November 19, 2012
Guests: Edward Blum - Irrfan Khan
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America" starts with this provocative question: How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era ran so explosively into the American obsession with race that his image has been used to justify the worst atrocities of white supremacy, as well as inspire the most heroic civil rights crusades?
My guest, Edward Blum, is the co-author of the book. He said he wanted to explore the ways Americans gave physical forms to Jesus, where they placed those forms and how they remade him visually into a sacred symbol of their greatest aspirations, deepest terrors and strivings for racial power and justice. Blum is also co-author of "Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism." He's an associate professor of history at San Diego State University.
Edward Blum, welcome to FRESH AIR. So knowing what you know about religious history, if you were painting a picture of Jesus Christ, what color would he be?
EDWARD BLUM: Well, the best American painting I've ever seen of Jesus is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, and what he does is he has a figure, a human figure veiled, where the colors are somewhat grayish and brownish colors are over the face. And so we can make out that there's a man there, and he has skin that seems a little darker and hair that seems a little darker, but we can't make out the actual skin tone. We can't make out the eye color.
And I would choose that for a couple reasons. One, because America was founded by a whole bunch of Puritans who didn't want to see Jesus. They thought it was a violation of the Second Commandment to have images of Christ. And when they had dreams, when sometimes Puritans would dream about seeing Jesus, he was described as behind a spider web, and I think that's a beautiful image.
Even Joseph Smith, when he claimed to see his - to see Jesus and God the Father - Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, his first description was that it was indescribable. And so I like the notion of behind a veil or behind a webbing, that there's something, someone there that we desperately want to see and get to but just quite can't.
GROSS: OK, so you've answered and avoided the question at the same time.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask it again because, I mean, you know, Christ was actually a man. You know, he starts as a man. And he was a man in a place at a time, and he was flesh and blood, and that flesh had a color. And our depictions, historical depictions of him have differed over the centuries, but he had a color when he was alive. So if you were - if you were painting a realistic image of what you think Jesus looked like in his time, what color would he be?
BLUM: So, for that I can say he definitely wouldn't be white, and you know, the Middle East that Jesus, the historical Jesus was a part of, was the crossroads of the world, of the known world at its time. And so I would probably paint him darkly complected, not pure black, more in a kind of light brownish.
I'd probably pay a lot more attention to his size. I'd probably put him as relatively short. Usually most paintings have him as pretty tall. I'd have him as pretty short. I'd have him as non-substantial muscularly, unlike Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," where Jim Caviezel is kind of chiseled. I'd have him pretty much look average to ordinary. So the color would be brownish.
GROSS: OK, and is that because he's of Middle Eastern descent?
BLUM: Well, mostly because it's really hard to trace back, actually, 2,000 years what people looked like back then. You know, forensic scientists want to play with this, but it's kind of like - remember that Michael Jackson video, where there were those human bodies morphing into one another? Yeah, "Black or White" was the name of the video.
And if you were to just stop in the middle of a morphing, it would look weird, and that's kind of what forensic scientists are trying to do. They're trying to take a population of millions of people and boil it down into one look. When you have people - this is the cool thing about the Bible is in the New Testament, all these people from all these different regions are running into each other. So the level of social interaction, of sexual interaction was just a - was significant.
So what would a person 2,000 years ago, one single individual, look like then? I don't know, and it's unknowable. There were four Gospel writers. Why didn't one of them say, oh, and here's what his skin looked like, and here's what his hair looked like. They didn't, none of them did, because it wasn't important to them. It's important to us.
GROSS: So one of the things you do in the book is talk about how different groups historically used Jesus and used a white depiction of Jesus to justify what they were doing. And the example I will use here is white supremacists, and let's go to the Ku Klux Klan, that had the burning crosses, the white sheets. How did a white Jesus play into their justification for their own actions?
BLUM: So in the 19-teens, 1920s, when this KKK emerges, they are adamant that they are Christ followers. And why that's so important to them and why making, seeing Jesus as white, as Jesus who wears a robe, that's important to them really because they're trying to justify things that other Christians had challenged.
For a long time, Christians had challenged racial discrimination. For a long time, there had been a group of Christians who had challenged, you know, violence against people of color, exploitation against them. They said - a number of Christians had said, we should do unto others as they would have done unto - you know, do unto others as you would have done unto you.
