LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 31: Mira Nair attends ‘A Landmark Anniversary Celebration of Two Classic Films By Award-Winning Filmmaker Mira Nair’ at ARRAY HQ on October 31, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, known for films such as Birdman and The Revenant, was looking for an “Indian everyman” for a project, and filmmaker Mira Nairsays she suggested Irrfan Khan’s name, but it was not meant to be.
According to Nair, Inarritu was looking for an Indian actor for one of his projects and happened to ask her for a recommendation.
“I remember well when I had visited him (Irrfan) he was really ailing but still fighting… My other friend, the great filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had said, ‘I’m really looking for this Indian everyman’.
“I said, ‘There are many but there’s one great one’. And it was going to be Irrfan… But such is life,” the 66-year-old director said on Tuesday night during a session at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in Mumbai.
Irrfan died in April 2020 following a battle with a rare form of cancer. Nair, who worked with the actor in Salaam Bombay, The Namesake, and her short in the anthology film, New York I Love You, recalled meeting Irrfan for the first time at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi.
She felt that he was the perfect choice for the role of one of the key characters, Salim, in Salaam Bombay. But she later realised that casting him in that role would not be correct given the plot of the film. He eventually appeared in a small role in the 1988 film, which marked his acting debut.
Salaam Bombay, which was also Nair’s filmmaking debut, is known for realistically depicting the daily life and struggle of children living in Mumbai slums.
“I was interested in street kids playing with themselves. It was an amalgamation of street kids and actors, that’s when I went to the National School of Drama and met 18-year-old Irrfan Khan. I was like, ‘He is the man!’. I asked him and he dropped out of NSD. We all, including Irrfan, Raghubir Yadav, our cinematographer, and street kids (sometimes) lived together in an empty flat in Peddar Road (South Mumbai).
“Irrfan was six-feet-four and these kids were malnourished. They reached his torso. He was cast in my head as Salim, one of the main kids. We did a workshop but visually I couldn’t see them in a frame because Irrfan would tower over them, even though he was an amazing street kid.”
Nair said it was “very difficult” to recast that role in Salaam Bombay, but she did so after promising to collaborate with Irrfan on a full-length film later.
“One of the very difficult things, which one has to do, is to respect intuition and correctness. He understood (this) after he wept. I just told him, ‘Irrfan bhai I can’t do this, I can’t see you as Salim because you don’t fit now with the rest of the four’. There’s one scene that he could play and he played the part with great brilliance.