian government with the prestigious 2011 Padma Shri award, recognizing his contributions to Indian Cinema.

Dressed casually in a white shirt over green pants, the attractive and engaging actor sat down for the following interview in Los Angeles.

You play Pi as an adult now living in Canada many years after his extraordinary voyage with Richard Parker the tiger. How do you portray him?

At this stage of his life older Pi is reflecting on the earlier part of life when he was exposed to so many things, even before he lost his family. He is looking back at his life-changing journey when his faith was tested. Pi is reflecting on what made him who he is, what really formed him and all the experiences he had when he was younger, which were so important and unique.

What do you think set Pi apart when was a child?

As a boy Pi was interesting because he was never conditioned by one set of values or one religion.�� It is far easier for people to follow one religion or tradition and become like sheep and keep on doing things the way they were taught to do them by their parents and others.�� But Pi wasn�۪t like that.�� He wanted to explore many traditions.�� Curiosity and questioning were instinctive for Pi. He was a natural explorer who was fascinated by life and he was very open. All that formed his character at a young age.�� When you do things which are not regular or normal as Pi did when he was a young boy, you are challenged, and you are tested. That is what happened to him. He went on a fascinating journey that took him into dangerous areas. He took risks.

How exactly has Pi�۪s experience on his journey with Richard Parker affected him do you think?

A journey like the one Pi has experienced is minimized if you try to put it into words. Nothing changes in some ways. You keep on living life.�� But you get a different perspective on life and you find a new way of looking at things. That�۪s what changes. Pi would have been the same person from the outside; he would still have looked the same if he hadn�۪t lost his family and taken the journey with Richard Parker. He would have come to Canada and got a job as a teacher or a professor. But Pi is different because he understands life in a different way.�� He is much more enriched as a person.

What was it like working with Ang Lee on the film?

I�۪m really fortunate that I got to work with Ang Lee. He is a wonderful filmmaker. It is fascinating as an actor to find a director who effectively has a whole world inside of him. Ang has a strong vision and he wants to bring that world and that vision to the audience. There are very few directors who put themselves in the line of fire as he does.�� He is one of those directors who do���� not separate the films they are making from their experience of life.�� He lives the movies he makes; he takes the journey along with Pi. Ang Lee makes the kind of film that will be remembered fifty years from now because of the subject matter and because of the brilliant way in which he tells the story.

You starting your acting career in India and you are now making global Hollywood films. Was that always a goal?

No that happened over time, these things happen without planning. I never planned that I would go to America to work and I never dreamed that I would be a part of Hollywood films. That�۪s a kind of miracle for me. Sometimes I try to find reasons for what has happened, but those reasons wouldn�۪t necessarily explain anything really.�� Life has its own magic and mystery and complexity that I would not like to put into words. But I did know that I had an immense desire to do interesting work. I remember when I was working on The Namesake I asked the director Mira Nair, ��Will this film change my life?�۪ She said, ��Don�۪t put that much responsibility on a film.�۪ And I like that idea.�� At this point in my career no single film changes your life; it�۪s a process. You keep doing one film after another, you just keep adding to your body of work.

You still live in India, is it important to you to remain in your home country rather than moving to the States?

I love my life in India and I keep coming here to America for work.�� I was born in India so India is in my blood. What I like about India is its informality. I still remember when I was a child growing up in my parents�۪ house, that people would often come over to see us without even telling us beforehand. We still have that kind of culture where people come and sit and talk to each other.�� They don�۪t call, they don�۪t say ��we are coming over,�۪ they just arrive. We never ask ��why have you come?�۪ They don�۪t need a reason to visit.�� Also I love the culture of India; it�۪s an ancient and rich culture, which is so fascinating. It means a lot to me.

Do you have any big dreams as far as your film career goes?

Let them happen (laughs). I don�۪t think I should be looking for stories, the story should start looking for me!

‘Life of Pi’ releases in the UK on 20th December.