And so when the Klan wants to justify violence, when they want to justify exclusion, they don't have Biblical texts for it. They just don't have written texts. So they have to turn to image. And so the belief, the value that Jesus was white provides them an image in place of text.
And so that's why, you know, depicting, showing Jesus as white with Klansmen, it gets them away from actually having to quote chapter and verse, which they can't really do to present their cause.
GROSS: So were there any specific images of Jesus that were embraced by the Klan?
BLUM: The Klan, interestingly enough, they created their own. And they would actually draw pictures of new Bible scenes where they would put Klansmen in them. So there's one where Jesus is passing out the loaves and the fish to feed the thousands, and the disciples are Klansmen, and they actually put an American flag behind Jesus to show, you know, not only was Jesus in favor of white supremacy but also American supremacy.
So what the Klan mostly does is they don't take - they don't really take too much European art or American art. They just create their own drawings that insert themselves into typical Christ moments.
GROSS: Slave owners used a white Jesus to help justify enslaving people, but that same white Jesus, as you point out, was seen as a friend and as a symbol of freedom for the slaves. So can you talk a little bit about how that image of a white Jesus was perceived differently by slaves and slave owners?
BLUM: Yeah, so when slave owners bring, when they try to Christianize their slaves, they bring Jesus in two forms. One is as a servant, and that's to say hey, look, service is good, service is godly. So your work, you, slave, your work and service is good. But they also present Jesus as master, master Jesus, you have to follow his lead to not lie, not steal.
Well, when slaves take this Jesus, how they reconnect to the dots is to say, OK, well, if Jesus is master, then my earthly master isn't my only one, he's not my most powerful one. In fact, I have a master above my master. And when there's a master above your master, that master can challenge the slave owner, can teach a higher law.
And then when we get to service, when slaves hear that Jesus was a servant, they say, hey, wait a second, he was also - he also suffered. He was crucified, but that wasn't the rest of the story. The rest of the story was he was resurrected, and not only was Jesus resurrected, but he resurrected his friends in the story of Lazarus.
And so for African-Americans who have death all around them and not just literal death but also the death of families, you know, when you see your wife or your child sent away, that's the kind of death of your family, Jesus has resurrection power for him and his friends.
So what slaves do is they basically take those models of master and of servant, and they just connect them differently than the way the slave masters intended, and they create basically a wholly new form of Protestant Christianity.
GROSS: And are there, like, journals or writings by people who had been slaves or who were slaves at the time that they were writing, describing how they felt about a Jesus who was white, because Jesus was depicted as white?
BLUM: Yeah, there's a couple different places. One, there are free - fugitive slave narratives, like Frederick Douglass' or Henry Box Brown's narratives, where they talk about what they think about Jesus. Henry Box Brown actually thought as a child that his master was God, and his master's son was Jesus. He didn't see the difference between the biblical characters and the human ones.
And then after the Civil War, a number of former slaves gave interviews, talking about their time in slavery. And there's a great book called "God Struck Me Dead," which has conversion stories, tales from former slaves about how they became Christians.
And they run into Jesus. They meet him. They sometimes run into the devil. He's there in the forest. He's there in the field. And they meet a white Jesus, and he's kind of dripping with whiteness. His hair is white, everything around him is white. But he's also really short. He's also a short man who then engages them as a friend, as a savior, as a liberator.
And so what seems so striking here is that their Jesus is a trickster. He's a trickster of the Trinity, in that he's a white man who's small, who kind of challenges and destabilizes everything about white power. And none of these slaves, former slaves, ever talk about having a problem with him being white. They're usually struck more by his shortness than anything else.
GROSS: My guest is Edward Blum, co-author of the new book "The Color of Christ." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Edward Blum, co-author of the new book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America," about how different races and ethnic groups have interpreted Jesus and depicted him. The Mormons play a significant role in your book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America," in part because Mormons, at least, you know, earlier in Mormon history, depicted not only a white but a - correct me if I'm wrong here - a fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.
BLUM: Mormonism is this great case study of what happens to Jesus in America, in that when Joseph Smith first has a vision of Jesus and God, he writes of it as indescribable, as he saw blinding light. So he's kind of like the Puritans. He didn't know how to describe what he saw.
And then as Mormons were embattled, as they were persecuted, they fought back. One of the ways they fought back was by saying, hey, look, no, we're genuinely American. We have, you know, our savior is white with blue eyes. And so, while Mormons are being challenged as fundamentally un-American by other white Americans, they push back by saying, no, we're the most American, and, look, even our Jesus is white, and the most white.
