When the act takes over the sense of self

How does an actor enter a role so completely that he becomes the character he is playing, even if the character is substantially removed from the milieu the actor has been exposed to? Is there a method, a process, a technique involved?

This is what I asked Irrfan Khan at a multiplex in Delhi where he interacted with the audience after a screening of Paan Singh Tomar, in which he plays the eponymous lead role. The biopic shows the tragic journey of Paan Singh Tomar from a national athletics record holder serving the army to a bandit in Chambal, the area he hailed from.

I have no idea about the real Paan Singh, but Irrfan is brilliant in the film, looking convincing and authentic as Paan Singh. The bandit’s nephew Balwant Singh was a member of his gang and was with him during the 12-hour gunfight with the police in October 1981 in which Paan Singh was shot dead. Irrfan’s success as Paan Singh can be gauged from Balwant’s reaction to the film as reported in a magazine. ‘Irrfan Khan has done a wonderful job,’ Balwant said.

Irrfan replied to my questions the way I had expected an accomplished actor like him would. He said he had researched Paan Singh extensively. But finally, Irrfan said, he himself does not know exactly how he slips into the character he plays. He said it is a mysterious thing that simply happens. When he said his transition from Irrfan, the actor, to the character he plays is a mysterious transformation that he does not make happen, but which happens of its own, he confirmed what I had always felt about real acting. Irrfan affirmed my belief that excellence in not just an art, but in any field of activity, involves a mysterious element, which I will refer to as the M factor. What I call the M factor has many other names: inspiration, intuition, grace of God, natural gift, the ‘zone’,
nirvana, samadhi.

For me, all these names point to something about which people don’t really have any idea and over which they don’t have control.

That is why I call it the M or mystery factor. Like Irrfan talking about his acting, it is not really possible to explain how any excellent piece of work happens.

I think one reason why real masters in any work are humble is that they realise the role of the M factor in making them masters.

They realise that something beyond their control, their effort and their ego or sense of self makes their work masterly. Their humility comes from their sincere recognition that it is not they who make their work great. Transcendence of their ego makes them great and also humble.  

Watching Irrfan in real life and as Paan Singh Tomar in the film gave me the impression that Irrfan is substantively, if not completely, the character Paan Singh in the movie and not his real self or Irrfan. The more the self, ‘I’ or ego of an actor drops and the self of the character he is playing takes its place, the better the acting will be. And what applies to acting goes for any other work. The more the ego is absent, the better the work is.

There is a great word in Urdu for this vanishing of the ego: bekhudi. Urdu words khud and khudi mean self or ego and bekhudi is loss or forgetfulness of self.
follows deep involvement or absorption in not just work but love too, and is accompanied by a loss of sense of time. It is a common experience how love or work and the joy they give can make a person forget himself and also the passage of time.

Who or what is present in bekhudi when khudi or ego is absent? Theists may say Khuda or God fills the space left vacant by khudi. And who does the work when the worker, by way of his ego, reaches bekhudi and becomes absent while working? Some may again say God does the work, pointing to Lord Krishna telling Arjuna in the Gita that Arjuna is a mere medium through which Krishna works. Others may say work happens
, or naturally, on its own, without a doer, in bekhudi.

Classical dancer Sonal Mansingh said in an interview on TV once that she prays to Lord Krishna to empty her of herself and dance in her place. Russia’s great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky reached an astounding stage at times while dancing when his movements seemed to defy gravity.

He said he lost awareness of himself and felt light as a feather at such times. And he also said he didn’t know how he got to that stage. He failed in all attempts to consciously get there. It just happens, he said.

A happening takes place of its own, khud-ba-khud, naturally. In Irrfan’s words, his journey from being Irrfan to Paan Singh Tomar, bas ho gaya (just happened). Should we give credit then to Irrfan for bringing Paan Singh alive on the screen? I’ll give my best actor award to Factor M.

Amit Shekhar is a senior journalist and columnist
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