The Edge of Innocence; Qala

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”

― Rainer Maria Rilke        

I had first met this lanky boy with a mop of curls on his head about seven years ago. I was at their Versova home, which was still getting furnished, to interview Irrfan (lasting for a little over 6 hours, it happens to be the longest interview I have done so far, and probably the most interesting as that assignment required me to watch Irrfan’s favourite movies with him!), and at that point, the father and son had seemed polar opposites. Irrfan was majestic, restrained, and had the aura that could instantly calm down even the most anxious person; when he smiled it settled in his eyes even after the remnants had otherwise left his face. Babil, on the other hand, seemed like a live wire. He had struck the room like a bolt lightening shattering its pensive calm. His exams were over and he was like a ball of raw energy bouncing around. If Irrfan’s was a soul of a meditating monk, Babil’s seemed to be that of a bohemian hippie—the energy is different but they shared the same purity of soul and authenticity.

Today, I am on my way to interview Babil, the dapper young man now looks much more like his late father than he did that day, and his very first outing as an actor has proved himself to be every bit his father’s son. His poignant and nuanced portrayal of Jagan — a character reminiscent of the tragic child protégé Master Madan, a singer of India of the pre-Independence era, who died young in Shimla, after drinking mercury-laced milk — in Anvitaa Dutt’s achingly beautiful 2022 musical thriller, Qala, has established him as a force to reckon with. The effervescent young man, who is often spotted at film events these days candidly chatting up with paps and journalists, is far removed from the tragic youngster he played on screen. While he was adequately intense in the emotional scenes, he was absolutely exquisite when he appears as the Banquo-like apparition. He doesn’t have his father’s eyes, but it seems he has acquired from him the insight to reach the core of a character.

But, before I could meet him, it was his voice that reached me screeching through the cacophony of a busy Lokhandwala street. Since I was unable to spot the correct building, he decided to scream my name from his 5th-floor balcony while leaning over and waving vehemently. He might have become a bonafide actor, but the exuberant 25-year-old who is waiting for his second release, the Excel Entertainment-backed movie, Friday Night Plan, still has the same startling presence!

As we sit down for the interview, he is curious and bubbling with energy. But he listens, analyses, and weighs his thoughts and then talks with candour and clarity. Within the first few seconds, it becomes quite evident that this would be more of a free-wheeling chat about cinema, philosophy, grief, life, and Tom Hardy. I keep my questions aside and brace for the ride!

I start by asking the one-film-old actor about his process and what excites him about acting. “Every actor has their own method and approach. Unlike my father, I am not a trained actor. But baba used to tell me in his later years that he has just started to learn what true acting was. He used to say that it had taken him three years at NSD to learn the craft and then 35 years to unlearn it. But I have not learned the craft; since I don’t have the mechanical or structural way of approaching the emotions required, I go all in. While shooting my last film, which is releasing next month, I was in a constant state of anxiety, agony, pain, and panic…even while I was home. But I am aware that this is not a sustainable approach. My guess is that you have to find a middle ground—where you are sourcing the material from your life to create art and you are also using the science and technique of acting. I think cinema and acting is a beautiful amalgamation of art and science, it is a common ground for both to come and play…it is such a beautiful thing! The craft of acting has to be merged with the emotions, so that neither your performance comes across as stilted nor you get drained out,” he says adding: “Also, as an actor, you don’t have any other instrument to create art…it is your existence, not just your body or voice but your being. That excites me.”

One thing Babil definitely has in common with his late father is the child-like enthusiasm with which they approach knowledge in general and cinema in particular. The wide-eyed wonder of looking at things as if for the first time or feeling every emotion as a fresh one takes a special kind of love for life. It was probably also one of the reasons why Irrfan never looked jaded on screen.  Babil has just had one outing so far but has shot for four movies and one hopes the world of commerce will not rob him of this rare quality.

Babil however admits that not having learnt the techniques, it takes him time to get out of a character and it does leave a residue. “In Qala, I totally surrendered and it was all intuitive acting. It is a struggle for me to get out of the characters. But I don’t think much about how to get out of it, because if I do, I think I would be too scared to go into it to begin with.” But then, does the thought ever cross his mind that if he goes on with this approach of entering a character without a definitive plan of getting out of it, after a point it might impact his emotional wellbeing? “But that’s the magic! Not knowing what will happen in future. I try to take each day at a time and live whatever life throws at you. You need to trust life, and how do you trust if you are not willing to surrender?”