GROSS: And the most American in the sense that Joseph Smith said that Jesus had come to America after he was resurrected so that he precedes Columbus. And so, what is the Mormon telling of how Jesus came to America and why?
BLUM: So in the Book of Mormon, it precedes, you know, centuries before Jesus, a group of lost tribes from Israel end up making it to North and South America, and while they're here, they have their fights, their squabbles. Jesus comes to the Middle East, and we actually see it in America because there's a great light that the people of North and South America can see.
And then when Jesus is crucified, it all goes black. It all goes dark for three days. Well, then, Jesus is resurrected in the Middle East, and as the Book of Mormon goes, after he ascends into heaven over there, he descends from Heaven here. And so he comes to the Americas, and he teaches most of the same things that he taught in the traditional Gospels.
He calls the children to him, he tells everyone to stop fighting. He preaches basically the Sermon on the Mount, and then he ascends again, and the Americans at that time, the Americans live well. They do well for a little while after that, before they eventually kind of descend into chaos again.
GROSS: In the late 1800s, when immigration starts becoming a big, controversial issue in America because a lot of people living in America don't want the Jews and the Catholics coming in. They don't want the Irish and the Italian coming in. You say that the image of Jesus starts to change a little bit then. How does it change?
BLUM: Yeah. Typically, Americans had been completely comfortable with Jesus being Jewish, and they had assumed Jews had brown eyes, and so they depicted Jesus as brown-eyed. Well, as waves of Catholic immigrants with - who, you know, didn't speak English, or Jewish immigrants came to the United States, many nativist Americans became upset with that, concerned that it was changing the face of America too much, changing it racially, changing it religiously.
And so in the early 20th century, we see some writers, like a fellow named Madison Grant, who talks about, talks about how, you know, didn't it seem that the Jews treated Jesus as somehow un-Jewish, as not Jewish? There was a film by D.W. Griffith called "Intolerance," where he portrays Jesus as being intolerantly treated by Jews, and this film came out in 1916.
And we get other Christian writers talking about: haven't you ever noticed that Jesus was more cosmopolitan or more occidental, meaning European, than Oriental, meaning from the Middle East? And it's at that time that we see Colonel Henry Todd paint the first popular Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes.
And the distancing Jesus from his Semitic, his Jewish background, becomes important to a whole bunch of artists and religious writers and to folks like Madison Grant, who was actively against - actively for immigration restrictions.
GROSS: So this was a way, you're saying this was a way of distancing Jesus from the Jewish and also from the Catholic immigrants that a lot of Americans didn't really welcome here.
BLUM: Yeah, especially in the case of Jewish immigrants, where how can you bar Jewish immigrants, how can you keep them out if you believe in a Jewish savior? So that's one of the issues. Now, and then keeping Catholics immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe out, one of the arguments is that their fetish for Jesus images; all their icons, that that somehow marks them as not civilized, that the most civilized will have, you know, an image of Jesus but recognize that it, itself, isn't an idol, it itself has no spiritual power.
So Catholic immigrants were seen as less than civilized because of their continued kind of having fetishes for these Christ and Madonna images.
GROSS: So let's jump ahead in time. At what point do you start seeing depictions of Jesus as being black?
BLUM: Two primary moments. One is the Harlem Renaissance. So during the 1920s and the 1930s, we see people out of W.E.B. Du Bois' circle drawing Jesus as a Southern black man who's lynched, basically. And then the second time we see it is during the civil rights movement, during the mid- and late 1960s and the 1970s. And that Jesus is more Africanized. He might have an afro, he might wear a dashiki. So those are the two kind of biggest explosive moments of when we see black in Jesus figures.
GROSS: Now are those meant, do you think, to be, you know, like commentaries, to be metaphorical or literal because, you know, Jesus wouldn't have been wearing a dashiki, you know, in his time?
BLUM: Yeah, in the '60s and the '70s, we see the rise of identity politics, and so making a Jesus who looks like you as part of an expression of power, it becomes important. And that's exactly the same time that, you know, African-Americans are, quote-unquote, discovering their roots, as Alex Haley put it. And so going back to Africa, looking more, quote-unquote, African becomes important culturally, and so doing that to Jesus happens at the same time.
