The filmmaker Mira Nair first tried to get Irrfan Khan to appear in one of her movies when he was a drama student in Delhi. And while the substantial part she offered him in “Salaam Bombay!” (1988) ended up being downsized, she promised him the lead in a feature film — one day. Nearly 20 years later, she kept her word, casting him as Ashoke Ganguli, the patriarch of an immigrant Bengali family in “The Namesake,” based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel. She gave him, she said, his “first gateway to the world.”
In a telephone call, Nair, in New York, spoke about her work and friendship with Khan, who died on Wednesday at 53. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In my first film, “Salaam Bombay!,” I went to work with street children but also wanted to look at young actors to see if it would be possible or even desirable to mix them. And that led me to the fountain of serious drama in India, the National School of Drama. It was 1986, I think, and I was taken by a teacher to the basement, where they were doing a Beckett workshop. And I noticed Irrfan.
He’s so tall and gangly and angular — like a praying mantis. And of course, he had this extraordinary face. He was only 18, but he still had a craggy face and those hooded eyes. The interesting thing was that he was very keenly focused. He was acutely observant and very open, not filled with any kind of big attitude.
I asked him to leave school and to be with me for five, six months on this sort of adventure. And he said yes. I rented an empty flat in Bombay, where we lived two or three months — he, me, another cinematographer and many street kids, whoever couldn’t find a home for the night.
And he was totally committed to be Salim, this leader of the street gang. But as [the workshop] progressed and we worked with real kids, I discovered — and he discovered, poor man — that at 6 feet 3 or whatever, he was double the length of any malnourished street child. The kids came up to his waist. It was not possible for him to be physically part of this group.
It was a terribly hard thing to tell this wonderful actor that I couldn’t cast him, but he understood that. The only thing that he could do was this one-day scene of the scribe who rips off the street child and doesn’t send the letter home to his mother. That was his first role in cinema, but we stayed close friends.
He had several years of abject struggles after that. But somehow with Irrfan, I always felt that he never gave it away easily, that he never took the easiest buck. I think he knew, without ego, that he had something very special in him and he wasn’t going to fritter it away.
[After that] anything I could ever summon for him, I would. But it’s just that I made other kinds of films. It took years before my heart landed in Jhumpa’s “The Namesake.” [Lahiri, too, had a role in the film.] I had no idea when we brought him out here to play Ashoke Ganguli that it was Irrfan’s first time in America. And he looked at things with the eyes of not just an excited young man seeing this other world, but also with the eyes of the character who had to play it.
The first afternoon, when he and the Indian star Tabu landed in New York, I took them to Jhumpa’s Brooklyn apartment and introduced them to Jhumpa’s parents, who were visiting from Rhode Island. I told him to pattern Ashoke on Jhumpa’s father, a librarian. And it was really beautiful because Irrfan is not Bengali, but he looks Bengali and he’s such an extraordinary actor that he can internalize all those things that make somebody as particular as they are.
He started fashioning his accent on a mix of Jhumpa’s father and the Bengali caterer in our production — to the extent that his accent became so thick that I could hardly understand him. We didn’t have dialect coaches. He did it himself. It was this wonderful fine tuning between the caterer and the librarian, and I used to say to him, “A little less on the librarian and a little higher on the caterer.”
But it was like that with him. There was the beautiful scene in “The Namesake” in the car, where he is telling his son for the first time about how he almost died in that train accident. And the son says, “So is that what you think of when you think of me?” And his response is, “When I see you, I think every day is a gift.” And on the second take, he said to me, “Tujhe kuch aur chahiye, na?” — “You want something.” And I said: “Yeah, I want a tear to glass your eyes. I don’t want it to fall down.” In fact, I’d say something funny like, “If the bloody tear falls down your cheek, I will give you a slap.” That’s how we used to talk, nothing precious — a joke, as if we were car mechanics and I was telling him to shift into third gear.
[For Americans] he’s in the realm of Jean-Paul Belmondo or Marcello Mastroianni or Omar Sharif, even — clearly from some other culture but having great appeal to be seen as anything from an Everyman type to a very quiet and intelligent sort of sex appeal.
He was remarkably philosophical when I saw him last, which was more than a year ago in London. He was undergoing treatment, and I thought that I’d be holding his hand at his bedside. But forget it. We ate very well in a cafe. He flirted with the waitress. My friend came in on a bike and he got on the bike and he said: “I just need to. I need to do one block. Just one.”
We had our last pictures together on this bike, and he was in full-blown treatment and yet he was in dapper linen. We have a beautiful word in Urdu — “shaukeen” — which means somebody with a lot of love and indulgences and delights. He loved a lot of things, whether it be clothes or food or beauty. Or his family and how much they meant to him. He had just a clear idea of what was worth it. He’d roamed and he returned to know what was really valuable.