I remembered Irrfan recollecting his process for shooting his 2010 TV Show, In Treatment. “I had to do external things to make my life miserable. I was staying at a place in the middle of Times Square. I refused to put curtains on the windows. So the whole night these bright blue, red, purple neon lights used to flash inside my bedroom. It was like living inside a circus. I wanted to become irritable like my character. It really started getting onto my nerves. In fact one day I called my wife and she didn’t know how to handle me. I didn’t know what I was blurting. I went to a birthday party and couldn’t communicate with anybody. I was so consumed in the effort to find this character I was supposed to play!” Even the NSD graduate and a veteran actor like him seemed to have a similar approach—to go all in into the character without a safety net. Babil, remembers the phone call from his dad to his mom vividly. “That was a tough time. Baba had never taken a single short cut in his entire life. Even after being such a trained actor, he would completely surrender himself. He would go all in.

“I was very young, around 10, and at my wits end…I couldn’t understand why he was bawling like that. I have often been to his sets, and I absolutely loved being on the set, but mostly I would see him sitting on a chair waiting for his shot. I didn’t know then that acting can be such an intense process. He would sometime be very quiet after coming back from a shoot, but I would never relate that to his job. I didn’t understand what the job is at all. We never spoke about acting at home; it was never an intellectual process to romanticise. But in our household we have a deep understanding of art as a profession and that art gives you the ability and understanding to live life. There is a balance between art and commerce—art just for art’s sake is not sustainable,” says Babil.

I was also curious to know why after finishing school, Babil went to the University of Westminster in London to study filmmaking, instead of taking up a course in acting? Was becoming a filmmaker then the initial dream? Babil laughs out loud. “When I first told my dad that I wanted to become an actor, he said, “Then you are screwed. Just to express your individuality you have to work ten thousand times harder and the kind of pressure you would have is insane… because I have absolutely killed it in this field. I am not a star but maine mehnat se apne art pe kaam kiya hai.” But when he failed to dissuade me he decided that if I really want to do this, I should learn filmmaking. To get a job, you need a formal education and a degree, but to become an actor, it is not a pre-requisite. And baba understood that very well. He asked me if I wanted to act in films or theatre. I said obviously movies! He pointed out then I should understand the medium first. He said go and study filmmaking; acting toh main tumhe bachpan se hi sikha raha hun subconsciously…and we will do it together once you come back. So, I went and did my course in filmmaking…but he didn’t wait only to keep his part of the deal. Now, I have studied filmmaking but I have to execute the second part of the plan on my own! What the hell! It is so unfair. He didn’t keep his word…” his voice trails. 

From a very early age, Babil loved to put up a performance. Although taking up acting as a profession was still not within the realm of his dreams. “As a child I would perform a lot and it would give me great joy. I would gather people and improvise; the idea was to tell a story and to make friends. It was in Class VIII that I got a taste of the magic of acting. We were doing Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in school and I was playing one of the leads. We rehearsed for two months but once I got on the stage, I totally blanked out. I didn’t know what to do; the lines of the other actors were also not making any sense as Shakespeare’s works have big and complex words… to me the word ‘melancholy’ seemed like a name of some fruit. I was basically standing on the stage, clueless. But then I started improvising and communicating back to the other actor’s line in complete unawareness. And strangely enough, the audience started laughing and reacting. That was magic for me.  Something totally unplanned was created at that moment. Ek ehsaas hua ke aap kuchh bhi create nehi karte ho, you are just a medium through which life creates whatever it wants to. Life makes you feel and through your expression of that it creates something. Don’t take credit for God’s work.”

In fact, although the actor has had a deep impact on both his sons, he was not there for their PTMs, or annual days, or sports days. It was always mom playing the role of both parents. It is a grievance that Babil carried with him. “He had beaten cancer, but the chemo had completely battered his body. I remember one day, I was feeling very anxious, I didn’t realise it but maybe I was having a gut feeling that something bad is about to happen. I needed some validation from him that day. And I told him, we were always supposed to understand his professional commitments, but I was a child and where was he when I needed him? Why didn’t he come for my PTAs or any sports day? Why wasn’t he there the day I performed Comedy of Errors in school? I wanted him to feel guilty. I told him, aap nehi thhe uss din jis din maine kill kiya thha school play mein. You missed it.