Then there's also a move among theologians who want to make a geographic claim. And they say, hey, when Mary and Joseph had to hide Jesus, where'd they take him? Egypt. And so he must have been dark somehow because there's this assumption that, you know, folks in Egypt at the time would've been dark-skinned.
GROSS: Well, Edward Blum, thank you very much for talking with us.
BLUM: Yeah, thanks for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Edward Blum is the co-author of the new book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the films opening for the Thanksgiving holiday is "Life of Pi," which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name. The film is already getting a lot of attention for its 3-D cinematography and its CGI Bengal tiger.
My guest is one of the film's stars, Irrfan Khan - but he's not in any of the scenes with the special effects that are getting all the attention. So you may be thinking, why is he the actor we're having on? Because we've been keeping an eye on him since his 2007 film "The Namesake" when we realized what a good actor he is. Irrfan, as he's known now in his country, India, has been in over 30 Bollywood films. In America, he's best known for his roles in "Slumdog Millionaire" as the police inspector who interrogates the contestant; "A Mighty Heart," as the inspector general; and "The Darjeeling Limited," as the father of a drowned boy. In the third season of HBO's "In Treatment," he played Sunil, a man from India who lost his wife several months ago and is now living with his son and daughter-in-law Julia, in Brooklyn.
In this scene, they've taken him to a therapist - in spite of his protests - because he's grown depressed and uncommunicative. Gabriel Byrne is the therapist.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IN TREATMENT")
GABRIEL BYRNE: (as Dr. Paul Weston) Julia implied that your, your grieving for your wife hadn't eased in the past six months. Would you - would you agree with that?
IRRFAN KHAN: (as Sunil Sanyal) Look, my wife and I were married for 30 years - from the age of 23 until the day she died, I spent practically every day of my life with her. I do not understand the need to quantify the forces of grieving, this need to count the heal in months. I was a math professor, but this is not math, this is the furthest thing from math. It is only a feeling. And sometimes, it is only a blankness.
GROSS: In Irrfan Khan's new film "Life of Pi," he plays Pi as an adult, telling the story of his youth to a novelist who was sent to him by a friend who promised that Pi would tell an inspiring story and make him believe in God. The story Pi tells is about how he got his name and how his family left India by ship when he was a teenager to make their way to Canada. His father owned a zoo and took the animals on board, hoping to sell them. But the ship sunk in a storm. The final survivors were Pi and a Bengal tiger who were together in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a raft for over 200 days. Here's an early scene with Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi, and Rafe Spall as the novelist.
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KHAN: (as Pi) Yeah, have I forgotten anything?
RAFE SPALL: (as The Writer) I think you set the stage. So far we have an Indian boy named after a French swimming pool, on a Japanese ship full of animals, heading to Canada.
KHAN: (as Pi) Yes. Now we have to send our boy into the middle of the Pacific and...
SPALL: (as The Writer) And make me believe in God.
KHAN: (as Pi) Yeah. We'll get there.
GROSS: Irrfan Khan, welcome to FRESH AIR.
KHAN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: I'm a big fan of your work. So how does it feel to be the star of a 3-D film with spectacular CGI and special effects on a stormy sea? But your character is in his home the whole time and just talking to a writer.
KHAN: Yeah. Even the whole unit, they started shooting the sea portion first, and once they finish that, and that was kind of a quite an adventure for whole unit, and once they finished it, they thought the film is over. And then they came to this apartment, which is colorless, and where two people are sitting there and talking and the whole unit was wondering what's going on, you know? So it's a kind of different film, completely, for the whole unit. And for me, you know, in the shoot sometimes what happens, you know, you start discovering things while you're doing. But we had not so much of time, like four or five days I have to finish everything, including the voiceovers. So that's how it started with me.
GROSS: So, I read that the director, Ang Lee, originally shot your sequences with a different actor playing the writer who you're speaking with. Initially it was shot with Tobey Maguire?
GROSS: And, but in the actual finished film, that part is played by Rafe Spall. What happened to change it?
