The measuring tapes are out and the verdict is in.
Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spiderman is clocking in at a few minutes shorter than Anil Kapoor in Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol.
The twitterati have not been kind.
“Just what exactly was Irrfan Khan doing in Spiderman? Propagating the stereotype that Indians will only get fringe two bit roles? Really now,” huffed Jitesh Pillai, editor of Filmfare. “Loved Irrfan Khan’s role as Anil Kapoor in Spiderman,” snorted Tanmay Bhatt. Amogh Ranadive was even snottier. “Just saw The Amazing Spiderman. Irrfan Khan plays the guy selling Vodafone SIM cards.”
For the record, Irrfan is not just a two-bit baddie. His Dr Ranjit Ratha is actually the baddie’s boss at his fancy bio-genetic corporation. That’s probably a step up the corporate ladder from the last desi gig in Spiderman— Aasif Mandvi’s pizza shop boss in Spiderman 2 where he got to fire Peter Parker for not making the 29-minute pizza guarantee. Unfortunately for Irrfan Khan, despite his tailored suits and polished shoes, no one pays attention to Ratha anymore once the giant lizard hits the screen. There’s just no competition.
In fact, the movie seems to forget about poor Irrfan completely. Anil Kapoor’s Brij Nath got some kind of denouement, even if it was undignified, stranded, high and dry, on his own bed. Amrish Puri’s Mola Ram in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had to scoop out human hearts with his bare hands but he at least came to a satisfyingly gory bloodcurdling end. Ratha just disappears on the bridge, literally a dangling loose end.
The reactions to Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan’s big Hollywood adventures have been about the same. Yawn. Eye roll. Mogambo khush nahin hua. But there is one crucial difference between the two. Kapoor went to town talking up his star turn, blathering on about his director’s special cut of 20 minutes of unseen (read rejected) footage. Sanjay Kapoor jumped to his brother’s defence once the film actually came out. “Only Indians are bothered about the length of a role instead of its impact,” complained Sanjay Kapoor.
Irrfan, to his credit, didn’t pretend his role was something it clearly was not. “ I don’t have a lengthy role in the film,” he said. “I did it because it was an experience for me. In Hollywood, they call it as a pivotal role because it moves the story in some way, but I don’t think it’s a very big role. For me, my presence is enough and I enjoyed it.”
Even as we pretend we don’t care about what the West thinks about us, we do. We care about making it in those 100 best movies ever lists from Time magazine. We are vicious about Aishwarya’s weight gain because she’s somehow letting all of us down at Cannes. Irrfan might do Spiderman for the “experience” or the “big bucks” but we still see him as some kind of Indian ambassador to Hollywood. When he’s left hanging, there’s a billion of us hanging out there with him going “Hey! You can’t just leave us like this. We want some respect, dammit. Don’t you know who we are? We are a BRIC country.”
We still crave that validation even when we claim we have outgrown the need for it.
Bollywood has for so long been the clown prince of world cinema—big, colorful and cheesy.
We just ache for our stars to be taken seriously. We want to see our reflections in Hollywood’s golden eye. So it IS a big deal that a superstar like Amitabh Bachchan gets his fifteen seconds of fame in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby even if Bachchan downplays it. “By the time you look down on your popcorn to pick another morsel, I’d be gone from the film,” Big B told his followers. And he’s already bracing for the hate mail. “Before you all start punching me for my minuscule participation in the film, may I just say that it was more out of a friendly gesture, than a desire towards furthering my career.”
Although Irrfan might not have talked up his Spiderman role, the media has done it for him. They’ve cajoled statements out of director Marc Webb that helped build up the Irrfan buzz. “I have been an enormous fan of Irrfan for a very long time,” Webb said. “I first saw him in The Namesake, The Warrior, and in (the) TV series In Treatment. For Dr. Ratha, I needed someone who projected sophistication, had lot of strength, and a very commanding presence, and Irrfan fit that bill.”
All of this helps the rest of us preen and bask in Irrfan’s reflected glory. It allows the media to go to town with “Irrfan has a very commanding presence” and “Hollywood’s favorite Indian” headlines. We just lap it up when Webb tells the media “I practically invented the role so I could have him on board … I am so inspired by his craft, work ethic and wonderful humanity.”
After all that heady gush, reality strikes when it’s showtime. And it’s bitter indeed. We thought we’d get to see Dr. Ranjit Ratha, the sinister villain, he of “commanding presence” and “lot of strength.” Rumor has it he will be back, bigger and badder in the sequel, but for now he just remains dangling, more participle than sinister villain.
But don’t blame Irrfan for letting us down. He’s just playing his part, bit part that it might be. The fault, dear Reader, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media and host of its radio show New America Media Now, on KALW 91.7 FM. This article was first published in First Post.