“To this, he gave a very philosophical answer that broke my heart–he said why I am glorifying myself. I stomped out. But he realised that he had messed up.  He came to my room and scratched his head… that’s the sign when you know he wants to say sorry but doesn’t know how to. He never managed to master that art. Maene sar nehi khujaya kyunki woh meri galti nehi thhi aur mujhe waese bhi sorry bolna aata hai (laughs). Then he asked me to sit next to him. There was so much pain in his voice, as if he didn’t want to lose out on the time he had with me. He muttered a few lines, and I understood that he was trying to apologise. But mein nalayak thha, mein FIFA khelta reh gaya and missed the opportunity to spend time with him that day,” says Babil. But Babil got to spend the last seven days with his dad in the hospital before he passed away on April 29, 2020 after battling with neuroendocrine cancer, and those are the moments he treasures.

Losing his dad and dealing with that grief wasn’t easy. But today, if you spot him at an event or a media interaction, he comes across as a blithe spirit, someone who is bound to bring a smile to your face.  “Your pain never leaves you; you just learn how to live with it. I am not the person who I was yesterday because of the experiences I have gathered in these 24 hours. I have to live with what has happened; I can’t run away.  Par dard bura thodi hai, you have to feel everything, every emotion has its own beauty and to live life is to learn to appreciate all of it. You can’t be happy every day of your life. What’s the excitement in that? There is a thrill in pain as well. Also, as an actor then you can access those emotions if needed,” says Babil. It might seem that the 25-year old has come straight out of a page written by Rilke, but the late Irrfan Khan’s son knows grief too well. And instead of fighting it, he has learnt how to embrace it. “Our society as a whole has not embraced pain and the spectrum of ‘negative emotions’. I don’t believe in the concept of emotions being positive or negative. Pain will take you deeper into your own self and make you understand your core; joy has its own connotations. You can’t live a whole life running from certain emotions,” he adds.

Babil is acutely conscious of mental health issues. But how did he deal with the overwhelming emotions after the death of his dad? “I have lived a very different life where I was heavily bombarded with art, emotions, and spirituality since I was a baby. But I would not suggest my process to any teenager. It is exactly how one should not deal with grief. I didn’t speak to anybody. You need to speak to someone, maybe even seek professional help to understand how to deal with such emotions in a structured way.  Aap apne dimaag mein bohot lost hotey ho and you don’t always manage to connect which thought is leading to which emotion and it can get claustrophobic after a point. Therapist is not like a band-aid that you can just go and pick up, it is like a relationship and you need to find the one compatible with you. But you need to do that. Today the world is so different, there are too many thoughts, and one is in constant need for validation, and it is too much. The world tells you to be progressive but they can’t deal with your individuality. The dichotomy of what the world is actually doing and what it is pretending to do is so much that it triggers stress and anxiety. Mental health is not a moral issue, we need to normalise seeking help.”

But is it more difficult to seek help for mental health issues as a man, especially in India, given the fact that patriarchy ensures that men bottle up their emotions—boys don’t cry. Showing your emotions makes you weak and it’s a girlie thing to do? “I have had the great privilege that my parents have given me a very different kind of education and a large part of it was that your soul has no gender. The soul is not bound by the identity of your physical self. Every man has a woman inside him and vice versa. It is not that you have a lesser percentage of the feminine in you; it is how much of that femininity you acknowledge and embrace. I was lucky that I was always made to be in touch with both my masculine and feminine side. Also, putting gender on emotions and treating the emotions that are considered ‘feminine’ as sub-par is a pretty messed up thing to do.”

“I was not brought up in that manner but while growing up, other kids seldom had similar views on things as mine and maybe that is why I never managed to make friends while growing up. I didn’t fit in. I was happy climbing trees and plucking and eating jamuns, just as dad wanted it to be!” he guffaws.

But growing up embracing and showing his emotions freely has helped him form a strong core. “I was told that being able to cry is a sign of strength as it takes courage to show your emotions.”

“I believe in the duality of nature and equality of life. I don’t think men and women are same—both have their unique characteristics and the meeting of these two dualities create the magic. Equality is not an intellectual thing, it is a feeling. Most men have these inherent traditional phobias in them that they don’t want to be like ‘girls’ or behave like a girl. I think it is sort of a self-sabotage. If you are not sensitive you can’t listen to the other person, and if you don’t listen to what a woman is saying, it is impossible to understand her.”

Babil is indeed a man written by a woman. Tell him that and he says with immense pride. “I think that’s a beautiful thing to say. Baba taught me a lot about living life and I am fortunate to be able to implement those teachings but mumma was the one who was there every day of my life 24×7. She has instilled values in me that have made my relationship with women so much more evolved. I don’t have a motive when I am interacting with women. I don’t want to ‘get’ a girl. It astonishes me the kind of verbs and adjectives, most men use while talking about women. You cherish and celebrate the partnership, women are not things that you ‘get’ or possess. It is my mumma’s teachings that have made me the man I am today.  I am a happier man because I have the right core and can have healthy and beautiful relationships, not just the romantic kind, with women which are not about transactions.

