When Irrfaan said missed out playing Jawaharlal Nehru


As Irrfan Khan’s career in Hollywood was picking up, he was identified to play India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru during the final days of the British Empire and the partition of the sub-continent in 1947 but the project fell through largely due to the Indian government’s nitpicking with the script and cost overruns.

Irrfan was approached by the British director Joe Wright (Anoushka Shankar’s husband) to play Nehru in “Indian Summer”, based on Alex von Tunzelmann’s similarly titled book, the actor’s biographer, Aseem Chhabra, writes in “Irrfan Khan, The Man, The Dreamer, The Star” (Rupa).

The film was also supposed to explore the rumored affair between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. Cate Blanchett would play Lady Mountbatten and Hugh Grant was offered the role of her husband, Lord Mountbatten. Everything spoke of this being a prestigious project, including that Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice” (2005) and “Atonement” (2007) would direct it. The film was scheduled to release in 2011.

“Generations of Indian actors have dreamed of playing Jawaharlal Nehru or Mahatma Gandhi but only a few have had the opportunity. Naturally, Irrfan was excited about being cast in the role even when he had no physical resemblance to Nehru. He addressed that concern in an interview: ‘I’ll turn myself into the character through my attitude.
When I was just out of NSD I had played Lenin at the age of 21. It made me realize my potential and direction as an actor,” Irrfan said.

There were, however, delays, the first of which was the Indian government’s demand to approve the entire script. “There was even a promise from the director that he would not show any kissing between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten” but the film’s budget shot up to an estimated $30-$40 million. And finally, the project was shelved.

“We were in between a rock and a hard place,’ Joe Wright told Variety.” The Indian government wanted us to make less of the love story while the studio (Universal) wanted us to make more of the love story.”

Hugh Grant and Cate Blanchett would have moved on since they could focus on other Hollywood and western projects. “But actors too are human beings and Irrfan Khan had just begun to get prime projects in the West. The cancellation of “Indian Summer” must have disappointed him hugely,” Chhabra writes.

“But Irrfan had learned to move on, perhaps from the time when he had faced his first rejection for Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay”. It helped that he kept getting interesting as well as challenging projects, especially in India, that gave him grounds to redefine his image as well as have fun as an actor,” the book says.

The actor, who had already made a mark in Hollywood with films like “The Namesake”, “Life of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire”, also turned down a few lucrative offers, most significant was when he said ‘no’ to Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (2015).

Instead, he opted for a charming, quiet love story – “Piku” (also released in 2015) – where he also got a chance to play the love interest (in the most un-Hindi film way) of Deepika Padukone, and co-star with Amitabh Bachchan.

“He was in two minds about what to do, and he kept asking me,” “Piku” director Shoojit Sircar says, adding that the dates for the two films clashed. “I was thinking, possibly for him, who is Shoojit Sircar? He’s nobody as compared to a Hollywood director.”

“Shoojit gave him the choice to select whatever he wanted to do. And all the while Irrfan knew he could only do one film. Shoojit even offered to move his dates. But finally, Irrfan said no to Ridley Scott.

He obviously gave up a small but high-paying job. The role of Vincent Kapoor went to the British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. But Irrfan made the right choice, since “Piku” heralded the beginning of a string of romantic comedy Hindi films in which he would play the lead role,” Chhabra writes.

Irrfan did meet with Ridley Scott and the director told him that he had seen “The Lunchbox”. Irrfan later told the press that this was the second time he had been offered a role by the Hollywood director and producer. The first, “Body of Lies” (2008) had Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead. But again Irrfan had to say no because the timing did not work out.

Irrfan also said no to Steven Spielberg one time. “It was a chance for him to act as Scarlett Johansson’s love interest. But he was concerned that the film did not offer enough acting opportunities to his character. Perhaps he was being careful after getting a minuscule role in “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012).

However, Irrfan’s biggest regret was missing out on the Christopher Nolan film, “Interstellar” (2014), for which he was expected to stay in the US for four months at a stretch.

“He did try to work out the schedule. And he even thought of shuttling between India and the US. But that was not working out for the ‘Interstellar’ team. And Irrfan was keen to stay in India to work on “The Lunchbox” (2013) and “D-Day” (2013),” Chhabra writes.

“I don’t have a tendency to regret what I do, but knowing it’s a Christopher Nolan film, I can say that this has been one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made,” Irrfan would later say.