In Mira Nair‘s A Suitable Boy, Ishaan Khatter plays the willful, passionate Maan Kapoor opposite Tabu‘s Saeeda Bai, a courtesan who is both poetic and practical. He talks about working with the actress, his out-of-the-box film choices and why his privilege nudges him to over-deliver.
Anupama Chopra: I’m glad you didn’t opt for the other part you were offered in A Suitable Boy, I am assuming it was one of the suitors.
Ishaan Khatter: Yes.
AC: Because, where in the world would you get to romance Tabu, right?
IK: I know! That was a big draw, yes.
AC: For me, it was just so lovely that you have this younger man-older woman romance, that is not skirted around. It’s consummated, we see you in bed together. You’re with this incredible, very seasoned actor, you’re playing a man who will transgress and she’s the woman who symbolizes the poetry that he longs for in his life. Tell me about creating that chemistry.
IK: Just to underline what you just said – it’s consummated. Mira Nair is very strong in her convictions and has no qualms about defining things. We were largely so confident because of her confidence in what she wanted to portray. I can do an entire interview just talking about my equation with Tabu. To be able to work with her so early on in my career, and with such an interesting equation, it was such an honor and a delight. It felt extremely easy to work with her. I’ve been saying this everywhere and I don’t wanna come off like I’m trying to be cool about it, but she was just was extremely easy to work with. That’s just how she is. That’s her aura and it probably comes because of her confidence in her own craft. She’s so experienced that she knows how much energy to give and how much to conserve. Even just observing her on set, behind the scenes, was delightful. Our equation got formed in the early days, during the readings.
She’s very warm and mischievous and fun. She doesn’t have that ‘serious actor’ kind of vibe at all. It was easy to get friendly with her and to be able to banter with her. Then, on set, there was no small talk, no additional discussions. We were enjoying the parts we were playing and so we wanted to lap it up. There was a natural synergy, which I credit her with. The ice was broken early on.
AC: Your choices are very exciting because they’re so out of the box. You begin with a Majid Majidi film, did a Dhadak, then made your television debut with A Suitable Boy. At the same time you’re doing Khaali Peeli, in which you seem like the quintessential Hindi film hero. You’re doing the slow-motion entry, the item song, showing off your six-pack abs. Is there a certain style of acting that comes more naturally to you?
IK: I don’t want to start defining myself or start setting parameters or boundaries for myself. I don’t fully know who I am as an actor. I’ve been given some wonderful opportunities and I’ve loved each of them. I enjoyed working on Khaali Peeli immensely, for the people who I worked with, the energy on that set, the kind of material we were working on. A Suitable Boy satisfied me in a different way and was a huge learning experience. All the work that I do has taught me a lot, but A Suitable Boy was definitely a landmark, a milestone for me in the sense that I learnt how to become independent. Working with actors like Tabu taught me how to stand on my own feet and take the reins and be collaborative and helpful and present, to own up and take responsibility for my work.
AC: You’re as much the flamboyant single-screen man as you are the arty guy.
IK: I don’t know, let the audience decide that. But I enjoyed working with them immensely and hopefully the people I’ve worked with were as happy with the collaboration.
AC: You come from a film family, do you get concerned that the whole conversation about privilege and nepotism might take away from your talent or the work you’re putting in? Will it distract from the fact that you can actually act?
IK: I’m aware that anything that I say will be looked at through each person’s individual lens, it’s almost as if everything that one does has to fit people’s individual narrative. So, I understand that, but I think the work that you do ultimately defines you. People will think what they want to anyway. So, instead of diverting my energies into thinking about how I could possibly change people’s minds and perceptions of me, I’d rather just pour it into my work. Some people may be attracted to it, some may not want to for their own personal reasons, they may think it more important to pre-judge me than to judge me for my work. I don’t work for those people, I work largely because I’m really passionate about this and I love what I do and because there are people out there who get entertainment and and may be get inspired in some way to think or feel through the work that we do. That’s the biggest blessing. I mean, who gets to do that for a living? We get to do what we love and we get paid for it. It’s beautiful.
I prefer to look at that aspect of it, I don’t like to get into the politics of it. But, being of this generation, I’m very aware of what’s being said. There are various opinions. There’s also a lot of negativity, which is why one has to learn how to pace oneself and have perspective. It’s probably why I’m on an Ayurvedic detox right now, I’m getting the toxins out of my system. But I’m very grateful and I love the people who love me back and who love the work. I work for them and it gives me the greatest joy that I could make someone happy through my work. That’s enough to fuel me.
AC: You’d said that your privilege nudges you to over-deliver, what did you mean?
IK: It’s tricky, right? It could also be a curse, because if you start thinking that you need to over-deliver, you could hit the wrong note sometimes. Pankaj (Tripathi) said in one of his roundtables that actors are like sants and like yogis and it’s a very subliminal process, it’s not only about the technique and the craft. It’s so weird, some people just seem to be on a roll and they just hit the right notes. There’s so much to it, it’s really something you’ve immersed yourself in, it becomes a large part of your life.