KHAN: I'm not sure. I have a certain idea about it. But see what happened, I finished the film, I went back to India and I was busy working doing other things and suddenly I got a call from Ang, and he said that we might re-shoot certain sequences. And I said what sequences you want to re-shoot. And he indicated that we have to re-shoot everything. And for me it was a difficult proposition because there are certain emotional scenes in the film which, you know, once you are done, you don't want to get there, you know, you just want to delete that file from your hard disk. You just want to, you know, you know that you have done it; now you don't want to go there. And then I didn't ask him on the phone why we are re-shooting it. I came back to LA and then I discussed with him what we are going to re-shoot. And then I - I wanted to, I was curious to know what happening, why there is another actor, why there's, you know, why he's not there. But somehow I could understand that they wanted a person who was, who doesn't have such a strong image, because he's playing a writer who's a struggling writer who is trying to make a name for himself, and I think that's the reason I could understand why they needed another actor.
GROSS: Was it really different for you, doing your part opposite Tobey Maguire versus opposite Rafe Spall?
KHAN: Oh, definitely. It always will be different because it's a kind of - a scene is a kind of duet between two singers, you know; you strike a note and somebody responds, gives a response, and then you respond accordingly. So it will always be different with different actor. It can never be the same.
GROSS: So let me play a scene from the film that I think you're best known for in the United States, and that's "Slumdog Millionaire." And you're a detective, a police detective. And in this scene you're interrogating the main character who has just won lots of money on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire." And no one believes that this young man who was from the slums of Mumbai could actually know the answers to the questions. And...
GROSS: ...and have made that much money. So you're assuming that he's cheated.
GROSS: And he is, you have him hanging by his arms.
GROSS: And with electrodes attached to his feet. You're actually administering shocks to him.
GROSS: So here you are with Dev Patel as the "Slumdog Millionaire."
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KHAN: (as Police Inspector) It's hot and my wife is giving me hell. And I've got a desk full of murderers, rapists, extortionists, bomb bandits and you. So why don't you save us both a lot of time and tell me how you cheated. Hmm.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm done, sir.
KHAN: (as Police Inspector) Now listen. Hello. He's unconscious, chutiya. What good is that? How many times have I told you, you should once...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm sorry, sir.
KHAN: (as Police Inspector) What? What? Now we'll have Amnesty International in here next, peeing in their pants about human rights.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Sir, I was thinking...
KHAN: (as Police Inspector) Get him down. Tidy him up. Please, for God's sake.
GROSS: That's my guest Irrfan Khan as the police detective in "Slumdog Millionaire." How did the popularity of "Slumdog Millionaire" - international popularity of it, Academy Award popularity of it change your life?
KHAN: It didn't have any direct effect as far as Indian viewership or Indian exposure is concerned. But definitely here in America, you know, people have seen it, and it was a real opportunity for me to be in the ceremony of, you know, Oscar awards. That was something, you know, which was I experienced for the first time. And it gave me a visibility in America, but there were films which I did which were close to me, was "The Namesake" and, you know, I'm still very fond of that film and it's my dear film - which really made a difference in my life as far as American market is concerned.
GROSS: And this was a film in which you played an Indian-American who is, you know, moved to the U.S. with your wife and your son has become very, you know, Americanized and is trying to kind of make sense of his Indian-American identity. And his name is Gogol, which he's always hated...
GROSS: And toward the end of the movie you tell him the story of how he was named and it's a very moving story. You play a college professor in it. But you're a very smart, very quiet, subdued man who obviously has a lot of very powerful feelings inside but you don't express it with a lot of drama.
KHAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: What I mean is you're a very kind of subdued personality in it.
KHAN: Mm-hmm. That was something new. At that point of career, I was doing films which had a lot more to do with my presence on the screen. And when this opportunity came to me, I never knew that it's going to challenge me in that way - that I need to work on my presence, that it should become like unobtrusive, it shouldn't just jump out from the screen. I have to work on being unnoticeable. That was something, you know, something new for me to exercise in this part and that made, you know, a hell of a lot of difference in my career. It just gave me - sometimes as an actor you get challenges which you think, you know, how am I going to do that? And that's where the fun begins, you know - when you really, you know, fulfill the demand of the part and you can, you know, achieve what you were supposed to achieve. And that's what "Namesake" did to me.
GROSS: It's interesting that it was such a challenge for you to be unobtrusive, you know?
GROSS: I've seen posters for some of your Indian films and seen a couple of scenes, you know, on websites from them. And there's scenes of you with guns and scenes of you, you know, and there's love scenes and you're working with a warlord in the mountains and, so those are roles that we haven't seen you in in American films.