This might also explain his easy comfort with gender-fluid clothes. “It is not just fashion or cinema–everything can be a medium for self-expression, if you want it that way.  Gender fluidity is not something I adapted to prove a point or make a statement. I don’t carry the burden of some statement my clothes make; I don’t let that define me. I wear what I feel like wearing. Today, if I feel like wearing a leather jacket, I will do so, and if I want to wear a skirt, there is no stopping me either.”

My Baba…Irrfan Khan

What were the most important notes on acting your dad has left for you on the notebook you had found in his cupboard and share on Instagram?

His handwriting was so bad, and he didn’t believe in structure while writing. He has written one word on one page and the thought on that page is a continuation of something written maybe after 7/8 pages. I had to actually decipher it. But it said a lot about how you cannot take yourself too seriously if you want to be a good actor. How your ego is often a survival mechanism that you use to protect yourself. It is only once you understand your ego and how it is affecting you, you can begin the process of surrendering.

Have you managed to use any of the teachings/tips he had written down for you so far?

Most of his tips were not about acting but about living life. And those were much more important than any acting lesson. I can learn the craft of acting from an acting school, but what baba taught me no school can teach—I can’t go anywhere to learn what I have learnt from him. His life lessons help me in my acting as well. Acting is all about breathing life to the text written on a page. How do I give the text life, if I don’t know how to live life? I am very grateful there were no acting lessons while growing up. Because if I had started talking about acting at that age, today I would have been lecturing students at some acting school (laughs). Nothing against acting teachers though.

Your favourite moment/scene of Irrfan Khan the actor?

The namesake: when he receives the call about Ashima’s father passing away because A great actor is always a great listener but a bad listener can never be a great actor and that moment in the namesake is all about listening.

Your favourite moment of Irrfan Khan the dad?

Alexa play a hypothetical montage of every moment baba and I did not take life seriously and instead laughed at the tragedies in the theatre of life.

One character played by your dad that you want to reprise and why?

 None. Why attempt something that has already been perfected?

The most important life lesson you have got from him?

Mazey karo yaar, dard mein bhi mazey karo!

Personal Style

Describe your style in three words

Moody, expressive and experimental

Three essentials you don’t step out without?

Watch, some change, and good intentions

A gadget you aspire to own?

The gaming set-up from Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’

What are the three things that are presently on your nightstand?

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, and a reading light

One fashion faux pas that still makes you cringe?

I don’t cringe at fashion faux pas because I’ve grown to learn that ‘a mistake today is a trend tomorrow’

The best trend in men’s fashion right now that you are excited about?

I don’t have the time to spend on educating myself about fashion trends but I do have the courage to follow my instincts about style, so in some way it works out

If you had to pick only one designer to wear for movie premiers for the rest of your life, who would it be?

My mother

The most versatile piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

My astrological turquoise necklace because I don’t have a choice!

One item (clothes) of your mom or dad you have repurposed?

Mamma’s beautifully embroidered curtains and duvets into shirts and jackets (by her own suggestion)

If you were to pick one perfume to wear for the rest of your life, what would it be?

BottegaVeneta’s Parco Palladiano V and Acqua Di Parma’s Signatures of the sun Oud

What’s your dream car?

A refurbished and upgraded Ambassador

What was your last luxury purchase?

The luxury of being able to afford luxury for my mother knowing that she can afford it for herself

Which is your favourite destination for a holiday?

The places I have never been

Credits for the cover image

Outfit – @jewellynalvares
Hair. @sahilmore_hair
Makeup – @st.ephen1374
Styled by – @who_wore_what_when
Photography – @chandrahas_prabhu

Credits for the black suit – 

Outfit – @rohitgandhirahulkhanna
Shoes –
Makeup – @st.ephen1374
Hair – @sahilmore_hair
Styled by – @who_wore_what_when
Photography – @rohnpingalay

Credits for denim looks

Outfit – @hm X @muglerofficial
Shoes – @louboutinworld
Makeup – @st.ephen1374
Hair – @sahilmore_hair
Styled by – @who_wore_what_when
Photography – @chandrahas_prabhu

Credits for Dior looks

Outfit – @dior
Shoes – @dior
Makeup – @stephen1374
Hair – @sahilmore_hair
Styled by – @who_wore_what_when
Photography – @rishabhkphotography

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