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Irrfan Khan: When I met the Bollywood actor

Irrfan Khan.
Image Credit: Getty Images

A journalist can never forget their first big interview that created a furore in her career and its subject.

For me, that reckoning came in the form of Irrfan Khan, who died on the morning of April 29 after a colon infection in Mumbai, and my momentous interview with him over the phone in June 2009.

We were discussing his colleague and actor Shiney Ahuja who was accused of rape by his domestic help. At that time, he had a different perspective on the whole issue of sexual violence against women and told me that rape is prevalent in Indian marriages and that “90 per cent of Indian married women face rape at some point of their married lives.”

Let’s admit it that he was rattling off statistics without any foundation and that it was a hyperbolic statement that he couldn’t really prove.

Our Gulf News readers and activists in India called him out swiftly for his statements in my interview. But Khan was never the one to back down. I called him up again for a follow-up story on whether he would like to clarify and change his statements, considering the furore he had unleashed.

The Indian National Award-winning actor Khan, 53, was branded as ‘irresponsible’ and tainting the country’s reputation on the global stage. But Khan remained undeterred and stood by his statement, claiming that he’s no statistician but he knows that the issue of marital rape in arranged marriages in India happens.

He was unapologetic and unlike Bollywood stars who had pesky public relationship officers trying to arm twist us into changing an actor’s words, Khan functioned like a one-man army. Back then, he had attended his own phone calls and responded to messages personally. He never believed in having an army of handlers around him.

Simply put, they don’t make them like him anymore.

We met several times in person after that controversial phone interview. He was always polite — calling me ‘Manjuji’, walking up to you on the red carpet at the Dubai International Film Festival to give us a few individual snippets for our video and he was always unassuming about his acting skills.

He wore his confidence smoothly and never threw tantrums like some Bollywood stars I know. He was never tardy either and always turned up on time for interviews and spoke with such grace. He was also patient with all our questions and he didn’t believe in self-censorship. He was not the kind of star who expected us to send him questions before hand so that he can orchestrate a sanitised interview.

Irrfan Khan and Manjusha Radhakrishnan at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi
Irrfan Khan and Manjusha Radhakrishnan at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi
Image Credit: Manjusha Radhakrishnan/Gulf News

Khan may have acted in over 100 films, but what truly impressed me about Khan was that he belonged to a distinct school of actors. Actors who dared to have unconventional opinions and who didn’t shirk from going against the grain.

During our interactions, he often makes playful jibes at what we wore or what film we were watching at film festivals. If he didn’t watch his film playing at the film festival, he ribbed you endlessly about it.

Calling my skin ‘dark chocolate’ in front of a few other entertainment journalists would have been problematic in this current, highly sensitive #MeToo era, but he said it playfully without malice, creepiness or making me feel uncomfortable. He was just a keen observer who loved talking about films and people around him.

He was keen to know about journalists who interview him as well. From finding out native town that we were born in India to where we get the best Arabic food in the UAE, he always had questions.

He remains India’s biggest cultural exports and film festival favourite. But his global fame and success never made him an arrogant man.

Just like his unruly, unkempt hair that he rarely brushed, Khan had a playful, impish charm about him. He only got serious when talking about his films, but he never made it seem like a big deal.

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