KHAN: Yes. What you're talking about, warlord - yeah, that's the film which take me out of my slumber, you know, that was the film which really gave me birth. I was losing my interest in acting and I was doing a lot of television and television was making me bored of this profession, of this job of being an actor. Television was more of a verbal medium. It was more of a radio play, you know, at that time when I was doing television, you know, and so I was not having good time as an actor. And there was nothing to discover. And so I was losing interest as an actor and I was contemplating to leave this job. At that time I got this film called "The Warrior" by, it was produced by Channel 4 and directed by Asif Kapadia. And that film really changed my life. The experience of doing that film and being with that director it's, you know, it's something, you know, it really completely put my life into a different path. And that's a film which is again, very dear to me and that's the first time I went out of India, when they had the premiere of "Warrior" in London, and that's the first time I saw foreign land. I was never out of India before that. So...
GROSS: And what year is this?
KHAN: It was 2000, I think. 2000, yeah.
GROSS: You've done a lot of films in India. We associate Bollywood movies with a lot of like singing and dancing and, you know...
GROSS: ...big production numbers. Have you been in that type of Indian film?
KHAN: Oh yes. I did try those films, and there were a few. I did those films and, but I was never ever comfortable with things like just breaking into a dance without any rhyme and reason. I think my training in theater stopped me from doing these unbelievable situations. And I think it's a kind of challenge for an actor to believe in these situations which are completely fantastic. Like, you know, suddenly you are sitting here and you just break into a dance and, you know, you start singing. But I think, you know, it's a great way of entertaining people and, you know, just trying to create a world to make believe in, you know, I like that. But I couldn't do that.
GROSS: My guest is Irrfan Khan. He plays the adult Pi in the new film "Life of Pi." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: So how did your parents feel about you becoming an actor?
KHAN: My mother still feels that I could be - she would be much more happier if I come back to my hometown and I take up some job, decent job, and so that I don't have to be away from her. She still feels that. Sometimes when my film comes and I forces her to go with everybody, that's the only time she says, OK, this was good. This was - you know, she's pleased with that.
But within her heart, she is still, you know, she still yearns for me to be there with her. So that's a kind of, you know, a pain I carry with me. You know, I don't know what to do with it.
GROSS: So does your mother take any solace in knowing that even though you're not living very close to her geographically, that you are so successful and so well-known and popular in India?
KHAN: It does do something to her, but not enough for her to really feel - you know, she still wants to see me.
GROSS: She still wants to see you anyways, huh?
KHAN: All the time. Yeah. Yeah. She has this feeling that all we brothers should be together. We should be living in the same house and we should be, you know, sharing everything. You know, she's like a - she just wants to put all of us under her wings and, you know, she wants to feel good about it.
GROSS: So I assume you grew up seeing some American movies, as well as Indian movies.
GROSS: Were there American movies and American actors that influenced you and made you interested in performing?
KHAN: Oh, yes. They played a major role in my education as an actor. I was in drama school. There's not many drama schools in India. There's one which is authentic. It's the National School of Drama in Delhi. It was a three-year degree course. So I was doing that, and I had so many questions about how to learn acting and what acting is all about and things like that. And I started watching films at that time, because earlier we were not permitted to watch films.
GROSS: We, meaning your family?
KHAN: Meaning, like, my family didn't allow us to watch films.
GROSS: Why not?
KHAN: Because they were coming from this feudal background and, you know, they had this attitude of looking down upon films. Like, these are not a good influence. They used to think like that. So we were not allowed to watch films, and when I went to drama school there was a theater where all these interesting films used to play on a very discount rate.
And that's where I watched Scorsese or Costa-Gavras or Fellini, and that was something eye-opener to me. And I had never seen Brando before that. I never knew who Robert De Niro was. I never knew Al Pacino. I never knew anybody. And that suddenly opened my doors and windows, and that's where my real training started. And that's what gave me a kind of drive, perpetual drive as an actor.
GROSS: Were those movies dubbed or subtitled?
KHAN: No, no, no. They were subtitled. Like Costa-Gavras, subtitled. Like Fellini's films were subtitled.
GROSS: So you got hear Brando's voice. You got to hear Pacino's voice.
KHAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
GROSS: Because that's something you lose when they're dubbed.
KHAN: They were not commercial release.
GROSS: Yeah. Oh, I see.
KHAN: They were not commercial release.
GROSS: I see. I see.
