Indian star, American everyman

Updated: 2012-03-04 07:49

By Kathryn Shattuck (The New York Times)

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Indian star, American everyman

"It'll take time before Hollywood is free to write a story about an Indian guy." Irrfan Khan, Star of Indian and American films. [Chad Batka for The New York Times]

"Hollywood isn't ready for an Indian leading man," Irrfan Khan declared one recent evening.

He was nursing a sore throat and fatigue after a marathon post-production session for Ang Lee's film "Life of Pi." His acclaimed performance in the HBO series "In Treatment" last season was followed by supporting roles in two major American movies, "Pi" and Marc Webb's big-budget rebooting of "The Amazing Spider-Man," both of which were demanding jaunts from his home in India to studios in Taiwan, Canada and the United States.

"It will take time before Hollywood is free to write a story about an Indian guy, unless it's about the dark side of India, like 'Slumdog,'" Mr. Khan said, referring to Danny Boyle's 2008 Oscar-sweeping movie "Slumdog Millionaire," in which he played a detective who interrogates a young pauper he suspects of cheating on a game show. "They don't want to see a normal India," he added. "That's not the shock value they have to have."

He says he no longer seeks fame or fortune. (He already has both.) His current wish list: a choice of roles, maybe even as an action hero. A career that transcends race, religion and country.

"Paan Singh Tomar," his latest Hindi-language film, is based on the life of the champion steeplechase runner who is stung by the government's betrayal of his impoverished village and becomes a bandit.

After graduating from drama school, Mr. Khan was cast in 1987 in Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay!" He wept when his part was cut. Several television series later, on the verge of quitting, Mr. Khan was chosen as the lead in "The Warrior," Asif Kapadia's sweeping 2001 adventure. Two years later "Maqbool," Vishal Bhardwaj's gangland updating of "Macbeth," transformed Mr. Khan into a heartthrob in the moment he traced the actress Tabu's parted lips through a gauzy veil.

While he usually cuts a dashing figure in Indian films, Hollywood directors, impressed by his gift for nuance, have mostly cast Mr. Khan in Everyman roles. He first became familiar to audiences in the United States for "The Namesake," Ms. Nair's 2007 adaptation of the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri about a Bengali couple (Mr. Khan and Tabu) who move from Kolkata to New York City.

It was Dan Futterman, an executive producer of "In Treatment," who brought Mr. Khan to American television in the critically acclaimed role of Sunil, a grieving Bengali widower displaced in Brooklyn, for which the actor, now 45, was cosmetically aged more than a decade.

"He has that ineffable thing that certain great actors have of doing very little but drawing the audience in," Mr. Futterman said.

Mr. Lee said it was "an obvious no-brainer" to turn to Mr. Khan for "Life of Pi," based on Yann Martel's fantasy novel about a shipwrecked Indian boy adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. "I found that the book had a very mature voice, not like a teenager's," Mr. Lee said of his decision to have Mr. Khan play the adult Pi, who narrates the film, to be released in December in most countries.

Could Mr. Khan become the first Indian to capture the lead in a mainstream American movie? "Women find him intensely delectable, if that's the criteria," Mr. Webb said, citing swoons on the "Spider-Man" set.

"People want to see great actors, they want to see an interesting face, and he's both," Mr. Lee added. "But usually it's the actor bending toward the audience. With Irrfan, the audience might have to bend toward him a little bit."

The New York Times