KHAN: Yeah. They were, like, patronized by government, and these theaters were not commercial theaters. They were there - there was a kind of cultural center in Delhi, and they used to run these films just for, you know, just to popularize art.
GROSS: Did your parents let you watch television when you were growing up, even though you couldn't see movies?
KHAN: So television came a little late, I think. In our house, television came in '84. Yeah. Yeah. Just a year back, a year back. In '83 it came in our house, and at that time, it was just two channels used to come, which were government channels. They were not private. Private channels started coming in India around 2000.
Before that, there was just two channels, you know, and it used to start around six in the evening and used to end around 10:30 or 11 at night. Just those two, three hours.
GROSS: When you were doing a lot of television, were they government-controlled programs too?
KHAN: Yeah, they were. They were two channels that - they were two channels which is owned by government. But then, you know, they opened up for private channels, and then, there are now more than a hundred channels.
GROSS: My guest is Irrfan Khan. He plays the adult Pi in the new film "Life of Pi." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Irrfan Khan. Irrfan Khan plays Pi in the new film "The Life of Pi." He plays the adult Pi, who narrates the movie. And he's also known in America for the films "The Namesake," "Slumdog Millionaire," in which he played the detective, "In Treatment," the TV series in which he was the patient Sunil, and he was also in "A Mighty Heart," which starred Angelina Jolie.
You studied at the National School of Drama in India.
GROSS: And I don't know if there's a specific approach to acting, a specific school of acting that's taught there, but I'm wondering if there's any comparisons you could make between acting as you learned it and acting as you think you may have learned it if you went to, you know, one of the theater schools in England or if you'd studied, you know, the Method in the United States.
KHAN: Yeah, it's a very interesting question. See, we don't have a culture of realistic acting in India. Our films still are influenced by Parsi theater. Parsi theater was known for melodrama. So it still carried - even in today's time, they still carry that melodramatic, you know, aspect of - it's still there in our cinema. I mean, there were actors...
GROSS: And when you say melodramatic, you mean everything's, like, a little overstated, a little big.
KHAN: Overstated, and it's all about emotions and, you know, you just have to project your emotions. You don't have to behave in a realistic way. You don't have to be believable. You just have to, you know, mesmerize the audience with your histrionics. So that was a kind of - you know, cinema was inspired or, you know, it adapted that element.
And we don't have any school like, you know, you have here, where you have teachers who have studied Stanislavski and developed their own techniques and they have their own way of teaching people how to go about doing a role or performing a role realistically. So we have no techniques. So it's like trial-and-error. You know, you find your own method. Although we had a kind of drama training in maybe in early ages, but it's really ancient, when our theater used to play a very important role in society. But that's not practiced in today's time. That's, like, 2,000 years old.
GROSS: In an interview on Al-Jazeera, you told a story that I thought was really funny. And the story is that, you know, when you wanted to, like, act on television you went to - you must've been pretty young when you did this. You climbed up, like, this little mountain or hill...
GROSS: ...where the TV transmission tower was, and you figured when you got there, that's where the offices would be and the people and you could see if you could do something there. And then you got there, and you realized it's just a tower.
GROSS: How old were you when you did that?
KHAN: I think I was 14. It, you know, it sounds strange in today's time. Fourteen-year-old boys is, you know, much more smart and, you know, they know. But I think we were very naive. We were very naive, and this was somebody - my cousin told me that, you know, if you want to work in television, you see that, you know, tower on the mountain? You know, there they have office and we can go there and we can ask them, you know, if we can work in television. And that's what we did. We climbed the whole mountain, you know.
KHAN: There was nobody. Not even a dog.
GROSS: So what was your reaction when you realized there's nothing there but a tower?
KHAN: So, you know, tower. Then we started roaming around on the mountain. So we forgot about getting work on television. You know, we were just having a great time on the mountain.
GROSS: Did you go to a real TV studio after that, eventually?
KHAN: No. No. I thought, you know, this is not going to work out. And, you know, just...
GROSS: Irrfan Khan, thank you so much for talking with us.
KHAN: Thank you, Terry. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Irrfan Khan plays the adult Pi in the new film "Life of Pi." I want to end by thanking Yowei Shaw for filling in on our show as an associate producer. We'd initially asked her to work for a couple of months, and we kept asking for more and more time until it turned into about half a year. It looks like our time is up. We hope she's willing to come back and work with us again. In the meantime, we'll be listening for her feature stories on the radio.
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